by Richard von Busack
(first reviewed at 13th UNAFF Film Festival, Palo Alto, California)
After being told his art was “daubery” by an artist he respected, well-born Russian archeologist turned artist Igor Savitsky gave up painting and started collecting. Living more than a thousand miles away from the official censors in Moscow in a place called Karakalpakstan, Savitsky began collecting the artifacts of the local tribespeople—“We called him the rubbish man,” says one. He preserved their artifacts even as the Soviet Union’s government was pressuring them to end their folkways. The result today is a world-class collection not just of traditional fabrics and crafts, but of Russian avant-garde 20th century painting kept in a surpassingly remote location. It’s hundreds of works discarded by the philistine arbiters of art during the USSR’s infatuation with Social Realism.
The museum faces an uncertain future: it contains valuables coveted by the international art market. The country is in the path of militant, figurative-art hating Islam. And many paintings are in desperate need of restoration, hanging from fraying canvas threads. How did such a place survive? “Like everything else in the Soviet Union, it was a matter of relationships,” comments one witness. Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgev’s saga of a trove deep in the desert includes interviews with the New York Times’ Stephen Kinzer, who reported on the museum, and voice acting by Ben Kingsley and Ed Asner.