On the very long list of people who might be deeply offended by Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy "The Dictator," Islam Karimov would seem to rank right near the top.
Uzbekistan's president has been in power for nearly a quarter century, and although the dour Karimov can't match international peers like the late Muammar Qaddafi in outlandish comedic potential, he is part of a shrinking autocratic class put squarely in the crosshairs of Baron Cohen's stinging satire.
But it turns out that Karimov might have a sense of humor after all.
Though the movie is not being screened in neighboring Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the film is playing in Uzbek theaters in truncated form. The decision has left some Uzbek moviegoers scratching their heads.
"I can't understand why they're still running the movie," says 21-year old photographer Timurmalik Ahmedov, who spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service after watching the film in Tashkent this week. "The implicit message is that because they're showing this film, there's no dictator here, which is absurd."
The version Ahmedov saw in the theater isn't the one most audiences worldwide watched, however. Cinema workers in Tashkent say that of the original 83-minute run time, 20 minutes of "rude language" and "inappropriate episodes" were cut. (Given the film’s plentiful ribaldry, it’s hard to believe local censors were content to leave the other 63 minutes intact.)
Editing to taste didn't seem to sap "The Dictator" of its central message, however.
"I was there with my friends, and we knew exactly what the object of this humor was. We were laughing at ourselves," Ahmedov says. "We liked the end, which looked like Charlie Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator.'"
Not all Uzbeks are publicly convinced that Baron Cohen's "heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed" has anything to do with Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan.
One employee at Tashkent's Grand Cinema, who did not give his name, insisted that the film should not be construed as a commentary on domestic politics.
"No, no, no, it's not against President Karimov," he says. "If we ran that kind of movie, we would be in grave trouble. It's just a comedy that has nothing to do with Karimov."
But Ahmedov felt that the "The Dictator" accurately captured a few uncomfortable truths about his own society, where the president has been accused of using his decades-long rule to enrich his family and friends.
Upon encountering a chauffeured limousine directly outside the cinema after the movie, Ahmedov says that he and his friends began laughing and taking photographs before being shooed away by security guards.
"The person sitting in that car did not like our laughter," he says. "The comedy we saw in the theater continued outside."
-- Shukhrat Babajanov and Charles Dameron