Occasionally tongue-in-cheek but always cheeky, Arto Halonen’s docu “Shadow of the Holy Book” examines the late world leader Saparmurat Niyazov, aka “Turkmenbashi” or “father of all Turkmen.” The founder of one of the world’s most insular, dictatorial regimes, Niyzaov wrote the “Ruhnama” — the so-called “holy book” of pic’s title, which combines strange legend, myth and Niyazovian poetry with a self-exalting twist on history. Docu looks at the corrupt corporate culture that stroked Niyzaov’s ego while taking billions from his gas-rich but poverty-stricken country, Turkmenistan. Esoteric subject may limit arthouse appeal, but political content (and Finnish sense of absurd) could help pic find an audience.
The Ruhnama or — as one person in the docu translates it — “the gateway to the ocean of the Turkmen soul,” was first published by Niyazov in 2001 and has since risen (or been foisted upon the public) to become a work that rivals the Koran as an influence on Turkmenistan culture (a fact which does not please the nation’s Muslim population).
A required part of the school curriculum and as much a fixture in day-to-day Turkmen life as the statues of Niyazov that seem as numerous in Ashgabat as Starbucks are in New York, the Ruhnama is clearly the work of an egomaniacal madman.
Still, major corporations commissioned translations in their native countries in order to massage the Turkmenbashi ego and gain access to Turkmenistan gas rights and the enormous boondoggle construction contracts that were available under Niyazov.
Like documentarian Nick Broomfield, Halonen spends a lot of time showing how and why he didn’t make the movie he wanted, and how frustrating it is being a documentarian. Assisted by his co-writer and mouthpiece Kevin Frazier, Halonen tries valiantly to get corporations to answer for their crimes against Turkmenistan (where unemployment is 60 percent), but, of course, the companies’ PR machinery shuts down as soon as anyone asks an uncomfortable question.
Why Halonen thinks he’ll get any answers — or that we should be surprised that he doesn’t — isn’t just unclear, it’s silly. One doesn’t crack the armor of a multinational by calling its media-relations flak, or by simply arriving at the reception desk and asking to interview the CEO. When Halonen and Frazier call the White House and ask to speak to George W. Bush, you simply want to throw up your hands and cry “Michael Moore!!”
Fortunately, they do find a couple of upfront corporate types (none of them American), who tell Halonen what he already knows.
“Shadows” is much better lampooning the kitsch of Niyazovian culture, which Halonen does through staged TV broadcasts and reading groups, and when he speaks to real-life members of the Turkmenistan opposition, all of whom are expats waiting for a regime change. When that comes, it provides Halonen with a plot twist he couldn’t ever have anticipated, but which is as weird as anything else he finds on his journey into Saparmurat Niyazov’s Central Asian Neverland.