IT'S LIKE the Nativity all over again. In the high pastures of an Eastern land, a vision appears before shepherds - bathed in the light emitted by a 50-year-old projector.
Zarylbek, a projectionist from Kirghizstan in the former USSR, runs a travelling cinema from his caravan. Towing it first by jeep and then by horseback along the high-altitude mule-tracks, he reaches the Kirghiz nomads. Every summer, the caravan tours the encampments, or "djaloos", that are set up on the highest plateaux. Zarylbek's arrival at a djaloo signals an occasion for tournaments and banquets; he is also often invited to bring his magic to celebratory events such as births, weddings and religious feasts. So the timelines of these nomads' lives are now marked not in verse or song, but in Russian subtitles.
Zarylbek's "cinema caravan" is one of 960 that were introduced by the Soviet culture ministry to spread Communist propaganda to the 70,000 nomadic mountain shepherds. But since Kirghizstan's independence in 1991, Hollywood movies have replaced the films exalting Soviet industrialisation, collectivisation and family values. Today, Zarylbek's is one of the few remaining cinema caravans: the rest have disappeared.
Darkness falls. The tribe gathers around one of the large yurts, and Zarylbek mounts the reels on to his Ukraine 1 projector. Images of Tom Cruise or Richard Gere flicker on the makeshift screen, and the audience pick at their cornbread with yak's butter - the Kirghiz answer to popcorn.
For most of these shepherds, Zarylbek's visits are their only encounter with Western culture. The drive-in movie takes on a whole new meaning as the Kirghizs sit in the open, watching distant stars.
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