Uzbek filmmaker Ruslan Saliyev says the title of his new feature-length documentary, Dreamers, reflects the essence of the Jadidists, a progressive Islamic movement that flourished briefly amid the fading of the Bukharan Emirate only to later be repressed by the Soviets.
“It is dreamers who change the world around them,” he told Eurasianet. “The Jadidists were like that. They dreamed of bringing all that they saw was excellent in the world to their native land, of improving the education system, and of contributing to the development of the region not only through knowledge, but also through art and by changing people’s worldview.”
Dreamers was both directed and scripted by Saliyev, a former hip-hop performer and songwriter. The driving idea was to broaden the appeal of an oft-overlooked but deeply significant moment in Uzbekistan’s modern history.
“Jadidism is a huge chunk of our history and culture. We have long wanted to talk about leading progressives in a language that is accessible to a wide audience. It seems to us that this is a very important and difficult topic,” Saliyev said. “The project was conceived several years ago, and we have been working for two years on bringing it into being.”
Although Dreamers tells of events that happened a century ago, Saliyev says the story is important to tell because of its contemporary relevance.
“Of course, it is impossible in an hour and a half to explain all about the events and people involved with Jadidism, but we are pleased that this subject is resonating with people and that is becoming more and more relevant every year,” he said.
This cause has an important champion. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev regularly alludes to the Jadidists.
In one 2021 speech, he remarked that that the Jadidist movement stood “for renewal and freedom, justice and equality, science and enlightenment,” and their goal was “to lead the people of Turkestan, trapped in a maelstrom of ignorance and backwardness, onto the path of universal development.”
A museum dedicated to the history of Jadidism is being built in Bukhara. Jadidist educators have been posthumously bestowed with state orders. Over the past two years, the Supreme Court has rehabilitated more than 800 people targeted by Soviet repressions between 1920 and 1931.
New Uzbekistan, the enthusiastically propagandized term used to describe Mirziyoyev’s tenure in office, which began in 2016, is an unambiguous allusion to those reformists, who modeled themselves on the Turkic modernizers who developed a teaching method they dubbed usul-i jadid, the new method, in a rejection of unthinking rote learning.
The intentions of the producers of Dreamers rhyme with those of Mirziyoyev in other ways too. Saliyev has described one goal for the film as “showing the inhabitants of Central Asia their common history” and “to convey the message that we are very close to each other.” Deepening regional integration, including through culture, is a cornerstone theme in the president’s foreign policy strategy.
One of the goals of the film, Saliyev emphasized, was “to attract the attention of young audiences to their own history, to self-identification,” as well as “to show the common history of the inhabitants of Central Asia” and “to convey the message that we are very close to each other.”
Dramatic recreations in the documentary have been performed by a cast of players that includes the popular Russian-Tajik singer Manizha and Kazakh actor Askar Ilyasov. Verses recited include work by the Uzbek poet Anbar Atyn and Kazakh poet Magzhan Zhumabayev.
Saliyev said he was serious about making a film that could be engaging and treated as a serious work of history. Interviewees include the scholar Adeeb Khalid, whose 2015 book Making Uzbekistan is the most deeply considered English-language account of Jadidism written to date, well-known Russian anthropologist Sergei Abashin, and Dilorom Alimova, a historian and specialist on the history of Uzbekistan’s statehood.
Bringing in all those voices was necessary to represent “a diversity of views” on the “ambiguous history of Jadidism,” Saliyev said.
The filmmaker acknowledges the inherent limitations on telling this story.
“When there are so few facts, much is still not known for certain,” he said. “And we will never know about certain things. Labyrinths of legends and myths have grown up around the Jadidists and their tragic fates.”
Some worry, though, that Dreamers does fall foul of the offense of painting an overly idealized image of the Jadidists.
“The film seeks to create a ‘canonical’ and ‘coherent’ account of history in which the Jadidists are seen as the ideological predecessors of the current secular elites [of Uzbekistan], which is fundamentally wrong. They were also not socialists, as the film claims,” Sardor Salim, a Tashkent-based political analyst, told Eurasianet. “The Jadidists were primarily Muslim modernist reformers, something that is completely glossed over in the film. The Jadidists must be viewed precisely in the context of the awakening of the Islamic world from the colonial oppression of European states. The processes of decolonization and the return of Islam to public life are still ongoing, including in Uzbekistan.”
Aziza Umarova, an expert on governance and the head of a consulting firm, is more forgiving.
Writing on Facebook, she praised the strong production values and the balanced approach taken to the narrative.
“The novelty of the film is not in the visual effects, but in that it is a serious attempt to present a balanced story. Where the best sons of the Fatherland, who fell as innocents under the millstone of repression, are given their due. But at the same time, the [film] recreates the context in which those events unfolded,” Umarova wrote.
Dreamers is not Saliyev’s directorial debut. Hamid and Zulfiya, released in 2020, was dedicated to the life and work of two Uzbek poets, and the self-explanatorily titled Legends of Uzbek Dance came out a year later.
The three films were produced by BWG Production, a company that, in its own description, “popularizes the culture and art of Uzbekistan.” The posters for Dreamers, meanwhile, indicates that the film was shot with the support of 7SABER, a sportswear brand in Uzbekistan.
All these details are of note in that they hint at the imprimatur of endorsement from the highest office in the land.
7SABER’s logo was created by Otabek Umarov, the son-in-law of President Mirziyoyev.
And in a recent investigation by RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, it was alleged that BWG Production is owned to Otabek Umarov’s cousin, Sherzod Umarov.
As Salim, the Tashkent-based analyst, told Eurasianet, the increased attention now being paid to the history of the Jadidists in Uzbekistan may indicate an attempt by the authorities to confer legitimacy upon themselves.
“Now the struggle for the ‘correct history’ of Jadidism has begun. Who are the Jadidists? Islamic reformers or secular intellectuals, the ideological predecessors of the current secular elite? The authorities are trying to promote the second interpretation, because the ‘correct history’ of Jadidism would serve the authorities for their own legitimation,” he said.