It’s not every day that a new movie is made in Turkmenistan. So official plans to release five new features before Independence Day on October 27 is reason to celebrate. Right?
This being tightly controlled Turkmenistan, mind you, the plots are predictable. A discriminating cinophile might even call them PR. State-run Turkmenistan.ru describes three:
The first, “The Song of Avaza,” is a musical comedy about two students at the seaside resort of Avaza, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s pet tourist trap on the Caspian. The second, “The Horse - My Wings,” tells the tale of an old breeder of Akhal-Teke horses (Berdymukhamedov’s favorite) who is teaching his grandson the trade.
Turkmenistan.ru’s descriptions leave no platitude ignored. A third film, “Student Life,” is about the joys of being a student in independent Turkmenistan: “Along with the protagonists of the movie, the viewer is taken up by real student life, where the responsibilities of studying and the thirst for knowledge come together with inseparable friendships, first love, and the first independent steps toward adulthood.”
On its Facebook page, Salam Turkmen, group that aggregates and comments on news about Turkmenistan, interprets the film as a demonstration of Berdymukhamedov’s love for the youth of Turkmenistan, to which one commenter bemoans, "Again the same thing, along the same path. Unfortunately."
True, it is thanks to Berdymukhamedov that even these attempts at filmmaking happen.
Aside from straight-up government PR, Turkmenistan currently produces very few films, but that wasn’t always the case. During the Soviet Union, Turkmen directors were active, going to school in Moscow and them returning home to make documentary and feature films. But after independence in the early 1990s, Saparmurat Niyazov – better known as Turkmenbashi, “Leader of the Turkmen” – heavily censored Turkmen film. When one of the country’s most promising directors, Murad Aliyev, released his first feature, “The Night of the Yellow Bull” (also known as “Children of the Earthquake”), in 1996, Niyazov reportedly walked out of a private screening in the presidential palace. Unsurprisingly, the film was never shown in Turkmenistan and Aliyev went into exile in Moscow. Niyazov is said to have even physically dismantled the Soviet-era TurkmenFilm studios.
Under Berdymukhamedov, TurkmenFilm has reopened and some directors are allowed to make movies, though the list of acceptable subjects is short. Berdymukhamedov bragged to a state news agency in 2010 that TurkmenFilm is “produc[ing] new films about our history and the modern day, about great things happening in our country, and grand projects such as Turkmen Lake being built in the Karakum Desert, as well as other great constructions of the new era of Renaissance,” as “The Protector” describes his first term in office. With so much state control, many movies end up looking like made-for-TV comedies, with long, randomly placed musical numbers.
In a 2007 interview with the opposition website Gundogar, Aliyev, who now lives and directs movies in Moscow, worried the lack of creative freedom is so all-permeating that independent film may never come back to Turkmenistan.
“I really feel pain for Turkmen film,” Aliyev said. “Too much has been lost in the past few years. Yes, we have a directing department in the Culture Institute. Of course there are talented young people. But there is no methodology, no schools, not technical expertise by which people can learn to make film.”
State-approved Soviet art managed to push aesthetic boundaries in exciting ways, even if the topics were often controlled. Measured against that bar, it seems Turkmenistan’s PR/film machine has a long way to go.