Recording the struggle for women's rights in Kyrgyzstan

Aminatou Echard's poetic documentary takes the 1958 novel "Jamilia" by Chingiz Aitmatov as the starting point for conversations with Kyrgyz women of all generations. Inspired by the novel’s eponymous heroine, the protagonists open up about their experiences, desires, and views on women’s rights. By Adela Lovric

By Adela Lovric

On her first trip to Kyrgyzstan, the French filmmaker Aminatou Echard took with her Chingiz Aitmatov’s "Jamilia", a novel lauded by Louis Aragon as "the most beautiful love story in the world". The book, which turned out to be a household staple of every Kyrgyz woman she met on the way, dramatically influenced her journey.

As Echard explains, many of them are still immersed in traditions today that pressure women to give up on their freedoms, yet, in the Soviet Union, they were encouraged to maintain a certain level of independence through education, which promoted more equality between women and men. Most women encountered the emancipatory story of "Jamilia" in school. And with a copy of "Jamilia" in her hands, Echard won their trust and fast-tracked her way to intimate conversations with women who are discouraged by society from expressing their feelings and needs.

During their encounters, the book created a space of trust and mutual understanding between them and the filmmaker. Inspired by the novel's main character, whom they idolised, some of them would quickly digress from talking about the book and open up to Echard about their own experiences.

Jamilia – a Kyrgyz heroine

Echard filmed these confessional interviews with a Super-8 camera, accompanied by an interpreter. Ten years later in 2018, her first feature-length documentary "Jamilia" about her encounters with the Kyrgyz women was released.


Set in cities and villages of the Ferghana and Talas regions in the western part of Kyrgyzstan, it seamlessly collages her conversations with the local 'Jamilias' – fourteen women aged between fifteen and seventy-two who find glimpses of themselves in Aitmatov’s novel and its main protagonist.

Set in rural Kyrgyzstan in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, the novel is a simple story of a young woman who fights for love and rebels against the strict societal rules. The twenty-year-old Jamilia is married to Sadyk who kidnapped her to marry her – a reprehensible real-life practice that is still common in Kyrgyzstan. After Sadyk goes to war, Jamilia meets Daniyar, a soldier who has returned wounded from the front. They fall in love with each other and the story ends with the two lovers eloping.

The character of Jamilia symbolises female strength, emancipation and self-determination. She breaks free from traditional behavioural codes and lives according to her desire and will. She is both celebrated and condemned for her transgressive behaviour, and because of this duality, she is described as personifying modern-day Kyrgyzstan.

"We could fill a whole book with our regrets"

For most protagonists in Echard’s film, Jamilia represents their repressed desires. Many share her experience of having being kidnapped and married to a man they didn't love. Some of them are divorced, while others live on in the conviction that forced marriage is the only way to be part of society. Jamilia is a role model with whom women can identify or an unattainable dream of which they are not supposed to speak. Some even express their disdain for her emotionality and for choosing love over loyalty to a flawed tradition.But in talking about their own experience of kidnapping and marriage in which their husband's family treats them as a possession, they reveal a psychological condition similar to the phenomenon of the Stockholm Syndrome. Echard wonderfully captures these oscillations between different protagonists and the dissonance within individuals to reveal the mechanisms on which forced marriages and their unbalanced gender dynamics are still based.

Mirroring women’s hardships

The film voices different aspects of women's complex lives and the hard decisions they have to make to either reconcile themselves to their family’s expectations and the community's rules, or be cast out with the man they love. It also touches upon the socio-political conditions – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the way the economic transition rearranged people’s lives and plans, making women turn from building a career to tending the domestic hearth owing to a lack of prospects.


The filmmaker's gaze never feels voyeuristic or judgemental; rather the opposite. The confessional intimacy matches the images in the film: gentle, passive, almost still footage of women in and around their homes or out in nature, portrayed as if frozen in space and time.


The pace is additionally slowed down with long shots of the landscape – classically beautiful, mellow, impressionistic images with the visible Super-8 grain. The muted and technically outdated visual language is contrasted with a crisp sound of digitally recorded voices confessing the silenced parts of themselves.


Teenagers dream of women's emancipation


In Echard's "Jamilia", the strong and hopeful voices of and about the new generations are given space as well. Thanks to Aitmatov's book and the teachers who want to make a positive impact on young people's lives, girls are taught in school to learn how to express their preferences and needs.


They are encouraged to form their own opinions when confronted with persuasive arguments from their family, their country, or their religion to follow everyone's but their own interests.


The character of Jamilia fuels this change that is imminently spreading. It offers a valuable lesson to girls and women about the importance of protecting their rights and fighting for one's freedom.


Adela Lovric


© 2020