Shadow Of The Holy Book

Shadow Of The Holy Book


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

“You couldn’t make it up!” (audience comment).

There is something uniquely sinister about a gigantic statue of a book which opens and speaks to you. This is normally the stuff of science fiction. But this statue exists in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. At the end of Soviet rule in 1999, Saparmyrat Ataýewiç Niyazov became president, calling himself Turkmenbashi, “leader of the Turkmen people”. The Ruhmana is the book of the title, written by Niyazov, part autobiography, part revisionist history, part moral guidance.

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The book is everywhere, celebrated on state television, projected onto buildings. Children are made to recite it in school and criticism of it is punishable by death. Offering to produce a translation of the book has become a way in for foreign companies eager to gain contracts in this country, rich in oil and natural gas.

It is this aspect which Halonen and his team decided to make their focus, trying to gain access to those companies whose cooperation props up the regime regardless of its contempt for human rights.

There is a great deal of humour in the film, including some laugh out loud moments like the one where the president is sketching out his instructions for a new building in terms a four-year-old might appreciate. But Halonen says he decided to play down the humour for the sake of balance in what is really a very serious subject.

The director managed, with some difficulty, to make two visits to Turkmenistan. It was obviously very difficult to film there, but he includes footage of the elaborate building programme taking place in Ashgabat, and he was able to contrast this with scenes in the countryside where people still live in great poverty. For some content, he had to rely on reconstruction, such as the state news broadcasts for which he was only able to obtain some scripts.

Much of the film shows Halonen and his English-speaking colleague making phone calls to foreign companies to try to persuade someone to talk about the translation of the book, usually being put on hold or just cut off. While some of this is amusing, it inevitably becomes repetitive to watch.

Niyazov, who made himself President for Life, died suddenly in 2006. But his successor, Berdimuhammedov, is almost a clone and already has plans for a new holy book to replace the Ruhmana. The film ends with impressive final shots of the giant book closing and prison doors slamming shut.

Shadow Of The Holy Book will open this year's Istanbul Film Festival and the director will be there.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2008
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A look at life under Saparmurat Niyazov's regime in Turkmenistan, where he encourages worship of his book.

Director: Arto Halonen

Year: 2007

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Finland


Doc/Fest 2008

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