Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

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The Pitch: If you think Karakalpakstan sounds like a made up place, you definitely won’t believe what you’ll find there…

The Review: Sometimes we in the West have a very narrow view of modern culture. Thanks to the advent of DVD and the Internet, it’s never been easier to pick up a copy of the latest Korean horror or Israeli documentary, but film is a media which generally travels well. But if you think about the history of art, most of the major artists who we know and would be familiar with have their roots firmly in Western culture. It might also be suggested that art can occasionally be a little elitist, and large art collections tend to be the preserve of major towns and cities.

So the story of a major art collection that now resides in an autonomous republic in the north-west of Uzbekistan (the aforementioned Karakalpakstan) is one worthy of bringing to a wider audience. Igor Savitsky was a man of many interests, including painting, but having been advised he’d never become a great artist, he set out to preserve the works of those who were. Stalin’s oppression of artistic freedom meant defying or deceiving authority, but working to his great advantage was the fact that he was almost literally in the middle of nowhere, away from prying eyes and able to put together an incredible collection and eventually house it in a museum.

Ben Kingsley narrates as the voice of Savitsky himself, using extracts from his own writings, and other voices including Ed Asner and Sally Field are used to bring the words of the artists themselves to life. Interspersed with this are comments from some of the artists’ descendants and friends, and other commentators who have been able to assess the impact of this work on the history of twentieth century art. The structure works well, and paints a compelling narrative, articulating the struggles that some of the artists had to endure to be able to express any kind of artistic freedom and the importance of the work that Savitsky initiated to preserve their intent.

But the key selling point is the artwork itself, the lush photography bringing out the extraordinary colours of many of the works to their fullest, and for the vast majority of us unable to make the trek to Uzbekistan any time soon this documentary serves as both a useful history and a fascinating portal into the artworks themselves. The modern day curator resists any temptation to break up the collection, such is its importance still regarded, and one hopes that this collection will continue to stand the test of time; in any event, this documentary serves as a fitting tribute to its creator.

Why see it at the cinema: To be able to appreciate on a grand scale the full impact of such an impressive collection of art, and to be able to fully immerse yourself in its richness.

The Score: 8/10

One thought on “Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

    […] year’s Half Dozen, but there were some real gems in there. I may not have seen the likes of The Desert Of Forbidden Art, Pelican Blood, Dark Souls or The People vs George Lucas if there weren’t playing at a […]

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