A woman of regal countenance galloping in slow motion across a verdant landscape. The cinematographer’s art of seduction reigns supreme. "Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains" never fails to satisfy.
Yet the Kyrgyz film’s greatest achievement is not simply serving as a welcome massage for eyes accustomed to a drabber three-dimensional world, but rather that "Kurmanjan Datka" actually consists of two films in one.
On the one hand, there is the film that so impressed Hollywood actress Sharon Stone that she is employing her celebrity clout to promote the film, which is representing Kyrgyzstan in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards. But what she is endorsing is the version of the production that functions as a living, breathing “brand” for the nation to the outside world.
But the film has another purpose: to foster ethno-nationalist sentiments for the sake of uniting a fractured state.
Sultan Raev, a former Kyrgyz minister of culture, contributed to the screenplay, and a hefty amount of the film's $1.5 million budget -- a record for a Kyrgyz film -- came from public funds.
The timing of the film's release is genius, for it brilliantly employs historical motifs for the purpose of molding moral actions in the political present.
The drama opens in a serious tone, describing how although the Kyrgyz people had mighty beginnings, invading powers like the Mongols and Tamerlane drove them to the "verge of extinction.” Thus, we enter the historical present of the late 19th century at an equally fragile time for the Kyrgyz, who are portrayed as the semireluctant lackeys of the Kokand Khanate.
Enter the Russians on the imperial scene, and it appears that between Kokand and the Kremlin, the Kyrgyz are in dire need of a hero.
WATCH: The official trailer for "Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains"
Kurmanjan Datka, a real historical figure known as the Tsaritsa of Alai, proves herself to be such a hero, though she was not born with this destiny in mind. She defies her arranged marriage and actively forges her own fate by aligning with a local leader for a scandalously successful self-made match. It is not until her clan is attacked that she is reborn as a queen, a development symbolized in the film by a newborn baby’s cry.
She turns out to be a brilliant military strategist and public orator, delivering a patriotic speech inspiring her comrades not to “give land to the enemy” and to be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children’s happiness.
Despite the fact that the movie describes the Kyrgyz as nearly facing “extinction,” she invokes the Kyrgyz epic hero Manas as a model and praises her people for having never conceded territory without a fight.
Thus, we have a feminist warrior who would appeal to Sharon Stone, and a royal mother who is willing to make sacrifices for the greater good -- a moral model for other Kyrgyz to emulate. The concessions that Kurmanjan Datka must make are to the Russians, who she quickly realizes would annihilate her fragile Kyrgyz confederation. The climax of the film is when she allows her favorite son to be executed by the Russians in order to avoid future bloodbaths. This is when it becomes apparent that Kurmanjan is not just a mother but the founding mother of the Kyrgyz nation.
While the movie deftly manages to elevate nationalist pride while conceding defeat to the Russian empire, the manner in which the occupation is portrayed is designed to erase the uncomfortable reality of structural inequality. For instance, language plays a pivotal role throughout the film as an index of Kyrgyz strength.
When a Russian general comes to meet Kurmanjan Datka in her home, he immediately greets her with, in Kyrgyz, “Salamatsizby.” He engages in pleasantries in Kyrgyz as a gesture of respect, but then they proceed to discuss serious matters of the state in Russian -- a reality that is no doubt perpetuated in Bishkek today, despite the government’s best efforts to promote greater use of Kyrgyz.
Later, the same general tells the queen that her Kyrgyz soldiers are of such high caliber that they serve as a model to the Russian soldiers. Such a level of respect shown by the Russians is ironic, given the recent reality of Russia’s behavior toward Central Asia and other Soviet satellite states.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, recently insulted Kazakhs by declaring that their claim to ancient statehood is a historical fabrication. For Kyrgyz who are in a similarly awkward boat with regard to their own history, not only does this film “prove” that they have deep historical roots, it demonstrates that Russians do, in fact, respect their sovereignty. It is a kind of wish fulfillment for a country that relies heavily on sending migrant workers in Russia who, despite enduring hardships amid a tide of growing xenophobia, send remittances home to their families -- particularly in the south.
It is Kyrgyzstan’s north-south divide that Kurmanjan addresses in a timely fashion through her call for Kyrgyz to discard their “tribal” differences. On the other hand, the large ethnic minority communities of Uzbeks in the south and Russians in the north would be unlikely to feel included in the film’s unifying message. The film effectively yokes the land to the Kyrgyz ethnos, as the characters affirm their deep spiritual connection to the stunning scenery. Kurmanjan’s son, as he leaves his home, solemnly declares, “My heart will return me to these mountains.”
The lush landscapes that showcase Kyrgyzstan’s greatest treasures -- from its pristine lakes to rugged red hills -- highlight the dual character of the film. On the one hand, it can be used to attract foreign tourism by highlighting the country's geographic riches, while the film's beauty also reifies the attachment of Kyrgyz to their own land.
Bolstering such patriotism is crucial, especially when the government is funding the most expensive film in its history even as large swaths of the country remain without basic resources like gas or electricity.
Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital” of Osh has been without gas for more than half a year, and winter is nigh. The current levels of electricity will not be sufficient to sustain the heating and cooking needs of the most densely populated corner of the country.
So far, the financial gamble has proved successful, as the film has moved audiences both in Kyrgyzstan and abroad. At a recent screening at the Harvard School of Law, the largely Central Asian audience offered lavish praise for the director, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, and lead actress Elina Abai Kyzy, who were both in attendance.
Despite attempts to prod Sher-Niyaz into discussing his film's geopolitical implications, he refused all attempts to read between the lines and insisted on the film’s complete historical fidelity.
As the riveting plot and dramatic scenery intertwined, the two sides of the film revealed themselves. In Sharon Stone’s version, Kyrgyzstan is introduced to the world -- an “unknown land,” as the official video to promote the nation self-consciously addresses its marginalized global status. Then there was the sense of pride that one young Kyrgyz girl in the audience described by saying, “Other people wouldn’t understand, but I feel this movie in my heart.”
Speaking in Kyrgyz, what she meant was, non-Kyrgyz people would not experience the film at the same emotional level that she had.
Nevertheless, the film has something for everyone because it fulfills our innermost longings: to flee to a far-off place of stunning beauty, or to find out that it was home all along.
-- Emily Canning
Emily Canning is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University who is currently writing her dissertation on language and ethnic identity in southern Kyrgyzstan. She conducted 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Osh, which culminated in a Fulbright fellowship from August 2012 to June 2013.