Catalogues All | Arts & Culture | History THE DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART

Category All , Arts & Culture , History
Year: 2010
Country: USA
Running Time: 52' | 80'
Production: A Pope Productions
Director: Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev
Official Website:

The incredible story of how a treasure trove of banned Soviet art worth millions of dollars was stashed in a far-off desert of Uzbekistan develops into a larger exploration of how art survives in times of oppression.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, a small group of artists remain true to their vision despite threats of torture, imprisonment and death. Their plight inspires a young archeologist (and frustrated painter) Igor Savitsky. Pretending to buy State-approved art, Stavisky instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist's works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. He amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art. But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They develop a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.

Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists. Intercut with recollections of the artists' children and rare archival footage, the film takes us on a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom. Described as “one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art” by the New York Times and located in one of the world's poorest regions, today these priceless paintings are a lucrative target for Islamic fundamentalists, corrupt bureaucrats and art profiteers. The collection remains as endangered as when Savitsky first created it, posing the question whose responsibility is it to preserve this cultural treasure.

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We were filming in Tashkent, Uzbekistan just finishing a two year production on grassroots reformers in the former Soviet Union. Neither of us had ever been to Central Asia before and tales of Uzbekistan's ancient Silk Road and the fabled blue-tiled domes of Samarkand, one of ancient world's most dazzling capitals, sparked our interest. But then we were told of a cultural treasure from our own time, a museum of Soviet era forbidden Avant-Garde art in a far off desert at the extreme Western border of Uzbekistan. The improbability of the story was arresting: an amazing art collection, created single-handedly by one penniless man, in the desert, a poor region, in an Islamic country suspicious of art created by their former colonizers.

We have both been drawn to stories about stubborn, unsung people with vision who challenge the boundaries of their times. We first met as professor and student at University of Southern California's film school. Our partnership on equal footing across generations might have seemed unlikely. But we complimented each other perfectly. Having grown up in the former USSR, Tchavdar had his roots in Eastern European and Russian culture, while Amanda's strength came from a background in teaching and making documentary films on art and the dynamics of creativity.

What we discovered in the stories surrounding the Savitsky Collection, was a constellation of indomitable idealists. First there were the artists like Yevgeny Lysenko whose blue bull painting Fascism Is Advancing was labeled anti-Soviet. His creativity landed him in a mental hospital. There was the original Collector who defied a totalitarian regime and amassed 40,000 artworks for his museum often by giving IOU's promising payment in 10 or 12 years. And finally we met the current Museum director, Marinika Babanzarova, who has fought off government bureaucrats and art sharks as they tried to raid the prizes of the Collection, and Islamic fundamentalists ready to destroy the art just as they did the great Bamiyan sculptures in Afghanistan.

We realized we had the opportunity in this story to explore 80 years of an ever-changing relationship between the Islamic world and the West through the lens of artists who lived in these times.

Unfortunately, due to political and economic conditions in Central Asia today, the Savitsky Collection could cease to exist in its present form at any time. We hope this film will function as an advocacy tool and a catalyst to protect this unique 20th century cultural institution.

- Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev


More about Director

Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev

AMANDA POPE – Producer / Director

Amanda Pope's directing, producing, writing, and editing credits over her more than 20 year long career include award-winning documentary, dramatic, and social advocacy programs. Her work has focused on the dynamics of creativity in fine art, public art happenings, urban design, theatre and dance. Her award-winning public television documentaries: Jackson Pollock Portrait, Stages: Houseman Directs Lear, and Cities for People have all been broadcast nationally on PBS. Most recently she directed The Legend Of Pancho Barnes And The Happy Bottom Riding Club about a pioneer woman aviator. Her program series, Faces Of Change, documented grassroots reformers and emerging leaders in the former USSR. She has served on the Board of New York Women in Film, the Women in Film Foundation in Los Angeles, and has been a jury member for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences student films, and the International Documentary Association's feature documentaries. Amanda is an Associate Professor in production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.


Tchavdar Georgiev has produced, associate produced or edited award-winning fiction and non-fiction films as well as TV programming for ABC, PBS, History Channel, National Geographic, Channel 1 Russia and MTV Russia.

He was one of the editors on the documentary We Live in Public which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the feature Bastards which won the MTV Russia awards for best film. His editing credits include: National Geographic's' Alien Earths, Divining the Human: The Cathedral Tapestries of John Nava, narrated by Edward James Olmos, Marion's Triumph, narrated by Debra Messing, Maybe Baby, View from a Grain of Sand, and Refusenik. He has cut commercials for Honda, Oscar de la Renta, Rooms to Go, Tele 2 Mobile Europe and MTV Russia.

He directed a PSA for the 100th anniversary of the Santa Monica Pier and the documentary Kosher Messiah and worked with his mentor professor Amanda Pope as associate producer and editor on Faces of Change for the Eurasia Foundation filming grassroots reformers in the former USSR.


Festivals & Awards

2011 MoMA Documentary Fortnight Film Festival, USA

2011 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, Greece

2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival, USA

2011 London International Documentary Film Festival, UK

2010 Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, Canada
Won 2010 Cine Golden Eagle Award

2010 Palm Beach International Film Festival, USA
Won Best Documentary Award

2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, USA

2010 Prescott Film Festival, USA
Won Best Documentary Award

2010 Cleveland International Film Festival, USA

2010 Vancouver International Film Festival, Canada

2010 DocAviv Film Festival, Israel

2010 It's All True International Documentary Festival, Brazil

2010 Cambridge Film Festival, UK

2010 Globians DocFest, Germany

2010 Bejing International Film Festival, China
Won Audience Award

2010 DMZ Docs, South Korea

2010 Documentary Edge, New Zealand

2010 Sofia Independent Film Festival, Bulgaria

2010 Muestra International Documenttary Encounters, Colombia

2010 Culture & Cultures, France

2010 Atlanta Film Festival, USA

2010 Bend Film Festival, USA

2010 STARZ Denver International Film Festival, USA

2010 Cinequest Film Festival, USA

2010 Newport Beach International Film Festival, USA

2010 Maine International Film Festival, USA

2010 Kansas International Film Festival, USA
Won Audience Award

2010 Savannah Film Festival, USA

2010 United Nations Association Film Festival, USA

2010 Artivist Film Festival, USA

2010 Sonoma Film Festival, USA

2010 Wisconsin Film Festival, USA

2010 Heartland International Film Festival, USA

2010 Hot Springs Documentary Festival, USA

2010 Big Muddy Film Festival, USA

2010 Naples Film Festival, USA

2010 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, USA

2010 Lone Star Film Festival, USA

2010 White Horse on the Yukon Film Festival, Canada

2010 Black Nights Film Festival, Estonia

2010 Bogota Film Festival, Columbia

2010 Planet Doc Review, Poland

Press & Reviews

"Decadent Russian Art, Still Under the Boot¹s Shadow. ...A gorgeous documentary. ...One of the most remarkable collections of 20th-century Russian art."
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"An astonishing trove of Russian avant-garde art and the man who collected it are the focus of this fascinating new documentary. The Desert of Forbidden Art tells a tale that is stranger than fiction several times over. Viewers of this remarkable documentary will be astonished at not only what this art looks like and why it's forbidden, but also where it is and how it got there."
Kenneth Turan, LA TIMES

"A must-see for anyone interested in art."

"This is a story that is almost too good to be true. The fascinating and improbable story of Stavisky's life and his obsession is the subject of a new, extremely eloquent and captivating documentary film."

"Fascinating Story, well-crafted film captures the flavor of the region, but the most arresting sights are inevitably those of the bold, richly colored paintings themselves."
Dennis Harvey, VARIETY

"Critic's Pick! Fans of art and of Russian and Central Asian culture in particular will be fascinated."

"Gorgeous to look at and horrible in its revelations, The Desert of Forbidden Art achieves what documentaries do best, uncovering and exploring a world that the viewer probably had no idea existed."

"An amazing, inspirational film... Reveals one of the great secrets of modern art. A gem."

"The Desert of Forbidden Art provides a dramatic examination of the power of art against forces of repressive tyranny."

The film blends lively protagonists with images of artworks that blend influences from the School of Paris, Russian Constructivism and the Islamic cultures of Uzbekistan."











"The Desert of Forbidden Art proves that, in many societies, the creation of art is a scream for freedom. As much about Soviet identity in the early 1930s as it is about the museum in Nukus ...creates awareness for a legacy still largely unknown and not fully appreciated. The documentary is inherently interesting, and the hope is that it will do some bidding for the survival of the museum and/or its collection."


"One of the most outstanding museums of the world"