In the Soviet Union, everything was dictated from the top down, including the distribution of films. The industry was centrally managed by the Department of Cinematography, where plans were made in advance and films were sent out to cinemas. When the whole system fell into disrepair, no sphere was left unscathed, and cinema suffered. "In the 1990s, cinemas began to close, with some turning into furniture shops, but Arman avoided this fate," says Mayra Kubaniyazova, the last Soviet director and current administrator of the cinema.
Films ceased to arrive "from above" and there was no local film market to speak of, but there were private entrepreneurs who would organize screenings. "Then we took films from "private owners", and a few years later there were major companies, rights holders," she says.
"In the summer of 1997, my classmates and I would go to the cinema," recalls Svetlana Romashkina, editor-in-chief of the website Vlast. "The old system of film distribution had long since collapsed, but by some miracle copies of films would occasionally make their way to the screen. At Arman, we saw an American comedy about kids from the other side of the planet. It was amazing that the screen could connect us to these peers of ours who were so much more open and free. "There's no way we'll ever be like them," – we lamented, walking along Abay Avenue after the film."
The reason why actual film screenings became rare was simple. "We didn't have the money to buy films, and a cinema without films is a rental space," says Mayra. Various events began to be held at Arman, and the pioneering nightclub Fakir ran on weekends.
In 1999, the cinema was closed for renovations, to be opened in May 2000 in a new guise. A protruding vestibule was added to the main facade, the interior design changed, but the most significant change was the disappearance of the inner courtyard with its "winter garden." "According to the architect Aleksandr Korzhempo, when he created this space, he wanted it to be a place where people could get away from the noisy city and have some space for themselves before going into a movie," says Svetlana about her meeting with the cinema's designer. "I remember, before the film, my mother and I would sit behind the glass - it seemed to be inside the cinema, but outside at the same time. Nearby were flowers and water, and above was the sky.
"After the renovation, Arman was once again known as a place for cinema, but the nightclub in the courtyard, now more of an atrium after being covered with a roof, remained . The screening rooms were preserved, but the rest of the space was focused on the club, which had modern equipment allowing concerts there to compete with the nearby Palace of the Republic. "It helped us stay afloat. For a few years we survived thanks to the nightclub, but it would be outlasted by the cinema," says Mayra.
Fragment of the sign
Two screenings rooms, Blue and Red, remained, but the cinema's spirit was mixed with the beat of the nightclub
According to her, the staff was worried about the renovation, but everyone understood that this way a new space would be added that could be used, meaning there would be more of a chance to save the cinema. "It was a pity to lose something, but it was a question of time. Every square meter had to bring in money", she says.
"When I saw Arman after the renovation, it was a nightclub, and I went to a Diskoteka Avariya concert there", Svetlana recalls. "The Terminator was riding a motorcycle in the lobby, and on the second floor there was a huge foam gorilla and velour sofas. The summer courtyard was gone. In its place there was a stage, covered from above by a glass pyramid. There were still two screenings rooms, Blue and Red, but the cinema's spirit was mixed with the beat of the nightclub. None of us realized that anything wrong had happened. Arman began to match the aesthetics of the 2000s, now it was "modern". Later I came here more often for parties and concerts, and not to use my ticket to watch a movie."
It was a pity to lose something, but it was a question of time. Every square meter had to bring in money
— Mayra Kubaniyazova, Cinema Administrator
Art Director Bopesh Zhandayev also draws a connection between the cinema's renovation and the people of that moment. "When the club appeared, it was all nouveau riche 90s kitsch. It's like they dressed up Arman in a red blazer and hung it with gold chains; it became ugly, but it withstood it all and stoically survived. Even still, it has a lot of inner potential.
"The nightclub didn't catch on. Maybe the spirit of cinema was stronger? The club, the Terminator, and the gorilla disappeared, even the vestibule which had grown like a tumor. The original Arman survived, avoiding the local trend of post-modern aluminum cladding to resurface in archival photographs and personal memories, newly discovered bas-reliefs and a documentary film, on which we saw how special this place was, the first modernist building in Almaty.