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The Desert of Forbidden Art: A Thrilling Story, A Visual Treat

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The art collectors Getty, Huntington & Broad are world-renowned for their cultural contributions and good taste. The new documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art traces the life of Russian aristocrat-turned-archaeologist-turned-artist Igor Savitsky, whose collection at Uzbekistan's Nukus Museum of Art has a more unique history and reception.

Equal parts Indiana Jones & Quentin Tarantino, Savitsky's passion project aims to preserve local Uzbek culture and Russian avant-garde for the people. While appreciated today, until the fall of the Soviet Union he was seen as a trash collector adrift in the desert, obsessing over works which offended the aesthetic sensibility of his Soviet comrades at best and were outright banned by Stalin's regime at worst.

First things first: The Desert of Forbidden Art proves engaging even if you know nyet about Soviet history or avant-garde art. USC Professor John Bowlt & former NY Times Bureau Chief Stephen Kinzer unlock the significance of the desert region that shelters this artistic oasis. Kinzer is especially energetic, laying out a history of Soviet settlements, archaeological digs, over-irrigation, and how all came together to foster a Russian avant-garde movement. While Moscow terraformed the culture with sweeping epics pushing Stalin's cult of personality, fringe artists fell in with the ethnic Uzbeks.

Painters melded folk aesthetics & local customs (including elements of Sufi Islam) with anti-authoritarian critique to create bold works which captured the difficult and dignified struggle of desert laborers. In return, their bodies were brutalized while their works were broken into kindling. Any art left intact was literally left to rot in frightened relatives' homes. To quote Prof. Bowlt, the artists were "removed like a microbe" from "[the] healthy body" of Soviet propaganda.

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Enter Igor Savitsky, born into the bourgeoisie and left in the cold by the Revolution of 1917. By day, he labored on work crews, while also working tirelessly to perfect his craft. When his own paintings were laughed out of Moscow (critics likened his colorful, abstract figures to the work of a child playing with paint), he escaped to distant archaeological digs. There he found his life's passion. Though some rough excerpts show Savitsky organizing his collection, no interviews with him survive. Ben Kingsley brings him back to life by narrating excerpts from his letters and diary entries.

Of course, Savitsky is only half the story. As its subject matter is virtually unknown to most viewers, The Desert of Forbidden Art also serves as capsule biographies of Savitsky's most prized artists, including Alexander Volkov, Ural Tansykbayev & Lyubov Popova. Declassified KGB files & testimony from surviving family members reveal portraits of (literally) tortured artists; most died in state-run "mental hospitals" or gulags. Despite all efforts of eradication, artists' accounts survived and are here performed by Sally Field, Ed Asner & Igor Paramanov.

Wisely, directors Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev leave the editorializing to the art itself. It's easy to understand Savitsky's obsession: the paintings are gorgeous, with vibrant palettes & multi-cultural mash-ups. It's even easier to see how much these works upset the Soviet social order. In a telling anecdote, the museum's current director, Marinaika Babanazarova, explains how one painting was displayed as complete for years until the discovery of KGB photos that revealed more than two thirds had been cut & destroyed.

The Desert of Forbidden Art does become a bit muddled on the back-end when it introduces a barrage of modern threats to the gallery - Islamic fundamentalists aiming to destroy the collection & private Western collectors looking to loot it. Ironically, the very desert that protected the museum for so long may prove to be its ultimate undoing; without proper facilities, Babanazarova & staff frantically place open tubs of water to humidify the paintings. But this is a minor quibble. The Desert of Forbidden Art is a triumph, not a tragedy; it shares its subject's craftiness and dedication to what would otherwise be lost in the sands.

The Desert of Forbidden Art opens this weekend at the Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The filmmakers will be present at screenings all week. An abridged version premieres on PBS' Independent Lens on Tuesday, April 5th at 10PM.