Shadow of the Holy Book (Pyhän kirjan varjo) (2007, Director: Arto Halonen): I read about this film when it played at IDFA in Amsterdam and was so intrigued by the premise, I emailed Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel immediately to ask him to bring it to Hot Docs. He emailed me back to say that he and the director had been drinking vodka the night before and that it would likely be screening here. What had me so excited? Here’s the premise: Turkmenistan is a central Asian country with huge reserves of oil and natural gas. It’s also one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. After ruling since 1985, dictator Saparmurat Niyazov declared himself “President for Life” in 1999 and published a book called the Ruhnama in 2001. Turkmens are overwhelmingly Muslim, but Niyazov placed the Ruhnama above the Koran as a holy book and required all citizens to study it. So far, so bizarre, right? But the really interesting thing is that the filmmaker found that foreign corporations doing business in Turkmenistan had gained favour by “sponsoring” translations of the book into their own languages and by otherwise promoting Niyazov’s strange cult of personality. At least, that’s how they portrayed themselves to Niyazov. In reality, the companies kept all of this quiet in their own countries, not wanting to be seen as bribing a dictator just to gain lucrative contracts.
Despite the fascinating concept of exposing corporate mischief in a strange and repressive country, the film frustrated me at every turn. Finnish director Halonen enlists the help of American journalist Kevin Frazier and the two make an odd couple. The dour Finn and the nebbishy American with the slight lisp set out to contact many of the corporate villains but are hopelessly inept. Much of the film’s running time is footage of the two of them in hotel rooms in various cities failing to get through to the right corporate contacts. As well, the use of several tacky sound effects (a cash register “cha-ching” each time a corporation’s profits are mentioned, a typewriter introducing every on-screen title) drove me to distraction very quickly. By the time the filmmakers arrive in America to track down executives from Caterpillar and John Deere, the film enters Michael Moore territory, except without any of Moore’s (debatable) charisma. One baffling Moore-like stunt has Frazier reading Ruhnama excerpts on the New York City subway, after referring to America’s constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Overall, the travelogue approach wears thin pretty early. More promising were interviews with some Turkmen human-rights activists and political dissidents. Unfortunately, though, far too much use is made of some crude Flash animations created by the son of one of the activists. By the end of the film, we realize that the pair have not been able to put together a single substantial interview. Though they do get to travel to Turkmenistan on two occasions, they have to film clandestinely and are really only able to show us some of the massive construction projects awarded to the foreign firms. We learn later that the numerous English-language Turkmen “newscasts” and Ruhnama “reading circles” were re-creations.
There were some important allegations uncovered by the film, and some brave and dangerous undercover work was performed by a Finnish diplomat. Hopefully, some of the material uncovered in the film will lead to changes in corporate behaviour. But as a documentary film, I think Shadow of the Holy Book is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Here is the Q&A with director Arto Halonen and writer Kevin Frazier from after the screening: