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Kyrgyzstan's Historical Matriarch Makes a Bid for an Oscar

Kurmandjan Datka as photographed by Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in 1906. Image widely used.

Kurmanjan Datka as photographed by Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in 1906. Image widely used.

Kurmanjan Datka, a rare female ruler in Kyrgyz history, turned a blind eye to her favourite son's execution in order to keep peace with Imperial Russia. Now Kyrgyz are hopeful that act of sacrifice will be rewarded with an Oscar.

On August 31, 2014 — Kyrgyz Independence Day — Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains was shown in cinemas across the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The film cost the state budget $1.5 million, making it the impoverished republic's most expensive movie ever.

Many citizens saw the film as a wasteful exercise in public spending, particularly in the context of dilapidated schools and hospitals, while others saw it as a new cornerstone of Kyrgyz patriotism. Following screenings across the country the team behind the film are seeking an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Speaking back in September, one of the film's backers, nationalist MP Jyldyzkan Joldosheva promised:

Мы сейчас будем с [режиссером] Садыком Шер-Ниязом и творческой группой добиваться и трудиться, чтобы наш фильм попал на такой мировой приз как «Оскар». Я буду где-то чем-то жертвовать ради того, чтобы получить «Оскар». Я — настырная, и вы это знаете.

We are working to ensure our film wins a global prize, such as an Oscar. I am willing to sacrifice something somewhere to get that Oscar. I am assertive, and you all know this.

The plot of the historical movie Kurmanjan Datka covers the lifetime of the Kyrgyz clan ruler, Kurmanjan (1811-1907), who took power after the death of her husband during the fall of the Khanate of Kokand and the colonization of Central Asia by Moscow. At the cost of the death of her four sons and for the sake of her clan — one of several significant Kyrgyz clans struggling for survival at the time — she agreed to make a peace with the Russian Army.

Kurmanjan Datka movie is nominated in Best foreign language film category of the Oscar Award. Foto taken from

Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains. Photo taken from

A user of the Diesel forum platform in Kyrgyzstan, TheT, expressed joy at watching a movie that shows “who the Kyrgyz people really are”:

Присоединюсь к призывам, что каждый представитель титульного этноса должен посмотреть этот фильм. Без обид представители других этносов, но вряд ли большинство из вас прочувствует в полной мере то, что ощутим (ну или должны ощутить) от него мы. И дело не в качестве картины, работе режиссера, оператора и т.д., актерской игры, саунд-трека (отлично подобранного, кстати) или великолепных видов природы, и даже не в исторической достоверности. Дело в нас самих, кто мы, какие мы

I join with comments that every representative of the titular nation [Kyrgyz] has to watch this movie. I do not want to offend other nationalities [living in Kyrgyzstan] but they will be unlikely to understand that feeling which that we are having now. The point is not related to the quality of the movie, the work of the director, operators, actors, the soundtrack (which are all excellent), picturesque scenes of the nature, or the historical validity of information. The point is to understand who we really are. 

Like other Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan had its own small movie industry during communist times, but domestic filmmaking hit hard times after independence. On the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, Irena comments:

Нужно смотреть на создание этого фильма как новое передовое явление в кыргызском кинематографе за последние 20-30 лет. Такого грандиозного фильма за это время не было!…этот первый по своей высокой планке фильм за всю постсоветскую историю Кыргызстана. 

We need to look at the production of this movie as the most progressive phenomenon in Kyrgyz cinematography for 20-30 years. We have never had such a grandiose movie before…this is the first high-quality film during the entire post-Soviet history of Kyrgyzstan.

Others were critical of the movie. Former presidential aide Edil Baisalov noted in his blog on Radio Azattyk: 

Почему съемку ленты поручили режиссеру-новичку, а не авторам того самого ролика, например, или же такому мэтру как Болот Шамшиев.  Кто принимает сейчас такие решения?  И что нам следовало бы изменить?  Правда ли, что решение единолично принимала Жылдызкан Джолдошова? Хотелось бы, еще раз повторю, сделать правильные выводы из первого опыта и не повторять впредь ошибок.

Why was the production of the movie entrusted to a novice director, but not to professionals such as Bolot Shamshiev? Who takes such these decisions? Should we change something? Is it true that the decision to choose the director belonged to MP Jyldyzkan Joldosheva? There are choices that must be made in order not to repeat these mistakes in the near future.

Zhypar, a commenter responding to Baisalov's blog, highlights the impossibility of making a perfect movie with a limited budget:

Даже я – простой зритель понимаю, что красивые костюмы, большая массовка, тем более постройка “старого” нового города, ну никак не уместились бы в такой бюджет. Видно, что очень старались люди. Считаю, этот фильм лучшим в новейшей истории Кыргызстана.

As a simple spectator I understand the impossibility of having beautiful dresses, extras, and a beautiful “old” city due to budgetary constraints. It is obvious that [the director's team] was doing its best. I consider this movie as the best in the new history of Kyrgyzstan.

Director Sadyk Sher-Niyaz has begun the formal process of applying for the Oscar award. Earlier this month he told journalists

Номинирование кинокартины “Курманжан датка” на премию “Оскар” – большая честь для нас. Процесс этот довольно хлопотный, потому что цвет, звук картины должны соответствовать международным стандартам. В ближайшие дни я отправляюсь в Америку по делам картины “Курманжан датка”. В Америке мы приложим все свои усилия, чтобы картина получила премию “Оскар”.

The nomination of Kurmanjan Datka for an Oscar is a great honor for us. The process is quite involved as colour and sound should correspond to international movie standards. Over the course of the next few days, I will leave for the United States, where our team will do our best to win the award.

Currently production teams from more than 100 countries are putting their movies forward for the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. The first stage of the selection process will occur on January 2015 wherein 50 movies will be shortlisted. That shortlist is further narrowed when nine movies are selected in February.  Finally, five nominations make it through to the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Kyrgyz have already been actively promoting the film via social media, with one crowdsourced campaign to boost the film's ranking on the IMDB gaining local and international media coverage. The trailer for Kurmanjan Datka can be watched here. 

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