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David MacFadyen on "Little Angel, Make Me Happy"

In his introduction to Usman Saparov's film at the March 13, 2008 screening, David MacFadyen situates "Little Angel" in the context of the Soviet-era political climate and film culture of Turkmenistan in the 1970s to 1990s.

By David MacFadyen, Professor

Introductory Remarks for the UCLA Asia Institute Central Asia Initiative Screening of Little Angel, Make Me Happy, by Usman Saparov (Turkmenistan, 1992)

By David MacFadyen, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, UCLA 

March 13, 2008


Little Angel, Make Me Happy is a film from Turkmenistan, perhaps the most intriguing and surreal region of Central Asia. This desert territory, although entirely irrigated, is only five per cent cultivated, a strange disparity adequately represented until December 2006 by its president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Among Niyazov’s outlandish cultural contributions were the renaming of January after himself and April after his mother. To insult Niyazov was to incur a five-year prison sentence and join the 20,000 other citizens similarly incarcerated.  Whenever shielded from such public barbs, Niyazov would busy himself with the construction of his ice palace in the desert or his $6 billion underground lake, which would cause incredible damage to an already desolate countryside. 

These vacant spaces remain in part the product of Soviet agriculture, of rapacious efforts to provide gas and cotton for other republics, leaving the Turkmen SSR unable to feed itself. Gorbachev had appointed Niyazov to establish greater “independence” and self-sufficiency. The communists, however (since ultimate power has no determinate meaning), simply re-designated themselves - and Niyazov became president for life. He banned foreign newspapers, opera, ballet and - with rare exception – cinema. His successor, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, promises little change.

Niyazov’s clampdown on cinema had begun in the 1990s, when the state’s main movie studio was bulldozed and countless stars of Turkmen filmmaking were publicly maligned. These included the author of Little Angel, Usman Saparov. Film crews who remained at work were, according to acerbic émigré sources, condemned to produce “TV garbage,” all in praise of Niyazov and shot on cheap video, due to the deficit of good stock. Thus died Turkmenfil’m. It had been founded in February 1926, initially as a factory; even when transformed into a studio, it released short or documentary features until its first full-length movie in 1931. As with Tashkent, Turkmenfil’m later benefited from the influx of evacuated Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev artists, notably for How the Steel Was Tempered in 1942.

It is often said that the studio’s heyday was in Saparov’s youth of the 1970s, when there were over 900 functioning projectors in the republic. A corruption scandal aside, this productive interaction with Moscow would continue until the mid-‘80s, the rhetoric of which needs to be considered as the background to our first film. Studies of Turkmen cinema written in the 80s define the retrospective spirit that fuels Little Angel. They show how this movie wanted to trace its own genesis, its keen desire to “uncover the ideological and artistic particularities of Turkmen cinematography, to examine the development of its poetry.”  As early as the XXVI Communist Party Congress Brezhnev had wanted to guide these movie makers: “Our goal is the development of material and spiritual potential in every republic, its maximal application to the Soviet Union’s harmonious development.” So what was so “Soviet” about Saparov’s 1992 film?

An answer is possible if we accept that Brezhnev’s musical metaphors often do double-duty in happier ways. Turkmen studies of the 80s, just before Little Angel, sketched this duality with vague celebrations of cinema’s goals: an emphasis upon “localness, [upon] changeability in key dramatic motifs, [thoughts on] the role of words and speech per se, [together with] a serious application of poetic texts, the active use of music in unraveling an artist’s purpose.” Minor, harmonized motifs huddled on the edge of speechifying were asked to shoulder a clear and yet cumbersome importance, to “complement international policies of détente and promulgate cozy stereotypes.”

Further dubious marriages were brokered between Turkmen folk (i.e., pre-national) tales, between lyrical themes (frequently going nowhere special) and a single-minded social consequence. Turkmen stories of personal maturation from the 80s were especially keen to conjure, recreate or reconsider folkoric motifs in the context of WWII, since virtually all local footage regarding the war was documentary. Simple, private stories of the past needed to be told, so that same past could dovetail with the present or, in the terms of Turkmen scholarship, “underline connections.” A “single line” would result, that of “moral maximalism.” Hence boys and fathers represent different generations, who in turn can represent different epochs. The potential connection between them was termed a challenge, a peculiar noun for Brezhnev’s hesitant age.

The plot of Saparov’s related film has been summarized as follows: “An intimate story of challenge within the larger historical context of the deportation of ethnic Germans from Turkmenistan to Siberia during the Second World War. The opening shots—laughing children running through a poppy field, a dog chasing a turtle—are the closing moments of a childhood paradise. When the children arrive back at their village they find their alarmed parents, men in uniforms, and several wagons. A Red Army officer gives the order: ‘children under 16 and nursing mothers will remain in the village. Everyone else is subject to deportation.’… The full horror of the event becomes clear only when all the adults have been carted away, and the children, like stray dogs, corralled into an orphanage.”

The perfect resolution to such violent compartmentalization, of course, would be what one late Soviet study had called Saparov’s “joyful feeling of collectivism” This motif, in fact, also brings us back to the talk of poetry and rhythm from Soviet Turkmen scholarship. It was eager to tell us that Saparov’s music of membership – as in his children’s film of 1982 (The Education of a Man) was always built upon sounds recorded in situ: the “singing sands,” rustling grasses, and noises of dogs and sheep which, together with bona fide harmonies added by his chosen composers, would emphasize an explicit, overall “rhythm.” Between what states or entities? Between notation and nature? Between sad, elusive yet specific praxis and fantasy? Saparov’s quiet, often sad story of similar indecision won six international festivals and garnered ten related awards (even in Chicago). For all this brouhaha, however, his films would remain what the director has called tales of “gentle people” in a “severe” landscape.

The role of empty paysage, dotted with occasional sounds, is always important for this director. Before Little Angel, a reconsideration of the sparse recording tools available to Turkmen directors led to his films being seen in allegedly Buddhist terms. Saparov’s early experience in documentary filmmaking was linked to the quiet watching of life’s so-called “flow,” represented by empty sandbanks. Lighting and subtle chromatic filtering underscored an elusive membership with the desert’s transient, bodiless hues. Despite this disembodiment, however, there was always an explicit effort in scholarship to make any such philosophy gender-specific, in that Turkmen pedagogy was trying by the end of the USSR to counter the excessively “female” connotations of childrearing. Patriarchal traditions and a philosophy of transience add to our confusion of policy and children’s or folk tales, for it is the shifting sand - nowhere in particular – that presents Saparov’s child-actors with the morally “maximal” choice of becoming nobody, of a bigger, better collectivism beyond selfhood. They enter “a sea of sand where you can either perish or live side by side with the uncanny - and do so to your benefit.”

Just before Little Angel, Saparov himself tried to pin down, to name and reduce this voiceless, naturally harmonious goal as follows. “Spiritual purity and kindness; these are vital human characteristics we must preserve all our lives and establish as early as childhood. But it’s just as important that this goodness be active; that’s already a manifestation of character.” This “active” streak in the context of Buddhism has a special hew and was afforded singular attention by Turkmen critics in the early ‘90s. It placed Saparov’s work on the border between the effable rhetoric and silence, between enclosure and emptiness. The isolation of little children, of essential details on an empty background of gaps was likened in particular to the animated work of Russian animator Andrei Khrzhanovskii. This was the perfect political expression, what Turkmen authors called cartoons’ “Eastern, plastic expressiveness,” the reanimation of magic subjects from classic, lyrical verse. It was politically useful yet artistically uncanny, an awkwardly managed “inconsistency in key dramatic motifs.”

Always important amid these awkwardly-investigated gaps is the minimal difference between fledging son and well-formed nation, between auteur (if we can speak of such things) and a well-authored, national ontology, for Saparov – although a Turkmen director – is himself a Tatar. And yet he felt with the fall of the Soviet Union that he was “losing a homeland.” His relationship to sweeping metaphors of childish membership is therefore ambiguous, both statist and yet unstated, both present and absent. His career development speaks to this intricacy: first VGIK, then Turkmenfil’m, and finally post-Soviet Moscow in order to direct Sesame Street between 1997 and 2000. One way to avoid this unstable, insistently tongue-tied overlap of private, political and profitable affects might be to adopt the view of the child itself, thus rejecting adult analogies or allegories completely. This, some would argue, is a technique he explicitly endorses in his Little Angel, Make Me Happy and it is for this reason that Saparov headed a 1997 festival in Moscow dedicated to movies made by children. If his treatment of Brezhnevian grandeur meant entering the humbling scale of a desert, it seems fitting that Saparov’s response to Muscovite pomp, to the movies recently endorsed by Niyazov, has been to place a wobbly camera in babyish hands, eighteen inches off the ground.

Basic Sources

Abikeeva, G. Kino tsentral’noi Azii, Almaty: IREX (2001).
Agaeva, G. Turkmenskoe khudozhestvennoe kino 60-70-kh godov, Moskva: Goskino SSSR (1981).
Agaeva, G. Turkmenskoe kino – detiam, Ashkhabad, (1986).
Agaeva, G. Rezhissera turkmenskogo khudozhestvennogo kino, Ashkhabad: Ylym (1985).
Abikeeva, G. Vzaimodeistvie kul’tur zapada i vostoka v sovremennom kinoprotsesse, Moscow: Goskino SSSR (1990).
“Gundogar: Iz vsekh iskusstv naiopasneishim dlia Niiazova iavliaetsia kino,” TsentrAziia, 16 April (2002).
Hutchings, S. and Vernitskaia, A. (eds.) Screening the Word: Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, London: Routledge-Curzon (2004).
“I Have No Motherland Except Turkmenia,” Kinokultura, Central Asia Special Issue.
“The Man Who Would Be King,” The Observer, 10 October (2004).
“V zdanii Turkmenskogo teatra,” Turkmenistan.ru, 20 December (2005).
VGIK 2000 “Screenplay Exchange” (Birzha tsenariev).
“Zaiats s ryb’im khvostom,” Kul’tura, 28 May-3 June (1998).
Zizek, S. The Parallax View, Cambridge: MIT Press (2006).


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Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2008