July 24, 2021
Oliver Stone’s new documentary about Nursultan Nazarbayev aimed to lionise the long-time leader of Kazakhstan, but has instead attracted derision both within Kazakhstan and abroad as a shameless piece of propaganda.
The maker of iconic films like Scarface, Platoon and Any Given Sunday is back. However, this time, it’s not a Hollywood blockbuster, but an eight-hour-long documentary entirely about the Republic of Kazakhstan’s first (and essentially only) head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Titled Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, the film premiered on July 6, Nazarbayev’s 81st birthday in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. The eight-part series is based on extensive interviews conducted by Oliver Stone with Nazarbayev over the past two years.
‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’
For anyone familiar with Oliver Stone’s non-Hollywood career, this would hardly come as a surprise. The American filmmaker has publicly wholeheartedly expressed his support for certain Kremlin narratives about geopolitics and history.
He was critical of the Maidan revolution, which toppled the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. In late 2014, nearly a year after the revolution, Stone conducted a four-hour interview with Yanukovych, in which he essentially allowed the ousted president to give his side of the events, completely unchallenged. He has also done similarly one-sided interviews with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin, and, in 2017, with Vladimir Putin himself.
As such, for many, it was expected that Stone would go on to make a propagandistic puff piece for another unsavoury character.
“It looks like the old man is trying to secure his legacy,” a member of the outlawed Kazakh political party Democratic Choice who preferred to stay anonymous tells Emerging Europe. “I wouldn’t even bother with watching it, from an artistic or even informational perspective. This is naked propaganda.”
“Call Nazarbayev what you want — dictator, strongman, tyrant, founder,” Stone wrote on Twitter, “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 the disposal of its nuclear weaponry.”
For many Kazakhs, this reads like a sick joke. Many adjectives are used to describe Nazarbayev, but hardly ever the word “modest”. This is, after all, a man who named his country’s capital city after himself, has statues of himself adorning virtually every major city in the country (including two which were inaugurated this year on his birthday) and granted himself the title of elbasy, meaning “father of the nation.”
Even the cinema the documentary was premiered in, like many other things ranging from airports to universities, is named after the Kazakh leader. The title of the film, History of the Golden Man is a direct reference to an ancient Scythian prince buried with 4,000 gold ornaments whose tomb was discovered in 1969 — it isn’t hard to decipher the parallels that Stone and Nazarbayev are attempting to draw here.
Nazarbayev is very much cut from the same cloth as the several autocrats who began springing up in the post-Soviet world; however, lacking the over-the-top antics of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow or the confrontational verve of Aleksandr Lukashenko, he has somewhat flown under the radar.
In power since Kazakhstan’s independence, he has ruled with an iron fist, jailing activists, outlawing opposition parties under bogus charges of “extremism”, and, allegedly, siphoning huge amounts of public funds for himself and his inner circle.
‘The Audacity of Democracy’
Although he officially stepped down as president in 2019, he is nevertheless undoubtedly in charge of the country through his official office of elbasy. He maintains a public cult of personality, with his likeness adorning boulevards, offices and train stations.
In interviews about the documentary, the director seems nonplussed about the subject’s reputation. “I’m not going to come over and lecture these people about how to run their country and how to run a democracy,” Stone said in an interview with The Guardian. “It [democracy] doesn’t work. Democracy barely works in the US.”
From what is publicly available of the documentary (so far, there is only a trailer on YouTube), it appears that this will be the predominant narrative: that western-style liberal democracy has no place in Kazakhstan, that Kazakhs need the guidance of a strong leader.
“This is how he legitimises his rule,” Emerging Europe’s interviewee says. “He creates a false dichotomy that Kazakhs can either enjoy slow but stable progress under his rule and his system or fall victim to decadent anarchic western-style democracy. Obviously, this is nonsense — our people are capable of choosing competent, representative leaders for ourselves who can develop our country. But this documentary is an attempt to cement Nazarbayev’s narrative — and I fear people may fall for it, especially with a big name like Oliver Stone validating the documentary.”
The filmmaker has sold himself to some of the worst tyrannies on earth
Writer-director Oliver Stone is one of the most gifted filmmakers the United States ever produced. In the late 1980s, Stone had a remarkable run, with Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July making him one of the most discussed, imitated, and controversial figures in Hollywood.
Left-wing but idiosyncratic in his politics, uber-literate and a maximal drug user, for a time Stone was the baby boom generation’s foremost guru.
So how deflating to see that Stone is reduced to shilling for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former President of Kazakhstan. Qazaq: History of the Golden Man is an eight-hour documentary about Nazarbayev and his near three decades long, quasi-monarchical rule of the central Asian state. The film premiered on the autocrat’s 81st birthday — one of several gifts, which also included the unveiling of two new Nazarbayev statues in Kazakh cities.
The authorities in Kazakhstan regularly harass, arrest, detain, and send severed dogs’ heads to their critics. Nazarbayev himself is an out of central-casting kleptocrat who sits Smaug-like on an enormous pile of oil wealth. It’s that wealth that has tempted both Kanye West and Tony Blair to work in Kazakhstan over the years.
Oliver Stone is not exactly alone in doing some lackey work for Nazarbayev. Even so, History of the Golden Man looks particularly embarrassing, with the trailer splicing sterile shots of Nazarbayev’s face with footage of swooping golden eagles. L’aigle c’est moi! At least Leni Riefenstahl put a bit of effort into the Triumph of the Will. Stone probably just needs the money. “There’s a… mystical aspect to this Golden Man” Stone intones sagely, while Nazarbayev nods. This is both a throwback to the fantastical musings that once made Stone so popular in his home country, and very sad to watch.
As a director, Stone had success at an unusually young age. By the time he was in his early forties he’d won every prize going, and seemed to hold the future of American cinema in his hands. For this macho, brawny, unabashedly trigger-happy director, there were few worlds left to conquer.
It is notable that his recent memoir Chasing the Light is about the years from his birth to 1986 — before he became a cultural force. It’s as if he can’t bear to remember his real downfall, which arrived ahead of his association with Nazarbayev, or his other hagiographical tributes to strongman leaders like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin.
Stone’s marvellously paranoid thriller JFK was released in 1991. Initially acclaimed, Stone’s liberties with the historical record (the film implies that Lyndon Johnson plotted Kennedy’s assassination) soon attracted heavyweight criticism from America’s prestige press and Hollywood power-brokers. “A man of technical skill, scant education, and negligible consequence,” was how the Washington Post‘s George Will described the director at the time. Stone was denounced as a conspiracy theorist, cancelled, and would never regain his position at the centre of American culture.
But there were good reasons why Stone’s education was scant. Unlike Will, who’d spent the sixties studying at Oxford, Stone dropped out of Yale to enlist as a private in the Army. He was wounded twice in Vietnam. This vital fact, I think, gives him some leeway as a skin-in-the-game critic of American foreign policy. He was there man.
For decades he’s had to scramble and stoop in the margins to make his living, largely for political reasons. In the end, as bleak as this journey has been, it means Stone has become a much greater entertainment than the movies he makes.