Oliver Stone Fêtes Another Dictator
Oliver Stone derided for film about ‘modest’ former Kazakh president
Eight-hour series about Nursultan Nazarbayev criticised for stoking cult of personality of 30-year ruler
Andrew Roth in Moscow
Sun 11 Jul 2021 10.13 BST
Oliver Stone has interviewed Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev for a new eight-hour film series which has been attacked as a hagiography that contributes to the leader’s cult of personality.
In the film, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, Stone employs the same non-confrontational approach to interviewing autocrats that has made him a favourite of Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych and others seeking to polish their reputations by sitting down with the Oscar-winning director of Platoon and JFK.
“Call #Nazarbayev what you want – dictator, strongman, tyrant, founder,” Stone tweeted about his film. “You’ll find him to be a modest man explaining the #Soviet empire’s demise and his important country’s transition to an independent nation, including its disposal of its nuclear weaponry.”
Modest is not a word often used to describe Nazarbayev, 81, who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades. He won elections in 2015 with 97.5% of the vote and has adopted the name elbasy, or father of the nation, and the capital city, airport, main university and high streets have been named after him. Two new statues of him have been unveiled in the past week alone.
The film “is obviously part of his ongoing cult of personality”, said Joanna Lillis, a veteran reporter on the country and the author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. She noted similar efforts, such as a six-part biopic of Nazarbayev produced in Kazakhstan. “It can only be described as propaganda … this one though is obviously directed at a foreign audience to burnish his reputation and his legacy.”
In a telephone interview from Nur-Sultan, the Kazakhstan capital renamed after Nazarbayev, Stone rejected questions about whether his film would be used as propaganda and whether he should have pressed Nazarbayev harder on his cult of personality.
“I’m not going to come over and lecture these people about how to run their country and how to run a democracy,” said Stone, adding that he viewed Nazarbayev as something of a “tribal chief” managing a difficult country. “It doesn’t work. Democracy barely works in the US.”
The film follows a series of documentary projects featuring Stone about Russia and Ukraine that reflect a strongly pro-Kremlin worldview, including glowing interviews with Putin and former Ukrainian officials such as Yanukovych and Viktor Medvedchuk, a confidante of the Russian president. Stone has noted that the films, which are strongly critical of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and have been attacked as propaganda vehicles, are very popular in Russia.
“What’s wrong with celebrating Nazarbayev for 30 years in office,” he said when asked if he was concerned the film would be used as propaganda. “Give him credit for building up the country and keeping the peace and not turning it into a trash heap like Ukraine.”
With the new film, Stone has confirmed his credentials as a go-to western interviewer for current and former strongmen hoping to avoid prickly questions about democracy, and who prefer to discuss their historical and geopolitical missions in broad strokes.
Stone “sounds a lot like the people managing the ideology in Kazakhstan,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, the founder of the independent Vlast.kz news site. “Nazarbayev of course has had successes, but Stone quite ably ignores what might be called the mistakes or problems that have arisen during his 30 years in power.
“Of course Stone didn’t want to make an honest film about Kazakhstan. That wasn’t his goal, his desire. He’s a common, and I think, disgraceful, propagandist. At least, that is what he has turned into.”
How much did Oliver Stone get paid to do this ridiculous film? Why else would anybody made an eight-hour documentary about such a human-rights violator?
"Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association."
Assel Aushakimova is an independent Kazakhstani filmmaker based in Almaty. Her first feature film, WELCOME TO THE USA premiered last year — but only after she had funded production from her own savings. In an op-ed for The Calvert Journal, she explains how Oliver Stone’s most recent documentary, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man is just one part of a wider campaign to turn cinema into state propaganda — and how the move hurts both artists and activists.
15 July 2021
Text: Assel Aushakimova
On 6 July, Kazakhstan celebrated an official state holiday: Capital City Day. The country’s capital has been renamed several times in its 190-year history, most recently in 2019, when it was transformed from Astana to Nur-Sultan. The change honoured one man: Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from 1990 to 2019. Capital City Day also just happens to coincide with Nazarbayev’s birthday. All Kazakhstanis know which event we are really celebrating.
It is customary for city authorities to mark this day with pomp and ceremony. Even last year, when hospitals were struggling to cope with a second wave of the coronavirus, and pharmacies faced drug shortages, a large firework display was organised in the capital.
The event caused so much indignation among ordinary Kazakhstanis that this year there were no fireworks. Instead, the country unveiled two new monuments to the former president, while the politician himself received a very special birthday gift: a new, eight-hour Nazarbayev documentary, produced by US filmmaker Oliver Stone, and directed by Igor Lopatenok. Named Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, the title references an ancient warrior figure found in Kazakhstan by archaeologists in 1969. It is not officially known how much this “gift” cost, or at whose expense it was made, although many speculate that it was financed either by officials or business interests close to the state.
Found wearing armour wrought from precious metals, The Golden Man has become a symbol around which the Kazakh government has built its own identity. But the name is also intended to flatter Nazarbayev, whom the film almost exclusively focuses on — a new eternal figure to inspire the nation. The production company behind the documentary has kept its budget secret. But as an independent filmmaker in Kazakhstan, it is heartrending to see lavish sums spent on such films while my colleagues spend years hunting for the comparatively meagre funds they need to bring their works to life.
The public system for financing films in Kazakhstan has never been transparent. In 2019, the State Film Fund was founded, taking over the job of bankrolling movie production. In that time, the fund’s top management had already been changed twice: 2020 saw the organisation rocked by numerous corruption scandals, while directors in 2021 haven’t even had a chance yet to pitch for funds.
I am among those who applied for the 2021 cycle, but I am afraid I won’t be selected even to pitch (not due to excessive demands — the entire budget for my project is less than the scriptwriters’ fee for one of the films previously financed by the fund.)
Qazaq: History of the Golden Man has only shown once again that the Kazakhstani government has its own agenda for filmmaking. The country already has its own “Nazarbayev universe” of biopic films about its former leader. Across six separate films, we follow Nazarbayev from birth to his “rightful place” at the head of the nation. At each step, we are shown Nazarbayev’s importance for the whole of Kazakhstan. Again, the budgets for each film (error in original) has not been made public, but all are state funded. The saga has seen several directors, one of whom now heads the country’s own state film studio.
All of this is done with a set programme in mind. If you look at Kazakhstani movie posters from the last three or four years, you will see that many bear the emblem of a flying eagle and the inscription “Rukhani Zhangyru”, or “modernisation of public consciousness”. This is an official programme based on an article by Nazarbayev and aimed at reviving the “spiritual values” of Kazakhstanis. Our authorities believe that the people of the country simply need an official ideology, as in the days of the Soviet Union. All publicly financed films must comply with this programme. Generally, they are patriotic and propagandistic, with movies about athletes, historical figures, or the Second World War given priority. In this environment, private investors are only happy to finance comedies, which generally screen at local cinemas. They are not used to fund films that raise complex topics, rarely seen on Kazakhstani screens.
It goes without saying that difficult struggles such as LGBTQ+ rights, or diversity, or satire, are certainly not seen as desirable spiritual values by the Kazakhstani government. It means that our country is losing out. Kazakhstani audiences deserve more complex, challenging films: they are tired of the propaganda that lacks diverse, real and complex characters. All of this pushes viewers to watch foreign films instead, where they can escape official ideology imposed by the authorities. But in doing so, Kazakhstani audiences miss seeing themselves on screen: their joys, their challenges, their desires. Kazakhstan is far more than just one person, even if that person ruled the country for three decades. All of the country deserves to take its place on the big screen.
This year, I saw the applause for Oliver Stone at Cannes in a very different light. And I, like many other independent filmmakers, will continue to look for any opportunities to put the real Kazakhstan on screen.
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