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Qishloq Ovozi

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.

Members of an ethnic Turkmen militia in northern Afghanistan who are fighting the Taliban -- Central Asian states have mostly abandoned efforts to groom ethnic kin as proxies against the Taliban.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has increasingly been warning of a "plague" headed to Central Asia: the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Other Central Asian leaders have also been expressing concerns about IS.

It's interesting that the Tajik president seems so worried about a group that is more than 1,500 kilometers from his country, especially since there is trouble right on his, and Central Asia's doorstep.

The deadline for the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan has arrived. Only about one-10th of the once 140,000-strong foreign force will be in Afghanistan in 2015 and that number will gradually decrease in the years to follow.

During 2014, Qishloq Ovozi and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, have been reporting about the shaky situation in northern Afghanistan, along the border with Central Asia.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir assembled a panel discussion to look at the situation in northern Afghanistan as 2014 comes to an end and what that situation bodes for Central Asia in the near future. Participating in the discussion were former U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan John Herbst, former European Union special representative for Afghanistan Michael Semple, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Brian Glyn Williams, who is also author of "Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America's Longest War" and "The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum," and I said some things as well.

The discussion began with a recap of the state of affairs in the Afghan areas bordering Central Asia. Williams said in recent years the security problems in some northern provinces such as Kunduz and Faryab has rivaled known hotspots in southern and eastern provinces such as Kandahar, Helmand, and Khost. Williams credited the policy of 19th-century Afghan ruler Abdul Rahmon, who "planted Pashtun colonies in the north" as having sown the seeds of the current trouble.

Williams said the Taliban has been able to advance its cause in northern Afghanistan using ethnic kin as a vanguard. But Williams noted the Taliban has been successful in including members of other ethnic groups in the north.

Semple concurred on this last point, saying, "over the past few years...the non-Pashto-speaking Taliban of those areas, the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen, also have mobilized and they're now some of the Taliban fronts in the north." Semple added that in some northern provinces such as Kunduz, Takhar, and Faryab, Taliban operations are run "by commanders from the ethnic groups based in that area, not just the Pashtuns."

For Central Asia it is an important development. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is Central Asia's best-known militant group, and it is an ally of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The IMU was in northern Afghanistan in late 2001 and suffered heavy losses in the U.S. bombing campaign. They fled into Pakistan's tribal areas and have been regaining strength and spreading again into northern Afghanistan.

Semple noted that as the Taliban reached out to non-Pashtun peoples of northern Afghanistan, making some locals commanders, the IMU has come right behind "trying to build on their links with the people up in northeastern and northwestern Afghanistan and they are again managing to establish their fighting forces in those areas."

As dire as that might sound for Central Asia, there is still some breathing room. Semple said that while Afghanistan will remain at war through 2015, the government "is not about to collapse imminently, the government will still be charge in Kabul and in the provinces but will have to fight." Williams added, "Don't forget that the Afghan army and security forces still have 344,000 troops and we look at history, the [Muhammad] Najibullah regime lasted for years after the withdrawal of Soviet support forces."

Still, as the recent kidnapping of four Tajik border guards and, earlier this year, the killing of six Turkmen soldiers demonstrates, Central Asia is already experiencing some of the dreaded "spillover" from Afghanistan.

Herbst suggested two scenarios looking ahead, both of which could cause IMU militants to consider trying to cross back into Central Asia. Herbst said a resurgent Taliban could facilitate the IMU reestablishing safe haven areas just south of Central Asia's border, from which it could launch raids. Herbst said that alternately, if the Ghani government "could assert control throughout most of the country...you might see the terrorists forced out and head back home."

Herbst agreed the estimated several thousand IMU fighters "don't represent an existential threat to the government of [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov," but he said, "They could, however, represent a tipping force in either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan."

Of course, in the 1990s the Central Asian governments, certainly the Uzbek and Tajik governments, had "their man" in Afghanistan, an ethnic cousin commanding a military force and, hopefully, capable of guarding the gates to Central Asia. In Tashkent's case it was General Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently Afghanistan's vice president, and in Dushanbe's case it was Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masud, both later assassinated, though years apart.

Tashkent, like the rest of the Central Asian countries, dealt with Rabbani while he was installed in power in Kabul but the Uzbek government's main contact in Afghanistan was with Dostum in Mazar-e Sharif. Dushanbe continued its recognition of, and support for the Rabbani government even after the Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996.

There is a concern that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and perhaps others, might see such proxies as their best defense from Afghan problems. Earlier this year Turkmenistan experimented briefly with courting better ties with Afghan Turkmen along its borders before abandoning the policy.

Using the Uzbek example of the late 1990s, Semple said any similar attempts now to circumvent the central Afghan government would be ill-advised. "If Tashkent were to try to develop direct relations with their own man, whether it be Mohammad Atta in Mazar or one of the other figures, to try to have direct relations cutting out the central government in Kabul they would very soon get into trouble, they would find that this would be extremely controversial in Afghanistan would precipitate a lot of strong political reaction."

It would also play into the hands of instability, but in the past that has not stopped the Central Asian governments from interfering in Afghan politics or even each other's politics in Central Asia.

The full roundtable discussion can be heard here:

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-- Bruce Pannier

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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