New East Digital Archive

Waiting For The Sea is a documentary finding new perspectives amid the ruins of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea

2 October 2020
Images: Neha Hirve

Waiting for the Sea is screening on 12 October, on the opening night of The Calvert Journal Film Festival: Seven Days of New East Cinema Online. Check out the programme and get your free tickets here.

Back in 2017, New York City-based editor, producer, and director George Itzhak came across The Calvert Journal’s report on Stihia, an electronic music festival in the remains of the Aral Sea. The headline posed the question: does a music festival in a desert offer hope for cultural reform in Uzbekistan?

For Itzhak, who was born in Tashkent but emigrated to New York with his family when he was only a baby, the article sparked an idea: to seize the long-awaited opportunity to return to Uzbekistan and re-discover the country through the lens of his camera.

In 2020, the director released Waiting for the Sea, a non-fiction portrayal of Stihia, presenting the current socio-environmental context of the Aral Sea, and giving a new look at whether a creative renaissance can shine an international spotlight on a little-known environmental disaster.

We caught up with Itzhak to talk about the film, the changing face of Uzbekistan, and a more hopeful future for both the country and the Aral Sea.

In a few sentences, could you tell us what the documentary is about?

It is surprising how hard that question is, especially when you’re the documentary maker. It’s a journey into the heart of Uzbekistan, which seems like a big statement, but it’s how I feel about it. It follows the renaissance of electronic music in the country, and through that lens, we look at how the country is changing, as well as its different legacies — one of them being the legacy of the Aral Sea, once a great lake that has diminished over decades of government policy.

What brought you from New York City all the way to Uzbekistan to tell this story?

For me, this project was a homecoming. I was born in Tashkent in 1992, and my family emigrated to New York in 1993. As I was making my way through college, I was thinking: how can I return home and learn about this place? Because I’m a filmmaker, I decided to embark on this journey through a film.

When I came across the article about Stihia on The Calvert Journal, something just clicked in me. I started doing research, and it all snowballed from there. I wanted to make this film, personally, to discover my homeland. When you grow up as an immigrant, you get references from where you are from here and there, but you don’t really know what the place tastes like, what it feels like, what it smells like, until you’re there.

Looking at the bigger picture, I also wanted to make a film that would battle the stereotypes that I always perceived about Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is always exoticised and seen from the lens of the Silk Road and the ancient past. I wanted to make a film that went against that.

The blessing of documentary filmmaking is that it can discover new stories, but the curse is that it can reduce things to stereotypes and images that simplify reality. I wanted to make a film about Uzbekistan that wasn’t all about the historical past: I wanted to look at its future.

Tell us a bit more about Stihia, the electronic music festival. What were your relationships with the characters in the documentary like, and how did your idea of what it was going to be about change once you were there?

The festival was a wild experience, I am really glad I did it. I profiled the organisers of the festival, they play a big part in the documentary, and by virtue of filming it, I was there for the whole time, it was fantastic. How it differs from electronic music festivals in, let’s say, Europe, is that it’s more democratic and open to all kinds of people. It is a rave, but it is also family-friendly, and there are lots of children there.

The emotional core of the film was a totally spontaneous, organic thing. What I believe to be the heart of the documentary was the inclusion of this character, Vlad Zuev. He is a long-time resident of Moynaq, now in his 70s. He was born there, and he was a child when the Aral Sea still existed. We stayed in his house, he has a B&B for tourists, and he was our driver. I knew we had to get an interview with him.

The thing is, he didn’t want to be interviewed. I think he wanted me to try hard, so that means we had to drink with him many times. On the last day, he drove us to the remains of the Aral Sea, and he said that I had to go into the sea before he would talk to me. The last few hours in Moynaq, he finally sat down for an interview. I asked him a few simple questions and the poetry just poured out of him. I thought the film would be led by the forces of young people, but it was led by him. He was the one that had seen the most in the region, and the one that was affected the most by this festival.

— The big question in documentary making is always about the gaze, the viewpoint of the filmmaker. How do you think your experience as someone born in Uzbekistan but raised in the United States helped you?

In Uzbekistan, I am not a local filmmaker, but I am not completely foreign either. I have one foot in Uzbekistan, and one in the United States. I feel like that comes across in my film, that I am at once an outsider and someone who understands the culture.

When I reached out to the people I ended up profiling in the film, they were all a bit amused by me. I am from where they are from, but I am also different, so I think they were curious to figure out who I was and what my motivations were.

Purposefully, I didn’t put myself in the film, but every choice I made as a director reflects that this is a place that my family left under stressful circumstances and, here I was, 27 years later, coming back to see what the state of the country was.

I came back [to Uzbekistan] with my father, who was very interested in helping me. Ultimately, what we discovered was that the country had changed and is in a process of evolving. Growing up abroad, I always had this impression that Uzbekistan had stayed in a time capsule, just the way it was when we left it in 1992, and I was happy to see that it was a living, breathing place, just like every other place. Making the film challenged my stereotypes about my home-country in a positive way.

Ultimately, my ambition was also to make a film for Americans and Western audiences. I wanted to make a film for those who cannot put Uzbekistan on the map. I believe in the power of documentary making as something that can challenge stereotypes and reveal places that people have misconceptions about.

— The documentary taps into climate change, and asks the question of whether the festival can shine an international spotlight on this little-known environmental disaster. Personally, do you have an answer to it?

There is a metaphorical question: can water ever come back? The organisers of the festival say: “we’re like the ancient rainmakers calling for rain for the sea”. That means that they’re performing a ritual that can bring something, whether it is rain, or something else that is hopeful to this region.

Unfortunately, the problem cannot be solved that way, but I think that the symbolic core of this question is about hope. When you change your perspective from one of despair to one of hope, it can bring about change.

In popular culture and cinema, the Aral Sea is usually presented as a godforsaken area that stands as an example of the way governments and people can damage their environments. But in my film, there is a scene where, at the end of the festival, an effigy is burned. Through this, I wanted to suggest that you can always burn your past and build something new out of its ashes.

I wanted my film to be hopeful. My parents’ generation may not see the hope in it, but I do. So, ultimately, my answer is yes: I am optimistic and idealistic, and I believe that acts of hope like this festival can bring about long-lasting change for the Aral Sea.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently editing a feature documentary about punk music in Siberia, which is very exciting. While I work on that, I’m writing, I’m reading… I can’t wait to go back to Uzbekistan and make another film. This time, I really want to make something scripted. I’d love to continue exploring this place, it has so much cinematic potential. It’s hard for me to write something about the place when I don’t have that lived experience, but I’d love to find a story from a local writer.

Read more

Waiting For The Sea is a documentary finding new perspectives amid the ruins of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea

Signs of life: does a music festival in a desert offer hope for cultural reform in Uzbekistan?

Waiting For The Sea is a documentary finding new perspectives amid the ruins of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea

Tashkent’s youth spread their wings as underground raves take root in Uzbekistan

Waiting For The Sea is a documentary finding new perspectives amid the ruins of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea

The Calvert Journal Film Festival: new online programme to run 12-18 October