When Memetjan Semet first came to Urumchi he remembers being shocked at how isolated everyone felt from each other. For the first time in his life he didn’t have his family and childhood friends to lean on for support. He also noticed that he wasn’t alone in this condition. No one in the big city seemed to care about the others around themselves. Instead, people kept their heads down. They focused on their smartphones, chatted with friends in the virtual world, and ignored the difficulties of people nearby. The problems of strangers were not something they needed to feel.
One time, while waiting for an elevator in a large office building in the Uyghur section of the city, he noticed a disabled woman hobbling down the hallway. No one held the doors for her. Everyone pushed her to the side while getting on and off. Over the next few minutes he watched her grow more and more defeated. Eventually she gave up, and began the long painful process of climbing the stairs rather than fighting to get on the crowded lift.
For Memetjan, watching this unfold was like watching a silent drama that was symptomatic of everyday big-city life. Since he was a young film student at the time, he decided to turn the microcosm of an Urumchi elevator into a short silent film. Using student actors and an elevator at the Xinjiang Arts School, Memetjan recreated that scene in a short film called Lift. Since it was posted on the popular social media site Muzikam last week, the short film has received around 5,000 views.
The lessons one can learn from a film has always been among the main reasons Memetjan is crazy about cinema. Growing up in rural Aqsu prefecture, he used to live for the monthly outdoor movies that were shown by generator-power in his local village. He loved the sound of the film reels whirring, the excitement of another world in full color. Everyone who could afford the 2.5 yuan ticket would come to watch movies and learn about the world. They watched Chinese blockbusters and Indian musicals and saw how other people dressed, danced, what they ate, and how they loved.
One time, when he was around 10 years old, Memetjan’s family didn’t have even one fen in the house on the day before a big movie’s showing. His mother, older brother, and he went to a local Han farmer’s house and asked if he would pay him for a day’s work. After hoeing the fields for the entire day, he and his brother received 2 and half yuan each while his mother received 5. They went to the movies as a family that night. Memetjan says of that time, “If I couldn’t go to watch the movie I would cry for days. I didn’t care if I couldn’t eat or sleep, but if I couldn’t watch the movie I would be inconsolable.”
By the early 2000s, electricity reached his village, and one of his neighbors bought a TV. Soon a new ritual emerged. After dinner, 30 Uyghur villagers would crowd into the neighbor’s house and watch historical dramas on CCTV, soaking in the commercials that advertised all the things one could buy in the city.
Perhaps because he experienced cinema firsthand in such a powerful way, Memtjan’s directing style aims to be pedagogical. He wants people who watch his films to see their world in a new way. While still keenly aware of the power of aesthetics — the cinematic effects that frame and heighten the sounds and colors of a scene — Memetjan always draws the viewers’ attention to the reality around them. He uses what he has: natural light, amateur actors, and — in his more recent work — an innate sense for realistic Uyghur dialogue to turn the Uyghur everyday into pure cinema.
Like many in his cohort of emerging Uyghur filmmakers, Memetjan is a fan of Iranian realist dramas from directors such as Asghar Farhadi and the fantastic soundscapes and worlds of color in the work of Hollywood filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. The revolution in digital film-production technology as well as easy access to international cinematic worlds through online video streaming sites have given dozens of young filmmakers like Memetjan a chance of build their own cinematic styles. These young filmmakers are educated in Uyghur, Chinese, English, and often Turkish; unlike previous generations of Uyghur filmmakers who were much more limited in what they could see and study, they are cultivating a strong cinematic acumen; they don’t just watch Hollywood blockbusters, they also watch obscure art films.
Over the next decade new forms of Uyghur cinema, which are influenced by American cinema and the films of the Islamic world, will emerge in Chinese Central Asia. These films will feature Uyghur voices that speak first to Uyghurs, but they will also open up Uyghur society to the outside world in a way that it has never before been seen.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.