Recording the struggle for women's rights in Kyrgyzstan
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.