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84 min. Kirghiz, Uzbek, Russian, English, French.

At the beginning, a woman’s voice can be heard, describing the self-confident and strong-willed Jamila, a young Kyrgyz woman who is the protagonist of Chingiz Aitmatov’s eponymous 1958 novel. It’s World War II and her husband is at the front, she’s unhappy in her arranged marriage and decides to break with tradition and elope with her great love. A famous literary heroine, Jamila turns out to be an ideal subject for director Aminatou Echard to start conversations with women in Kyrgyzstan and gain access to their world. The topic is by no means an innocuous one. For whether the women are speaking about Jamila or about their own lives, it quickly becomes clear how powerful the conflicts, longings, and desires for self-determination still are. Echard shot her film on silent Super-8 film, recording the sound separately, yet the materiality of the film never feels retro. Instead, the film connects literature, reality and the present. The result is a set of carefully composed portraits whose beauty reflects both the candour of Aitmatov’s novel and the strength of today’s Jamilas. (Anna Hoffmann)

Aminatou Echard was born in Les Lilas, France in 1973. She studied Music, Performing Arts and Film Studies in Paris and Bologna. In 2000, she completed a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology in Paris, and a year later a master’s degree in Documentary Film at the Institut Ardèche Images in Grenoble. Since 2006, she has led film education workshops. In 2007, she contributed three video installations to the project “Transformation de l’espace urbain à Almaty” at the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Djamilia is her first full-length film.

Aitmatow as a link: Aminatou Echard about her film

The prior history
Ten years ago, when I sat in an airplane flying to Central Asia for the first time, I thought about caravan traders and wondrously beautiful horses. I had set off without a clue, in my luggage just a book: “Jamilia” [differences in spelling are due to different systems of transliteration from Russian –Ed.] by Chingiz Aitmatov, the first novel he wrote in the Kyrgyz language, in 1958. I wondered how the Soviet era had changed the region.
I found empty, impressively over-dimensioned spaces. In the course of my trip, I increasingly felt the repressive atmosphere in these authoritarian states. In Uzbekistan, people’s glances were furtive, and the few people on the street walked quickly, in the shadows of the buildings. The dictatorship was obvious here. In the urban space, I noticed quite unexpectedly what effects it has. A shiver overcame me in these spaces, growing ever larger, and on the deserted and very clean streets. So I sought out people in villages and cities, who were well protected inside their houses with no windows to the street.
The men who don’t work linger in the teahouses or in the rooms of local organisations, while the women stay at home. I entered houses that were colourful and warm inside. As a woman, the world of women stood open to me.
While I prepared my film BROADWAY – the first part of my work in Central Asia – I was able to develop friendly relationships and got to know many strong, wonderful women. I noticed that everyone, no matter where I went, knew “Jamilia”. After a while this character, Jamilia, and the novel accompanied me everywhere, and in the course of my journey the film DJAMILIA began to develop.
Louis Aragon had brought me to “Jamilia”, and “Jamilia” brought me to the Kyrgyz women. Because I had the book with me, they were willing to converse with me. All of them had a relationship to this almost holy text; all of them knew it – that was really overwhelming. And because Aragon had translated this novel into French, it made perfect sense to the Kyrgyz women that I had the book with me. It gave me entry to the Kyrgyz world from the inside. Jamilia’s will and modernity made her an unusual person for her time, and with “Jamilia”, the author Aitmatov managed to create a connection between the women and me. Because the novel depicts minutely the inner development of each of its characters, there were no barriers: I could share this story with everyone, and they shared the story with me.
Unlike BROADWAY, which is a film of the external world and concentrates on the urban spaces and the dictatorship, DJAMILIA, which developed in the shelter of the houses and in encounters, is a film of the internal world.
The concept
The film is set in the Ferghana and Talas regions in the western part of Kyrgyzstan. It concentrates on the world of women. Even if Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of the Central Asian countries, political topics had to remain taboo so that the protagonists would open up and allow themselves to be filmed.
For women to speak, even at home, and especially with strangers, it must first be ensured that relatives, neighbours, village chiefs and work colleagues learned nothing about it, and the topic had to be accepted by the family.
“Jamilia” was the point of contact, the prompt for the conversations. This fictional character was well suited for my encounters with the Kyrgyz women. At our meetings, I always had with me a bilingual edition of “Jamilia” in Russian and Kyrgyz.
“Jamilia” as object: for some, the book itself triggered a conversation. Some concentrated on the text and the character, while others soon digressed from “Jamilia” and began speaking about themselves.
Jamilia as a character: she is fiction, a poetic and imaginary character. She embodies freedom, strength, the realisation of one’s own wishes and the violation of community rules. Jamilia is loved and hated. She inspires dreams, but she also betrays and demands her freedom. The strength of this figure is based in her modernity, which – even from today’s standpoint – has a boundary-transcending character, and in this astonishing paradox, makes her a kind of personification of Kyrgyzstan.
Shahnoza, a thirty-year-old Kyrgyz interpreter with Kyrgyz-Uzbek roots, my accomplice and courier, accompanied me to my meetings with the women.
The women speak about a woman’s place in the community, about the rules of community life, about their wishes and dreams, and they speak about love; they reveal private information.
Through their stories, we approach the grand history, the end of the Soviet era and the present, which they call ‘democracy’, and the meaning all this has for them.
Using the fiction and poetry of the character Jamilia, I draw intimate portraits of these women, providing a glimpse of the complexity of the world in which they live. I want to show these women’s strength, the struggle with which they preserve or conquer spaces of freedom in surroundings that leave them little freedom; but they are changing and, as Rana says, they are gradually becoming friendlier.
The languages of the film
Many nationalities live in Kyrgyzstan; the largest are the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Russians. Kyrgyz and Uzbek are closely related languages, so together with Shahnoza I could meet everyone who spoke Kyrgyz or Uzbek: ethnic Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan understand each other well. Even if almost all could speak Russian, most of them prefer to speak in their native tongues, because one doesn’t say the same things in Russian as in Kyrgyz-Uzbek: people prefer to express personal things, intimate things or a description of inner feelings in Kyrgyz or Uzbek, while everything analytical or theoretical is reserved for Russian. The women often switched among three languages in our talks. This peculiarity is part of the film.
I took Shahnoza along to the meetings with the women. She speaks not only Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian, but also English. She completed her translation studies with flying colours; but since she married early, like most women in Kyrgyzstan she stayed at home and took care of the four children she gave birth to in just a few years. She did not choose her husband herself and she never leaves home unaccompanied. Since our first encounter, she let me know that she was at my disposal for the film and would do everything necessary for it. My encounters and very close and direct contact with the women was possible because my interpreter led the same ‘life’ as they did.
The women in the film

The film portrays women aged between fifteen and seventy-two. The women who are older than thirty studied in the Soviet Union. Among them are many physicians, teachers, professors and writers. The women in the countryside, too, went to school, learned to read and write and consequently have a certain literary education. In the Soviet Union, university study was a recognised means of upward mobility, and both women and men were encouraged to take this path. In a certain way, this circumstance contributed to equality between men and women, and women thereby enjoyed crucial freedoms. Even if their marriages were arranged and the traditions were respected, women could maintain a certain personal independence that was respected.
It is thus thanks to the Soviet educational system that everyone I met on my trip was familiar with “Jamilia” and that I found myself in the fields with women who had an unusual way of telling their stories and of analysing their surroundings.
There are young women (who are not yet married), mothers-in-law (women whose sons are already married and who live in the same household as their daughters-in-law) and daughters-in-law (young women who recently married). They live in small cities or villages. All of them are familiar with “Jamilia”, either the book or the film adaptation by Russian Irina Poplavskaya (DZHAMILYA) from 1969. Many have read the book or seen the movie several times.
The film DJAMILIA is about fourteen female characters:
The mothers-in-law: Nurzat, lab technician; Zarifahon, head bookkeeper; Mubarak and Masuda, two related retired farmworkers; Bulbunhan, retired farmworker; Mira and Djamila, representatives of the time of ‘democracy’.
The daughters-in-law: Rana, literary scholar; Mavluda, English teacher; Shahnoza, lecturer for Kyrgyz; Gulchair and Dilhumar, who cannot work and have a special relationship to the written word.
The young or not-yet married women: Baktygul and Janna, two high school students active in a collective of young feminists; Dolbar, office worker who does not want to change jobs because she is waiting for her Turkish boyfriend to come back to her; schoolgirls from Shahnoza’s class.

What is still alive today of Jamilia’s soul
In recent years, I have observed some rapidly developing changes; some could be sensed in the discussions, others in public space. Two factors should be especially emphasised: school now costs money and is no longer mandatory, and Islam again plays a role.
In the countryside, one sees only a few girls in the schools anymore; boys are privileged. Illiteracy is increasing, and books are hardly available anymore: they are sold by the kilo or burned as heating fuel. Rana and Zarifahon note a new development: increasingly, girls are married off before they are seventeen years old. Shahnoza works with her class for the girls to develop their own opinion, so that they can say ‘I want’ and ‘I don’t want’ and that both boys and girls pay attention to their feelings.
The tradition of kidnapping a bride by a future husband and his family exists throughout the country. Jamilia was abducted. Although this tradition has stood under heavy penalty since 2013, it is only gradually vanishing: one must file charges, and only a few women do so. Depending on the region, at least one out of two women who are older than twenty-three have been kidnapped. If the young women accept an arranged marriage, then they fear being abducted before the wedding. Bulbunhan, Mira and Dilhumar were abducted. There are only a few who would refuse such a marriage. Dilhumar’s younger sister refused, and we learn something about the consequences that entails.
Under these circumstances, couples who have freely chosen one another are extremely rare. Dilbar is the only one who has loved someone; she speaks about love and about the social pressure exerted because her connection with the man she loved was not permitted. I show neither the abduction nor the arranged marriage. But since most of the women whom DJAMILIA is about have been kidnapped or married off by their parents, these topics are present in the film.
Despite these conditions, each of these women has a special energy and a certain capacity for resistance. They don’t always question the whole system, but they criticise it and accommodate themselves in order to live. They talk about this with their sensitive and often poetic words.
In regard to religion: Islam, banned in the Soviet era, is gaining importance. This renaissance of religion is too complex to be treated here; many different factors play a role in it. And DJAMILIA isn’t about religion. But solely on the basis of my observations between 2006 and 2017, I have noted drastic changes in public space. The Kyrgyz say the mosques have shot out of the ground ‘like mushrooms’. And indeed, I have seen them clearly ‘growing’: while there used to be one mosque per city or village, within four years every district had its own mosque. No lone call to prayer anymore, but an appeal through loudspeaker in a chorus of several mosques.
Regarding the women: I observed how, within two years, suddenly headscarves appeared everywhere. In the Ferghana Valley, the flower-print headscarf from Soviet times has been replaced by a monochrome scarf covering head and hair.
These basic parameters are important for the life of these women whose utterances stand at the centre of the film. We can assume that religion is gaining ever-greater influence in the patriarchal system. The film shows this on the visual and auditory levels: we see veiled women and hear the calls to prayer. The women do not speak about religion, but the film lets us understand the role and influence it has on the women’s living environment. In one sequence, Rana tried to explain the complex relationships between the national and family traditions and religion.
The women we encounter in the film describe Jamilia as if they were speaking about a friend – sometimes with doubts, other times with great closeness to her.
They speak about their upbringing, about the contradictions between what they think and dream and the scope granted to them as women. They speak about love, about life decisions, about how important it is to convey to girls the wish to study and have success elsewhere, so that the limits placed on them gradually shift. They tell how difficult it is for them to follow their feelings, because in Kyrgyzstan they may not express them. They speak about the living conditions of women, their place in society, the patriarchal system, the authority of the mothers-in-law; they tell about the relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, which is so central in their life, and they speak of the abductions.
But in a certain way, all these women carry something of Jamilia’s soul inside them: they value being able to express their opinions and they exercise the right to do so. They expose, analyse, criticise, talk about themselves and formulate their own standpoint. They know the difference between ‘a woman’s place’ and the freedom to choose the life, the work and the love they want. They relate all this precisely and reveal personal information.
On my method
I filmed with a Super-8 camera, as in the last film I shot in Central Asia, BROADWAY. Each roll of film lasts about three minutes, so each shot required special attention. I have to be able to respond to the slightest events. The constraints of the medium shape my presence at the locations and my relationship to these places and the people I film.
I understand shooting film as an observing activity that takes part in everyday life. To be able to adequately film the conversation situations, I try to establish long-term relationships, for example my friendship with Shahnoza, which has grown over the years, and the residents of the Kyrgyz villages where I filmed. I take my time gaining people’s trust and sensing the moment when they begin to accept our joint work. My interest is in connecting all the information about personal things and persistent questioning in such a way that the individual ways the women show themselves move into the background.
The women taking part in DJAMILIA would not have accepted a video camera; for this, they would have had to ask their husbands or parents-in-law for permission – impossible for most of them. In such a case, I would have been referred to the women who, as ‘wise women’, would have spoken officially for the village. So instead, I tried to create a conversation situation that gave me access to these women’s interior and mental worlds.
During the work on the film, I lived in three different villages. During this time, I let myself be guided by the encounters and the rhythm of the days. I let events come to me and often went for walks in the woods. Kirov was the second village; it is somewhat more urban and lies about fifteen kilometres from Djalal Aba. Word had soon gotten around that the Frenchwoman with her curious camera had returned. In the days after my arrival, many of the women came to me, purely out of curiosity: because one of their friends had met me; because the external world gave them no other opportunity to interrupt their daily rhythm; because they wanted to talk and be a part of things; and because they were allowed to in the eyes of the other villagers – because I was alone, a woman and foreign. With some other women, I had to seek them out myself.
The filming took place in two phases. During the observation phase, I filmed the encounters and places alone. Then came the phase when, in the company of Shahnoza, I filmed what was said.
The images
The images and rhythm of each individual story were oriented toward what happened in these encounters. One cinematic motif, however, runs through the entire film: I filmed each of my conversational partners from the front. Sometimes I was permitted to film them in their houses, sometimes not. The editing of each story thus reveals something about the encounter, which was sometimes quite vibrant and sometimes became somewhat torpid, and which was borne by the utterances and voices of the women. I tried to adjust the shots and their lengths to the rules and constraints of the traditions that were the themes of the conversations.
The character of a young woman whose resoluteness resembles Jamilia’s is played by a young actress who could be a Jamilia herself. She ties together the threads of the narrative, leading us from one encounter to the next.
There are passages in the film that are without words – a kind of free translation of the text and words into pictures.
The texture of the picture
The resulting picture does not correspond to the Super-8 format ‘from back in the day’. Nostalgia for past times was not to play any role here. My interest was in the sensuality of this film material, with its constantly changing materiality, which sometimes gives us the impression as though the picture were arising right before our eyes, as if our gaze had the power to make it come alive. I wanted to capture the reality of these women and make it visible from the inside. This material permits me to examine what is in-between: this area in which one finds oneself simultaneously in reality and in the material, in its plastic presence. The film material provides a glimpse of the women’s bodies and faces, their posture, their hesitation or their specifying gestures. One uses this impressionistic material, the coarse-grained film material, the intensity of the colours and the contrasts with their minimal variants as if composing music. One describes the atmosphere of a place through its light, by operating with brightness and darkness to reveal the presence of the bodies and their movements.
The sound
Super-8 film has no sound track. So while shooting, I had to consider the sound in advance. I had fun planning the scenes that I wanted dubbed and for which I would have to record the sound separately; to see, hear and have the editing in mind in advance and to sense ahead of time the associations of the sound and picture, the rhythm.
The soundtrack consists of a mixture of noises from the surroundings, voices and silence. In the public spaces, the silence is mighty; one hears almost n
othing. When a Lada car drives by, the quiet afterward is as loud as the passing vehicle itself. This effect contrasts with the presence of the voices. Whispering or clearly audible, they mix with the sounds from the environment. I placed special value on these details that undermine the established order and that aim to show the passage of time. These details can be found in both the visual and the auditory realm. The sound does not always meet the expectation aroused by what one sees – for example when, on the grand boulevards from the Soviet era, the call to prayer resounds.
From the moment I began editing the pictures, I alternated between editing alone and working with the sound engineer, sound editor and composer Gil Savoy on the sound editing. We brought image and sound together or contrasted them to create a coherent whole. In the end, the pictures do not overlay the ambient sounds or the voices; the three registers exist beside each other, answer each other and drive the film forward in an initially intentional asynchrony to a finally completely synchronised and realistic scene in the style of Direct Cinema.
The novel
“Jamilia” is a novel in the Kyrgyz language, written in 1958 by Chingiz Aitmatov (1928–2008), one of the great Kyrgyz authors. The book has been translated into about twenty languages. “Jamilia” was first published in the magazine “Novy Mir”. Louis Aragon discovered the novel there and translated it into French. It made the young author Aitmatov internationally renowned.
When the book appeared, the Soviet regime controlled all publications, in order to influence the field of school and occupational training throughout the country. Paradoxically, the novel became a classic, even though the lead character, Jamilia, breaks all the existing rules and questions the authority of her father and the village chief. Since then, the novel has been adapted several times for film, theatre and ballet. Although authoritarian regimes came to power in all the Central Asian republics after 1990, the novel was not banned. In the schools of the Caucasian republics, it is an established part of the curriculum, like the novels of Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert in France.
The plot of the novel
“Jamilia” is a love story – according to Aragon, ‘the most beautiful love story in the world.’ He wrote in the foreword to the book, ‘That’s why I have translated this story, against all reason and in a time removed from everything that torments me.’
The story is set in rural Kyrgyzstan in the Soviet Union at the time of the Second World War. Twenty-year-old Jamilia is married to Sadyk. They met at a horserace where Jamilia won against him. Sadyk feels humiliated in front of the other youths and kidnaps her to marry her. On the day after their wedding, Sadyk goes off to war, leaving Jamilia behind, alone with his family. She works in the fields and takes care of the household in accordance with her mother-in-law’s directives. The head of the kolkhoz has her, together with Daniyar and Said, bring to the train station a cart loaded with sacks of grain for the soldiers at the front. Daniyar, a soldier, had returned wounded from the front; Said, Jamilia’s brother-in-law and still a child, narrates the story. With each trip to the station, the relationship between Jamilia and Daniyar intensifies. Said senses what is happening in their two souls and how their feelings for each other grow. The story ends with these two lovers fleeing.
Jamilia resists the traditions and behavioural codes for a daughter-in-law. She is spontaneous and light-hearted; she shows her joie de vivre instead of hiding it. She sings, runs and looks men in the eyes. This life force, which drives her to escape and to betray her community, is extraordinary. When Jamilia discovers and begins to understand her desire, she resolves to live on her own terms, no matter what the price. In this regard, she is a modern person and, for Kyrgyz women, she embodies a certain kind of freedom and a dream that is difficult to realise.
The characters mark the novel as a product of its time, yet to this day it stirs the souls of its readers and spurs them to ask questions. In his foreword, Aragon writes, ‘And yet, here everything is a struggle between the old and the new. But – and this is what makes this story great – this struggle is shown to us primarily as an inner, emotional struggle.’
(Aminatou Echard)

Production Laurence Rebouillon. Production company 529 Dragons (Marseille, France). Written and directed by Aminatou Echard. Director of photography Aminatou Echard. Editing Aminatou Echard. Sound design Gil Savoy.

World sales 529 Dragons


2004: Gens de Potosi / People of Potosi (43 min.). 2008: Esquisses kirghizes / Kirghiz Sketches (10 min.). 2011: Broadway (50 min.). 2015: (Marco) (47 min.). 2018: Djamilia / Jamila.

Photo: © Aminatou Echard

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