One of the driving forces in the Uyghur film scene is a filmmaker and poet named Tahir Hamut. A graduate of Beijing’s National Minorities University, Tahir began his academic career as one of the premier Uyghur critics of Western Modernist literature. Throughout the 1990s he, along with Perhat Tursun and others, were the leaders of a Uyghur avant garde poetry movement. Then in 1998 he turned his attention to filmmaking. Now Tahir serves as one of the principle instructors in the Film Department of the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi.
Tahir’s first films were feature-length fiction films. Although in many ways straightforward romantic dramas, even in this early work we see flashes of ethnographic detail that give us hints of Tahir’s previous life as a poet and the way he was beginning to translate that vision into visual form.
Tahir is a brilliant poet. His 1998 poem “Return to Kashgar” is punctuated by a haunting imagery that tackles both the timelessness of loneliness and disillusionment of youth. It feels both forever contemporary and particular to a place and location in time. It is filled with “icy stones,” “low skies,” and “power lines.”
Since 2005 Tahir has turned his attention to filming lyric poetry and narrative documentaries. One of the projects that came out of this turn in his career was a selection of Kucha folk songs compiled in a single DVD titled Mirajikhan. The imagery of each of these short films is stunning.
The short film above is titled “Beautiful Lover.” In Tahir’s narrative the poem centers around the story of an itinerate bread maker. As the film begins we see him walk by the centuries old watchtower on the outskirts of Kucha. The city itself of course predates this Yuan Dynasty marker; and the Kucha-style bread that he makes – as large as a family-sized pizza, pressed with carrots and onions – might be as well. Over the arc of the film we see the young baker fall in love with a beautiful young girl, only for their secret love to be crushed by the arrival of an older, wealthier suitor – who hires him to bake bread for his wedding with the beautiful young girl.
The look of despondency on his face is piercing. The constant refrain of the song is “I am in a lonely situation. I’m in a desert alone crying.”
As the film ends we see the baker walking away from the city; away from the girl he loved; away from another dream thwarted. Like so many migrants to the city, he can only stay for a while before he wanders on.
When I ask young Uyghurs why they like Uyghur folk music they often say that they feel as though they are tuning in to something timeless but at the same time something comforting and familiar. When they walk the streets of Ürümchi, with their iPhone earbuds turned all the way up, they feel like the problems they face in their lives lift a little. They feel like they are not all alone, that others have faced the same anxieties. They feel like they are territorializing the strange world around them and making the alienation of city life more tolerable.
In Tahir’s narratives I feel this timelessness. He is showing us how to bring traditional experiences forward into the present, how to translate poetic form into visual form, how to make life in the village relevant to city life. By making the feeling of migration come out of the earthen streets of Uyghur traditional cities, he is making us understand that the problems of the present are new, more tightly woven variations of older themes of poverty, exploitation, and desire.
Tahir is one reason to feel confident about the future of Uyghur visual arts. There is a depth of thought in his work that will shape a future generation of Uyghur filmmakers.
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.