Saparmurat Niyazov was a dangerous and evil loon as dictator of Turkmenistan, and his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow—who this movie points out looks eerily like him—seems to be cut from the same cloth.
Even as wacky dictators go, Niyazov was toward the really bizarre, Idi Amin, end of the scale. He’s uncomfortably similar to how one might expect Sacha Baron Cohen to describe the head of state of Borat’s fictitious version of Kazakhstan.
The Finnish documentary Shadow of the Holy Book highlights one aspect of Niyazov’s nutty rule, and it skewers multinational corporations for sucking up to Niyazov (the country is rich in oil). Both of those things are fine and are worth covering, but it’s disappointing that the film does so little else with a topic that has a lot of potential.
There are at least two apparent reasons the film fails to cover more ground. One, this is a shorter, TV version of an original film almost twice as long. It’s entirely possible that the full film goes into a lot more areas and feels a lot less thin.
Two, the filmmakers spend a lot of time documenting their own filmmaking, their own (almost always unsuccessful) efforts to interview people and “get the story.” This is not entirely bereft of humor and interest, but it was a lot more clever and original in Roger and Me. Here it’s just OK.
At least that device succeeds in its purpose of providing emphasis to the fact that the laughingly slimy corporations prostrating themselves before Niyazov to make a buck want their behavior to remain as deep in the shadows as possible.
And it also leads to one of the more surprising and impressive elements of the film, when the head of one of the corporations—a smaller Finnish one as opposed to the mostly big name multinational corporations—not only agrees to be interviewed on camera, but insists on it. He pretty much apologizes for his corporation’s behavior—we lowered ourselves and sucked up to the guy for a while, based partly on what we found out about his human rights record we realized we were in the wrong to do so, we stopped, and we’re sorry we went even as far as we did down that road.
It doesn’t even come across as spin, as an attempt to evade or put the best face he can on his company’s behavior. Just a guy admitting they screwed up.
It’s possible that some cynical interpretation of it is accurate, that really they only pulled out of Turkmenistan because their ass-kissing didn’t work or they feared the negative publicity, rather than for any moral reasons, but he seems pretty real. And I kind of like thinking that once in a blue moon someone who heads up a corporation manages to stay at least partly human.
The element of Niyazov’s rule that the movie spends the most time on is his authoring (or having someone else author and release under his name) the Ruhnama, which is evidently a rambling, disorganized, quasi-religious book of philosophy, poems, legends, stories, supernaturalism, etc., etc.
Unfortunately though the book is talked about at length in the movie, its contents are touched on only very briefly. But it glorifies the Turkmen race (apparently we’re all descended from them, as they were the original people), and presents Niyazov himself as at the very least one of the greatest Prophets, if not divine.
It sounds so ludicrous it’s hard to believe anyone could take it seriously and not see it as blatantly dishonest and self-serving (or the product of a delusional mind if he really believed any of it), but then I’d say the exact same things about the laughable and dishonest works of Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard (and plenty of the writings of the older religions for that matter), and plenty of people take those awfully seriously.
Citizens of Turkmenistan learn the book at all levels of schooling. And not just in a perfunctory manner; students must be able to recite from it from memory, as must those applying for a government job or a driver’s license.
Don’t feel too bad for them though. It turns out that anyone who reads the book three times automatically gets into Heaven. (Niyazov got that straight from God—that is, Allah, since this sect he invented is a version of Islam—so we know it’s true.)
The book serves as the primary way the multinational corporations get on his good side and get sweetheart government contracts. They praise it, pay to have it translated into their language, in at least one case even erected a giant statue of it. All of which Niyazov then holds out to his people as evidence that even powerful foreigners take him and them very seriously and believe in the Ruhnama, thus further solidifying his rule.
This is just one of those things in life that you can’t satirize, because it’s sillier than anything you could replace it with to represent it.
It would be good to have more in this film about Niyazov’s rule and about Turkmenistan. There’s a little bit about some of the human rights abuses—interviews with dissidents who escaped from the country after imprisonment and torture and such—but almost all of the film’s about the place of the Ruhnama in Turkmenistan society, how the corporations have cooperated with Niyazov, and how they won’t talk to these documentarians about it.
Certainly Niyazov is one of the most insane of the dictators, but there are a lot of truly awful regimes around the world. What this film put me in mind of is the fact that at any given time there are dozens of such regimes that are all quite evil and/or dangerous, but the U.S. government (followed eagerly by the lapdog mainstream media) picks out a certain small fraction to move against for its own reasons.
For this month or this year or this decade, that country or countries becomes an urgent problem that must be dealt with, its leader(s) the next Hitler. At its most ludicrous and most Orwellian, it’s even a regime the U.S. previously supported (see Noriega, Manuel, or Hussein, Saddam). Meanwhile the other five or fifty dictators every bit as bad aren’t worthy of such attention, because, temporarily at least, their continued rule is to the benefit of the sort of people who build statues of the Ruhnama in order to become an iota more filthy rich.
History condemns Neville Chamberlain because he wasn’t tough enough soon enough in confronting Hitler, but where then does that leave the multitude of capitalists who not only don’t oppose strongly enough, but actively suck up to, the worst of the worst dictators? And not just those somehow Hitler-like, but Hitler himself—there was no shortage of industrialists inside and outside Germany who cooperated with the Nazi regime way, way more than Chamberlain ever did.
Bomb Saddam and kiss Niyazov’s ass today, and if something in oil politics shifts tomorrow, then do the opposite. And trust that too few people will notice the inconsistency to raise a stink.