“Wings of Kyrgyzstan” is a beautifully shot documentary film about life on the steppes in a remote mountain country, crossroads of the ancient silk roads. Kyrgyzstan is often dubbed the “Switzerland” of Central Asia, and is a lush land of grazing pastures which was beset upon by Soviet occupation with the forced settlement of its semi-nomadic residents.
Recently independent, the country faces high unemployment, and a drain of young people to the lure of income in the Middle East. The great epic stories passed down for thousands of years are rich with the powerful equine and hero traditions which shape the character and aspirations of Kyrgyzstan’s young men and women, and the endeavor to define national and personal identity here is strong.
For millennia, the horse has been used for working, for sport and for food, and they are central to culture and survival. The horse is considered the “wings of man” and they are a captivating part of every family’s story. The filmmakers spent three seasons embedded with several families to capture their deeply personal narratives and lives, and the film is elevated with the music and soaring voices of the traditional folk ensemble Ordo Sakhna.
Across Kyrgyzstan, semi-nomadic mountain people awake and they milk their horses and cook over smokey fires. Ordinary life as it has been for thousands of years. Newlyweds Urmat and Ayker rise at dawn to release hundreds of sheep to graze on the lush grass carpeting the landscape. Their fire is built from animal dung, and the entirety of their possessions hang on a peg by the door. Urmat has pinned his hopes on a beautiful pacing horse that he is training, riding across the valleys, his lyrical songs echoing against the mountains. Urmat's prized horse is a fine racer with an extraordinary ability to "pace" using a parallel gait which is highly sought after for its comfort and speed over long distances. Here in this stunning “lost valley”, Urmat merges the ancient traditions of horsemanship and husbandry with his youthful ambitions for physical heroism and celebrity. As he leaps onto his horse, racing down the rocky slopes, his wife watches him - a tiny figure in a vast landscape - miles from their neighbors. Everyday she rides down the valley on a donkey to collect water before preparing a simple meal of noodles and soup. Like many others in Kyrgyzstan, this couple struggles to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. They are trying to bridge the traditional aspirations of their parents with their youthful dreams, but their life is lonely, and hard.
In front of their yurt on the high pastures, Mirbek and his wife Jarkyn have set up their summer camp. By their hardworking example, they teach their children the traditional ways. Jarkyn sings about family life as she oversees cooking and the milking, relating the story of how her daughter broke her wrist - falling from a horse when sent to bring down the sheep. It is up to the boys to tie the foals and look after the camp - which they do with a swagger - young boys on the cusp of manhood. Their youngest son is pure mischief - always pulling on his father’s arm, dangerously stirring the boiling samovar and helping his brother prepare the dead goat for the traditional sport of Ulak Tartysh, a famed and ancient traditional game which pits the strongest riders and horses against each other. Despite their injuries - the boys launch themselves into this brutal war-sport, their horses clashing and ramming and then thundering across the steppe. Mirbek’s middle son displays the daring athleticism of youth, bounding on and off his horse and riding hard into the fray of horses and men - all wrangling to seize the dusty goat carcass. Mirbek’s father and grandfather were renowned saddle-makers, and he believes that though his eldest will attend University, his middle son will stay home and follow in his own footsteps. As he reflects on the future for all his children, the hardships and joys of living a subsistence life unfold before us on the shores of tranquil lake Song-Köl - shining in the midst of green high altitude pastureland filled with horses, sheep and yak and considered the most beautiful in Kyrgyzstan.
The documentary film centers around these two families: Urmat and Ayker; fragile, youthful and full of charismatic potential, and Mirbek and Jarkyn; established, kind and deeply traditional. Both families are center to the kaleidoscope of stories, rich with a variety of characters and their enduring tales from across the country. Jyrgylbek’s family chase off the yaks threatening to overrun their camp, two young horsewomen defy tradition, Almazbek’s family herd their animals along the dangerous highway and a mother in a caravan on an old trade route relates her lost dream of wanting to be an actress. Shylobek Bootaev, a longtime veterinarian and respected elder takes us to the animal bazaar, where the fates of horses are decided with a handshake, and he brings us to the local horserace - where passions run high and fights break out over the winners.
“Wings of Kyrgyzstan” is a captivating story of the beauty and brutality of a culture on the brink of change. Will Urmat and Ayker’s new marriage survive the pressure of living in this remote and lonely place? Will Mirbek’s youngest son ever stop asking his father questions? Can we bear to look at the horses on the trailer who are destined to be slaughtered to celebrate the birth of twins? All these stories unfold amongst the dramatic landscapes, the beautiful faces and the mesmerizing rhythm of life in the magnificent heart of Central Asia.