Fergana Valley

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni 1965                                                                                  Hamid Ismailov | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2013

Yesterday I read on Facebook the following fragment about Michelangelo Antonioni (the great Italian cinema director) and Tonino Guerra’s (his great script-writer) visit to Uzbekistan.

In brief it goes as follows:

“We were driving in the Fergana Valley on a road lined with poplars on both sides, along the endless cotton fields… At some point we noticed two old men on the road and they were of such beauty that I thought: God is not single, he has a twin brother.

I offered to stop and pick up the elderly men. We backed up and asked where they were going? ‘There, about ten kilometres’, – one of them replied.

The old men sat in our van. We started the conversation, asking: who they are, how many children do they have? It turned out that one of them had 65, the other 80 grandchildren; both of them were working on the farm of Lenin, etc.

It was mostly curious Tonino Guerra, who asked the questions, the Uzbek host Ali Khamrayev was simultaneously translating. Funny enough, only one of old men answered the questions. The other kept silent.

Tonino asked why only one man was answering. Ali did not even translate the question, but stated: ‘Because he is a senior. It is our tradition: only senior speaks, and younger must remain silent’.

– How old is the younger one?

Ali translated the question to the younger one, but the old man still kept silent. Senior one, looking at the younger, said:

– Ninety-eight.

Soon we arrived at the Lenin collective farm and stopped the car to say goodbye to both men.

It was a year when the first Polaroids had just appeared in our country. In Moscow, Bertolucci had given it to Antonioni as a present

– ‘Take it with you; it’ll be your visual notebook’. With this camera Michelangelo approached the old men: ‘Can I take your picture as a memory?’ Ali translated it. The senior Uzbek nodded to him. Then again imperiously nodded towards the 98-year-old younger mate. They were standing on a beautiful road with the poplars in the background.

Michelangelo, directing the camera towards them, quickly explained: ‘You are going to see a miracle now!’ – Not a single muscle flinched on their old faces. – Now I click on the button – (he pressed the button) – and here we are… (the picture with the first dark spots came out of the Polaroid) – you see – green poplars, and here you are, both of you…’ – Antonioni handed the photo to the old men. The senior glanced at ‘the miracle’ and then showed it to the younger with no wonder at all.

Puzzled Antonioni took the picture back from the hands of the old man, looked at it as if he was carefully considering it, and then said, ‘Yes, it seems, it’s not quite in focus… Can I do it again?’ Ali translated, and the old man nodded.

Antonioni quickly ran back to the same spot, setting up the shot for a long time, then repeated the same process and the new picture to the old man with the words: ‘Yes, you were right. The previous one wasn’t focused enough. But here you are, this one is perfect in my opinion.

This is for you… a souvenir in memory of our meeting’

The senior again looked at the miracle, then showed it to his minor without letting the picture out of his hands, and after a pause emphatically said something in Uzbek. Ali did not translate it. All looked at him waiting for the rendering. ‘Well, Ali, did he say something?’ Ali was silent. In an awkward pause Antonioni asked: ‘What did he say?’ At that moment the senior man gave the picture back to Ali and walked away towards the boundless cotton fields of the Lenin collective farm.

Alex finally translated what the old man said, ‘We don’t need it.’

And there we were: in the silence of the highway, in a remote Uzbek province, amid the magnificent Lombardy poplars stretching to infinity, the great film director Antonioni with a photograph in hand, next to the great screen writer Tonino Guerra, all standing still… Antonioni not believing what had happened broke the silence, turning to Guerra: ‘All our life, Tonino, we are fighting for great art, constantly coming up with something, and here you are – can you imagine? – they don’t need it?! We are in deep s…t!”

It’s a great story as it is, but it also made me think about the nature of social networks, including Facebook. The live dialogue is always if not hierarchical, at least asymmetric, like in the case of those two old Uzbeks, one of whom is ‘older’ than old. I remember not a joke but a real story told by our grannies: once they saw an 80-year-old man crying. ‘Why are you crying?’ – they asked. ‘My father rebuked me!’ – ‘What for?’ – ‘I forgot to say hello to my grandad…’

But in the case of the Facebook everyone is given the podium of that ‘grandad’, subduing all others just for the comments or likes.

Therefore like in the case of the senior Uzbek returning the picture back to the great Antonioni very often one might feel the same feeling towards Facebook : ‘Too much of you! Too much of you!’

Or is it my age speaking through me, installing itself onto that podium?

Maybe I have just missed one of those endless conversations in a chaykhana**?…

(**Chaykhana are teahouses. Central to Uzbek culture, these teahouses are a place for people to meet, socialise and discuss matters of the day whilst drinking tea. They serve the same cultural function as a British pub. Chaykhanas are usually only frequented by men, although women are allowed with an invitation.