This 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 Soviet regime, a small group of artists remain true to their vision despite threats of torture, imprisonment, and death. Their plight inspires young Igor Savitsky, a frustrated painter of aristocratic extraction who'd landed in Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan's autonomous northwestern republic) as an archaeologist. He became fascinated by the region's folk art. Decades of Sovietization had devalued such distinctively ethnic artifacts to the point that collecting elaborate handmade garments, jewelry, carpets, and the like initially got Savitsky branded a "rubbish man." Yet he eventually obtained funds to open a museum in 1966 for those objects. Its location far from Moscow censorship also allowed him to pursue what became his real passion: finding and acquiring modern art so out of sync with official taste that it was virtually banned.
Pretending to buy state-approved art, Savitsky instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden works. 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 Bolshevik 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.
Around the saga of Savitsky and the artists in his collection, the filmmakers weave the cultural and political context of the times, setting side-by-side images from the collection with rare Soviet archival film and stills. For instance, in 1934, 160,000 peasants were forced to build the gigantic Ferghana canal with nothing more than shovels and picks in order to irrigate the Uzbek desert for cotton growing. The stark images dissolve into paintings of this utopian endeavor by artist Alexander Volkov.
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 historic footage, the film takes us on a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom. Described by the New York Times as "one of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art" 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?