Hollywood Comes to Kyrgyzstan

11 07 2009

Have you ever dreamed of being a movie star,” my colleague at work asked.

I guess when a question like this is posed, you know it’s going to be an unusual day.

As it turned out, a pair of filmmakers from Brazil were shooting a documentary on microfinance and the impact it has on the lives of clients. Their plan was to travel the globe for 10 months and record clients, loan officers, and other microfinance specialists in every place they come through. After visiting Russia and several other countries, they were coming to Kyrgyzstan and turned to our organization to help them with the logistics.

On a 1-day notice, it was arranged for them to meet and interview several of our clients and staff members in the Issyk-Kul region (about 4 hours away from Bishkek). My colleague, Renat, was organizing the whole project and was supposed to accompany them for a couple of days. He asked if I wanted to come along to observe and help with the translation.

Never passing on a chance to do a bit of travelling (especially for free!), I jumped at the offer. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to see a few new places in Kyrgyzstan, get to interact with micro-finance clients, and see the process of shooting a documentary first-hand. I think that’s the best thing about this job – completely random experiences that present themselves that you’d never get to do otherwise. So, the bags were packed and we were off the next day.

Day 1 – The Road North

We picked up Angelika and Gustavo, the brazilian filmmakers, in the early morning from their hotel and headed to a town called Balykchi, which starts at the Issyk-Kul lake. The lake, actually, deserves a post all of its own. It’s the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world – 182km in length and 60km in width. It has over 118 rivers flow into it and 0 that flow out. It is immensely popular among the Kyrgyz people. I think that every local that I meet asks me if I visited the lake yet and, when I say no, they insist that I must before I leave.

Although the lake itself is a big tourist attraction, Balychki itself was pretty dead. After the fall of the USSR, virtually all of its industrial base collapsed. There are very few job opportunities here, so a huge number of people leave to look for work elsewhere. It looks pretty deserted at times with abandoned buildings and your typical Soviet architecture.

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A typical neighborhood.

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Buildings seem to be placed randomly on this giant concrete area. No playgrounds, grass or trees nearby.

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Abandoned building - there are many of them all over the city.

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The first day, the filmmakers wanted to interview several loan officers and a credit manager. We arrived to the regional branch to set everything up.

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Regional Branch Office in Balykchi

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The Film Set - pretty glamorous, eh?

The actual shooting was done in the yard in order to take advantage of the better lighting. The staff was pretty excited to take part in this project and jokes were flying about them winding up in Hollywood, as a result.

The actual process of interviewing was quite interesting. Angelika – the interviewer – was a psychologist by profession, so the questions tried to really dig deep and approach the interviewee from multiple angles. She would ask the questions in English, which I would translate them to the interviewee, listen to the answer (which would sometimes be several minutes long), and then would attempt to translate the response back into English.

I have to admit that it proved to be quite challenging. I figured that thinking and speaking in two languages simultaneously is difficult, but I didn’t realize just how much. Having to remember a 5-minute answer and then translating it into English from memory wasn’t easy. After this, I have even a greater respect for interpreters (you know who you are :)) and the work they do.

After completing three interviews, it was already past 8pm, so we decided to call it a night and continue our work tomorrow. We put up the guests in the company’s guesthouse, while my colleague and I set out to find a place to spend a night ourselves. There were several “hotels” around, but it always amuses me how different they are from the ones in the West. This particular “gostinica” was basically several apartments in a regular building:

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Entrance to our "hotel".

Not very well advertised :)

Not very well advertised :)


Day 2 – Talking to the Clients

The following morning, we set out to another town – Kochkor – to visit a couple of clients and interview them.

The lonely road

The lonely road

Gustavo, the cameraman, taking in the surroundings.

Gustavo, the cameraman, taking in the surroundings.

Kochkor office of Mol Bulak, right next to their competitor – Kompanion. I find it interesting that they seem to follow the same model as the fast food joints – wherever a McDonalds opens, a Burger King will soon follow. Same appears to be happening here.

Kochkor office of Mol Bulak, right next to their competitor – Kompanion. I find it interesting that they seem to follow the same model as the fast food joints – wherever a McDonalds opens, a Burger King will soon follow. Same appears to be happening here.

Throughout the day, we interviewed three clients – an artisan producing national rugs, a woodwork shop owner, and a family running a cookie baking business. Each interview was over an hour and offered fascinating insights into the lives of these inspiring business owners. It was much more detailed than any other interviews I’ve done for Kiva in the past, so it showed many more dimensions to the client.

The one that I’d like to share with you was the last one – a husband and wife who opened up their own cookie baking “bakery”. She used to be an accountant, he ran his own small business. But eventually, they took out a small loan, added their own savings, and started their own bakery. Within a year, they were able to expand pretty well and currently employ 7 people.

Here are some shots:

This is where the magic happens. The owner dreams of buying a specialized baking machine, but that costs over $1,500, so that will have to wait. Meantime, they make do with 5 regular ovens.

This is where the magic happens. The owner dreams of buying a specialized baking machine, but that costs over $1,500, so that will have to wait. Meantime, they make do with 5 regular ovens.

Two of their employees getting started on the shift.

Two of their employees getting started on the shift.

Mixing the eggs. The cookies are made of all natural ingredients.

Mixing the eggs. The cookies are made of all natural ingredients.

The other room of the house has been converted into the packing area. All of the cookies are gently packed into boxes before being driven to Bishkek for sale.

The other room of the house has been converted into the packing area. All of the cookies are gently packed into boxes before being driven to Bishkek for sale.

They taste as good as they look.

They taste as good as they look.

The baking is done during the night, so the employees typically start at 5pm and finish in the early morning. Their salary is about 3,000 – 4,000 soms per month ($70-95), but they seem to be quite happy to be employed at all. In this town, jobs are scarce and this is considered a decent wage.

Husband and wife that started the business. They both work about 18 hours a day – as they have to oversee the process and make the 8-hour trip to the capital every 2 days to distribute the cookies and purchase additional materials.

Husband and wife that started the business. They both work about 18 hours a day – as they have to oversee the process and make the 8-hour trip to the capital every 2 days to distribute the cookies and purchase additional materials.

There was something special about this particular business. Although you could see that it was hard work for everybody involved, people seemed relatively happy and optimistic about the future. The owner himself was brimming with energy, so you couldn’t help but get infected with it.

The filmmakers got what they came for and we returned back to Bishkek late at night. It was definitely a great work-trip. And the best thing is that there is another 3-day trip to the South of the country that starts on Monday.

The whole team enjoying a quick dinner. Gustavo, the cameraman; David – previous Kiva Fellow who is currently serving 2 years in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps, waitress, Angelika – the filmmaker; and Renat – credit manager at Mol Bulak.

The whole team enjoying a quick dinner. Gustavo, the cameraman; David – previous Kiva Fellow who is currently serving 2 years in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps, waitress, Angelika – the filmmaker; and Renat – credit manager at Mol Bulak.


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