Saturday, June 11, 2011

DocPoint ’11: Shadow of the Holy Book

Imagine an Islamist police state ruled by Dianetics. That is basically the state of what passes for reality in Turkmenistan. They also have obscene oil and natural gas deposits. As a result, a lot of people who should know better have feigned interest in the Ruhnama, a book supposedly written by the largely illiterate president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov that co-opted elements of Islam for the sake of his personality cult. Director Arto Halonen (the quiet one) and co-writer Kevin Frazier (the gabby one) try to ask some of Niyazov’s international enablers why they think the Ruhnama is so swell in their would-be muckraking documentary Shadow of the Holy Book (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of DocPoint’s tenth anniversary celebration tour of New York.

Appointed by Gorbachev as Turkmenistan’s Communist Party strongman, Niyazov was a hardliner who supported the 1991 coup attempt against his patron. Indeed, Niyazov’s dictatorship incorporated the worst elements of Communism, Fascism, Islamist extremism, and flat-out lunacy. Yet, Halonen and Frazier largely ignore the ideological roots of Ruhnamania for inexplicable reasons (though perhaps that picture of Castro in their office is a clue).

When Shadow documents the institutionalized insanity of Niyazov’s Turkmenistan, it is jaw-droppingly scary. Subjects like algebra and physics were banned from schools, in favor of greater Ruhnama study. Architectural behemoths combining Fascist pomp, Islamic symbolism, and what can only be described as kitsch have been erected to glorify the crackpot tome. There is even a gargantuan book with pages that actually turn.

When exposing the magnitude and pervasiveness of Turkmenistan’s public cult, Halonen and Frazier essentially have a scoop. After all, when was the last time we heard the media report on the conditions in Turkmenistan? (They are far too busy reporting whether or not Sarah Palin knew who made the last out of the 1973 World Series.) Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not properly assemble their indictment against Niyazov and his successor. They show viewers the ostentatious tackiness and the surreal weirdness of the regime, but they do not properly establish the brutal repressiveness of the Communist-turned-cultist.

Instead, Halonen films Frazier making call after call to company flacks, trying to get interviews regarding their sponsorship of Ruhnama translations to curry favor with Niyazov (who died during filming). It would be all well and good to show a few calls, just to prove they tried, but the entire second and third acts are largely devoted to these exercises. Frankly, this is a waste of their time and resources. Of course, nobody has much to say about corporate policy with regards to Turkmenistan. Most probably do not even know they are in business there. Without first building a case and advancing it in the media, the filmmakers are bound to get responses like this. It is not stonewalling, it is just a real low priority in their busy day.

Turkmenistan might just be the worst place in the world to live. It certainly has the ugliest architecture (likened to that of Albert Speer). Regrettably, Halonen and Frazier present it more as a “strange but true” story, reserving their indignation for PR spokesmen and security guards who have most likely never set foot in Central Asia. Informative to an extent but ultimately a wasted opportunity, Shadow screens today (6/11) the 92YTribeca and this coming Monday (6/13) at Scandinavia House.