Issue 49 (2015)

Sadyk Sher-Niyaz: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (Kyrgyzstan, 2014)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2015

A Daughter Worth Ten Sons:
Kurmanjan Datka Models Leadership and National Identity for Contemporary Kyrgyzstan 

kurmanjanA beautifully shot epic drama, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz’s sweeping Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains celebrates the life and deeds of a remarkable Kyrgyz woman who managed to unite fractured Kyrgyz tribes during the tumultuous final years of the Kokand Khanate and Tsarist Russia’s colonial conquest. Hailing from a humble nomadic background, the historical Kurmanjan (1811–1906), daughter of Mamatbai of the Mogush tribe from the scenic Alai Mountains in the Kyrgyz south, defied her patriarchal culture’s expectations when she left her “lawful” husband and married the man she loved, a prominent Kyrgyz khan cum powerful Kokand official, Alymbek Datka. After Alymbek’s death in a Kokand court intrigue in 1862, the Emir of Bukhara, recognizing Kurmanjan’s influence among her people, awarded her the title of Datka, or General. Four actresses portray Kurmanjan at different stages in her nearly century-long life, most notably the graceful and quietly confident Elina Abai-kyzy as a young adult and the dignified and subtly expressive Nasira Mambetova in old age.

The film conscientiously traces the arc from the heroine’s humble origins and her initial role as a devoted wife and mother actively involved in the everyday life of her community, to her eventual success as a national leader who learns to subordinate her private interests to the well-being of her people. Kurmanjan’s personal bridging of social, economic, and gender divides emerges as an essential prerequisite to her ability to negotiate between her people’s private aspirations and national needs, between the interests of Northern and Southern Kyrgyz tribes, and between what the film portrays as the Kyrgyz nascent sense of nationhood and Tsarist Russia’s colonial expansion. The film culminates in a General Assembly attended by representatives from all Kyrgyz tribes that connects Kurmanjan’s nation-building efforts with the country’s eventual attainment of sovereignty in 1991, for the first time since the fall of Kyrgyz Kaganate in the thirteenth century. In highlighting the Mother of the Kyrgyz nation’s humility, social conscience, and openness to fair negotiations, the film proffers a model for contemporary Kyrgyz leaders tackling similar if not identical problems in a globalized post-colonial setting. At the same time, this state-bankrolled patriotic story of a Kyrgyz national and cultural renaissance in confrontation with powerful neighboring states calls into question the status of non-Kyrgyz ethnicities, most relevantly Uzbek and Russian, that call contemporary multi-ethnic Kyrgyzstan their home.  

kurmanjanKyrgyzstan’s foreign-language Academy Award submission, Kurmanjan Datka displays the producers’ ambition to “place the country on the map” by showcasing not only its breathtaking natural beauty and unique culture, but also the independence and creativity of its citizens. In this respect the film differs from earlier cinematic efforts at nation branding. Kazakhstan’s less than successful attempt, The Nomad (dir. Ivan Passer and Sergei Bodrov, 2005), glorifies the controversial feudal leader Ablai, ultimately “commemorating him in a grand way at the expense of the nation,” and fostering “a false sense of historical continuity and greatness of the country’s leadership by trying to sell a ‘positive’ and ‘coherent’ image of the nation’s leader(s)” (Yessenova 2011, 199). Even though Sher-Niyaz also idealizes the historical Alymbek and Kurmanjan Datka and streamlines their story for the screen, he clearly assigns greater agency to the people and proposes a more caring and responsive concept of leadership, messages that have resonated widely with ethnic Kyrgyz audiences.  Premiering in Kyrgyzstan on 31 August, the National Independence Day, the film played to packed audiences and led at the box office for eighteen consecutive weeks, beating Hollywood and other western productions. Shown throughout the country, the film evoked standing ovations and generated a genuine nation-wide conversation about Kyrgyz statehood and the need to ameliorate social, economic, and clan divisions between the nation’s economically-developed and relatively homogeneous north, and the predominantly agrarian and traditional south with its ethnically mixed population.

On a wider regional scale, leading Kazakh film critic Gulnara Abikeeva enthusiastically reviewed the film on her program “Our Cinema,” devoted to the cinematography of the newly independent Central Asian nations. Noting Kurmanjan’s low cost of $1.5 million, a fraction of The Nomad’s $37 million budget, Abikeeva praised the film’s production crew for managing to create a quality picture about nineteenth-century Central Asian history that transcends Kyrgyz national boundaries. She especially emphasized the importance of choosing a female protagonist for the first heroic epic produced in independent Kyrgyzstan, regretting that she had no prior knowledge of this inspirational leader (Abikeeva 2014).
 
The rise of Kurmanjan Datka as a central national icon represents a notable development in a series of governmental and civic efforts to develop a national ideology for the country. In the mid-1990s, the first Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, shifted his original focus on the more liberal civic-based nationalism defined in the concept “Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home” to the more ethnocentric ideology based on the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas to “accommodate rising ethno-nationalist feelings” (Marat 2008, 15). However, neither the Kyrgyz public nor Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic minorities fully identified with this latter state-imposed ideology. Coming to power after the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev abandoned Akayev’s initiatives at centrally-coordinated nation branding, leaving the field open to individual governmental agencies and civic funds (Marat 2009, 1132). The inter-ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that accompanied Bakiyev’s ouster in 2010 revealed the failure of the nation’s leaders to create an inclusive idea of citizenship or to promote national pride detached from ethnicity. Kurmanjan Datka, co-written by Kyrgyz Minister of Culture Sultan Raev, addresses the issue of inter-ethnic relations in the multi-ethnic state while focusing primarily on the promotion of ethnic Kyrgyz identity. In celebrating a woman politician with feminist tendencies, the film also ties into the Akayev-era branding of Kyrgyzstan as an “island of democracy” in the region.

Silenced under the Soviet rule that suppressed both nationalist sentiments and references to organized popular resistance to Russian colonialism in the union republics, the figure of Kurmanjan Datka rose dramatically to the status of the founding Mother of the Kyrgyz nation only in the second half of the 1990s, thanks significantly to the efforts of a charitable fund established in her honor. Founded by a southerner, Dzhyldyzkan Dzholdoshova, currently a politician representing the nationalist Ata-Zhurt (Fatherland) Party in the Kyrgyz Parliament, the Fund conducted a series of initiatives to popularize Kurmanjan Datka’s life and achievements, including historical publications, a memorial to her in the center of Bishkek, a feature-length documentary about the Alai Queen, and, finally, the historical epic for which Dzholdoshova secured state funding. Today, Kyrgyz children learn about Kurmanjan Datka in school, and her portrait graces the national currency on the 50-som bill. In commemoration of the historical leader’s bicentennial, Interim President Rosa Otunbaeva named 2011 the national year of Kurmanjan Datka.

Honoring this outstanding leader, Kurmanjan Datka nonetheless falls short of creating an organic image of a self-standing heroine, partially because the protagonist never lives up to the popular western “feminist warrior” narrative (Canning 2014) that the film superficially imposes on a much more complex tale set in a nineteenth-century Muslim society. In tracing Kurmanjan’s development from private person to public figure, the film does not merely highlight the protagonist’s nonconformist character, but gradually opens up a Kyrgyz woman’s world circumscribed by Islamic law and traditional patriarchal customs to wider conceptual horizons and possibilities available to men. Even though Kurmanjan’s experiences and values as a woman and mother shape her as a politician, she ultimately embraces the “enlightened” leadership model pursued by her husband, Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillayev) whom, in turn, the film idealizes as a caring father and husband as well as a champion of women’s rights. As a result, despite the initial impression that Kurmanjan will offer her own uniquely personal and feminine vision of her nation’s future, the film ends up depicting her largest achievement, the General Assembly of all Kyrgyz tribes, as her commitment to and final fulfillment of Alymbek’s dream. 

The film’s opening sequence, in which a blind bard (manaschi) recites the final lines of the Kyrgyz national epos to a rapt audience, introduces the five-year-old Kurmanjan as an heir of the legendary warrior Manas, whose tragic death leaves the devastated nation weeping and “wingless.” Following the ritualistic performance, the bard reassures Kurmanjan’s parents, who pray for conceiving a boy, that their daughter is worth ten sons and that the country will need her in the future. The introspective little girl ignores two arrogant wealthy Kyrgyz men in the audience who mock her low social and gender status; her eyes follow a gracefully powerful tigress that will become her talisman throughout the film. 

kurmanjanIf the film’s opening sets Kurmanjan up as an independent agent and Manas’ worthy successor, the following cut to the adolescent Kurmanjan’s first encounter with Alymbek Datka positions him as the catalyst for her future actions. The film introduces Alymbek as a fair ruler who is particularly sensitive to women’s rights. He stops a Sharia execution of a woman unjustly charged with adultery and admires the brave Kurmanjan for bringing water to the accused while other men look on menacingly. In real life, Kurmanjan met Alymbek long after fleeing her arranged marriage; she lived with the consequences of her decision for three years before Alymbek visited her village on business, proposed to her, and helped her get a divorce. In the film, when faced with the forced marriage, Kurmanjan sends an embroidered love letter to Alymbek whom she keeps in her thoughts ever since their first meeting. After the wedding, Kurmanjan leaves her undeserving husband, but when he comes back for her and negotiates with her male relatives, she awaits their decision with apparent resignation until Alymbek arrives with his retinue to save her in a dramatic last-minute rescue.

In their marriage, Alymbek continues to act as Kurmanjan’s protector and mentor on her path to a greater public awareness. Kurmanjan looks happy in her new role as wife and mother; she also commands the respect and trust of the community’s women and serves as their advocate in the matters of family and marriage. The film, however, portrays Kurmanjan’s devotion to the villagers’ private lives as a local concern in comparison to her husband’s more consequential nation-building efforts. 

Two mirror scenes convey Kurmanjan’s ideological growth and establish her as a successor to Alymbek’s ambition to build a strong national family. In the first of the scenes, Kurmanjan leaves the village in protest when Alymbek refuses to interrupt a meeting to attend to a woman’s marriage dispute. As the viewer finds out later, Alymbek called the meeting to discuss his plans of unification with northern Kyrgyz tribes. Shortly thereafter, Alymbek finds Kurmanjan at a lake near a sacred “unity stone” and shows her a “unity ring” that embodies his dreams of Kyrgyz nationhood. Kurmanjan rejects Alymbek’s argument of a community’s greater good if it requires sacrificing an individual member’s aspirations. For Alymbek, on the other hand, private and public concerns interrelate inseparably as symbolized by the fact that he keeps the unity ring wrapped in Kurmanjan’s embroidered love letter.  However, he does not impose his perspective forcefully, and watches sadly as Kurmanjan gets up and leaves in disagreement. When, in a later scene, Alymbek faces death as a result of his unification efforts, he sends his aide away so that he could deliver the union ring to Kurmanjan. Seeing the aide’s hesitation, Alymbek insists that “this message is more important than any life.” 

Kurmanjan returns to the symbolic location by the sacred unity stone at a much later period in her life, after Alymbek’s death, when she assumes leadership of her people and negotiates favorable terms for the inevitable Russian occupation. All this time Kurmanjan tirelessly works on Alymbek’s dream of Kyrgyz unification, until a tragic incident tests her views on the importance of private hopes when measured against the public good. After Russian colonial authorities unjustly arrest her son Kamchybek (Adilet Usubaliyev) and sentence him to death, Kurmanjan reacts from her heart by secretly ordering her warriors to “save Kamchybek at any price,” an endeavor that would most certainly end in cruel nation-wide reprisals by the Russian military. The night before the scheduled execution and planned rescue, Kurmanjan sees a prophetic dream in which her land is engulfed in fire. She comes out to sit by the lake as the preparations for the long-awaited General Assembly at the unity stone approach completion. Kurmanjan pulls out Alymbek’s unity ring wrapped in her letter and looks at it pensively. When she finally puts the ring on her finger and the camera shifts the focus from the intimate shot of her face to the General Assembly Circle behind her, she has clearly chosen the well-being of the nation over her private desires as a mother. The following parallel editing of the scenes of Kurmanjan’s grief at Kamchybek’s execution and the festive gathering of northern and southern Kyrgyz tribes at the General Assembly highlights the enormity of her private sacrifice while at the same time stressing its necessity for the survival and prosperity of the nation. 

kurmanjanThe message of Kyrgyz national unity appealed most strongly to the film’s contemporary viewers who had witnessed two publicly initiated changes of government in the last decade, the Tulip Revolution of 2005 that ousted the northerner Askar Akayev, and the Second Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010 that deposed the southerner Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Both presidents were accused of corruption, ruling along clan lines and promoting family members to prominent governmental posts. In celebrating Kurmanjan Datka’s legacy in 2011, Interim President Rosa Otunbaeva emphasized the historical leader’s focus on “preserving and strengthening unity and accord among the people. In the upcoming election we must choose a worthy man, capable of placing the interests of the people and the country above his personal interests” (kginform.com). Significantly, this contemporary woman leader, a unique phenomenon in post-Soviet Central Asian politics, oversaw the 2010 re-writing of the Kyrgyz Constitution to limit the power of the President and give more authority to the Parliament, thereby bringing the government structure closer to the model envisioned in the traditional General Assembly. 

Although both Kurmanjan and Alymbek Datka see the unification of all Kyrgyz tribes as their main political objective, the film rather vaguely outlines the nature of the Kyrgyz north-south divide, representing it merely as a geographical separation that the power-hungry Kokand khans strive to maintain to preserve their dominance. Thus, when Alymbek Datka visits his northern Kyrgyz counterpart Jantai Khan (Akylbek Abdykalykov) to discuss unification, the northerners embrace him as a brother and throw an elaborate traditional feast (toi) for him and his warriors. In the absence of a clear explanation of the real tribal differences that hinder effective nation building in Kyrgyzstan, the film ends up shifting responsibility for all of the country’s problems to the hostile non-Kyrgyz agents: Uzbek Kokand officials and Russian colonial authorities, with occasional Kyrgyz “traitors” assisting these enemies of Kyrgyz independence. In depicting the Kokand Khanate and Imperial Russia, however, the film seeks a middle ground between denouncing them as oppressive colonial regimes and acknowledging their cultural and historical ties with Kyrgyzstan. This careful negotiation addresses the film’s contemporary context, especially the problems of inter-ethnic clashes in Uzbek-populated southern regions and Russia’s growing economic influence. 

When the Russian army invades northern Kyrgyz lands and eventually defeats the Kokand Khanate, Kurmanjan’s two sons debate whether they should continue fighting under the Kokand banner or submit to the Russians. The film depicts the Kokand court as decadently opulent; the Kokand khan thrives on Kyrgyz taxes and violently crushes any dissent. On the one hand, Kurmanjan’s younger son, Kamchybek, rejects the idea of fighting to restore the regime that killed his father and oppressed his people. On the other, the older Abdyldabek argues that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks formed one state and share one religion that need to be defended against the infidels. In contrast to the scheming and corrupt Kokand officials, the film depicts the Emir of Bukhara as a benevolent father-figure, who reprimands the Kokand khan for Alymbek’s murder, orders the assassination of the murderer, and personally travels to Kurmanjan Datka’s village to return her husband’s body to her and award her the title of Datka. Kurmanjan reverently thanks the Emir for “fulfilling his Muslim duty,” and her warriors salute him and escort him in parade formation.

kurmanjanIf self-serving Kokand officials illustrate the causes of grave but ultimately repairable indigenous social and power divisions, the Russian Empire represents an alien civilization that is driven by colonial ambitions but is open to negotiations. In a series of contradictory depictions, the film both exposes Russia’s imperial arrogance and takes heart in its respectful conduct of peace talks with the Alai Queen. Russia first appears on screen in a close-up shot of the angel holding a Christian cross atop the Alexander Column in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. As the camera slowly moves down the column, revealing its impressive height, it comments on the empire’s might and the sense of hierarchy that clashes with the nomadic peoples’ more organic tribal ties. Following a brief scene in a palatial office in which stiff tsarist officials ceremoniously discuss their next conquest, the camera establishes the Kyrgyz people’s moral superiority by cutting to a spontaneous Kyrgyz youth gathering around traditional komuz performers in an uncovered yurt. Kurmanjan’s two sons mingle naturally with other youths while the Datka herself walks by outside looking on with motherly tenderness and pride. The yurt’s transparency allows for the participation of the entire village population who sit around bonfires and steaming cauldrons of pilaf as they enjoy virtuoso musical improvisations shortly before the Russian invasion. In the following scenes, tsarist troops use heavy cannons and rifles against Kyrgyz arrows and spears and impose border restrictions on the Kyrgyz nomads’ previously free movement across Turkestan’s vast multi-ethnic territory. 

The film’s contrasting portrayals of two tsarist colonial officials who administer the Alai region at different times, tempers the critique of Russian colonial practices, as if making a concession to contemporary Kyrgyzstan’s powerful strategic partner as well as acknowledging Russia’s lasting impact on Kyrgyz society. Young and idealistic General Skobelev (Aleksandr Golubkov) displays an intimate knowledge and respect of local people and speaks Kyrgyz. Impressed with the southern Kyrgyz army’s courage and resolve in defending their ancestral land, Skobelev persuades St. Petersburg authorities and the Tsar himself to negotiate a peace agreement with the Alai Queen. At the peace talks, the general treats Kurmanjan Datka with warmth and esteem. Complimenting her on the bravery and dedication of her warriors, he asks her to consider him her son. The voiceover accompanying the negotiations proudly enumerates the extraordinary terms of the agreement that include Russia’s non-interference in the lives of local people and the religion they profess, the release of all prisoners, and the return of all occupied lands.

The situation changes dramatically when the arrogant General Shvyikovsky (Vasilii Polzunov) replaces Skobelev as the Military Governor. He refuses to negotiate, makes an example of Kamchybek’s execution and condescendingly berates Kurmanjan for raising her son to be a criminal. Shvyikovsky, however, seems to be an exception rather than the rule. Prior to Kamchybek’s execution, another Russian officer, presumably Ionov, the historical Governor-General of Osh, who enjoyed friendly and trustful relations with the Alai ruler, contests the sentence as too harsh but has no power over the final decision. Following Kamchybek’s execution, Shvyikovsky is the only Russian to remain disdainfully seated, while Ionov and other officers get up and take off their hats to pay respect to the executed warrior and his stoic mother. 

Russian identity figures importantly in the depiction of Jantai khan’s son Shabdan (Ulan Omuraliyev) who leads northern Kyrgyz tribes to the General Assembly and has the honor of opening the event. Like the historical Shabdan Batyr, who served in the Russian army and, reportedly, helped Russians to arrange the peace settlement with the Alai Queen, the screen Shabdan wears a Russian Cossack uniform and speaks Russian to the imperial officers who block their way to the Assembly because of Kamchybek’s execution. While service to Russia has become a part of Shabdan’s Kyrgyz identity, the film suggests that he is still an outsider among Russians and has to follow their orders on his ancestral land. Kurmanjan’s more independent stance toward the Russians gives her an air of moral superiority over the Russified northerner. Even though Shabdan inaugurates the Assembly, he reads from Kurmanjan’s appeal to the Kyrgyz tribes to unite and “be ready to sacrifice their loved ones for the sake of [their] Fatherland.” Overall, the film seems to acknowledge Russia’s lasting impact and geopolitical supremacy while at the same time proposing honorable terms of mutual engagement.  

In charting the country’s course among more powerful neighbors, the film additionally asks what it means to be ethnically Kyrgyz in a multi-ethnic society. Both in relation to the Russo-Soviet influence and the Turkestan past that ethnic Kyrgyzs share with Uzbeks and Tajiks, the film sets out to unearth a uniquely Kyrgyz identity. When making a bid for directing Kurmanjan Datka, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, who graduated from Moscow’s State Film Institute in 2009, claimed that he is “the only living filmmaker in Kyrgyzstan who knows all the customs and traditions of the Kyrgyz people” (Tolomushova). Starting with the Epos of Manas and General Assembly (kurultai), and ending with traditional architecture, dress, music, pastoral nomadism and horsemanship, the film is packed with colorfully depicted Kyrgyz-ness. 

Sher-Niyaz, however, is particularly careful to set Kyrgyz identity apart from other surrounding identities as a way of affirming Kyrgyz people’s uniqueness and ancient roots. Thus the film calls attention to the imperial provenance of both the Cyrillic script currently used in Kyrgyzstan and the Arabic alphabet employed in the times of Kurmanjan Datka. Kyrgyz characters in the film embroider and pen their messages with the ancient Orkhon-Yenisei script, an early Turkic writing system unique to Central Asia and used in the Kyrgyz Kaganate. The ancient writing serves as a bonding love code when, during their first meeting, Alymbek Datka asks Kurmanjan if she can read the inscription on her water jar. She reveals that her grandfather taught her how to read, thus underscoring the importance of generational memory and promoting the concept of ethnicity based on ancient ties. When they part, Alymbek Datka invokes a pre-Islamic Kyrgyz deity, Tengri, whose name is written on the jar, to bless Kurmanjan. 

While Muslim identity is central to Kyrgyzstan, the film demonstrates how the Kyrgyz have creatively adopted Islam in their larger system of traditional customs and beliefs, thus effectively making it their own. The film juxtaposes this balanced and peaceful Kyrgyz religiosity with the destructive devoutness of fundamentalist Islam as practiced by the Kokand regime and some ignorant or unpatriotic Kyrgyz. In its somewhat contradictory depictions of Islam, the film reflects the tensions between what the post-Soviet Kyrgyz perceive as “modernity” and “excessive religious fervor” (McBrien 2009), as well as contemporary Kyrgyz fears of Islamic fundamentalism, especially in the southern regions bordering with Uzbekistan. 

kurmanjanThe literate Alymbek and Kurmanjan, who alone can read Tengri’s sacred name in the Sharia execution scene, obviously embrace the inclusive, nature-oriented worldview espoused in Tengrism, the ancient monotheistic religion of the Turkic nomads that deifies the all-powerful Sky and incorporates elements of animism, shamanism, and ancestor worship. The two protagonists’ open-mindedness and compassion stand in a direct contrast to the prejudice and savagery of the pious men with prayer beads who are about to stone an innocent woman to death. Equally important is Alymbek’s evocation of secular law in solving the dispute, which stresses modernity as an important part of Kyrgyz identity. The film also highlights the dangers of fundamentalist Islam in the scene of Alymbek’s beheading by the agents of the Kokand Khan. Returning from inspiring unification talks with the North, Alymbek stops at a roadside mosque in the steppe for an afternoon prayer. He peacefully hands in his weapons to the mosque attendant when suddenly a group of masked men dressed in black appear from inside the mosque. An evil Kyrgyz man, Choton, proceeds to decapitate Alymbek during the prayer. The film balances this portrayal of Islam as practiced by the Kokand khan with the honorable behavior of the Emir of Bukhara who returns Alymbek’s body to the grieving family and punishes Choton. 

Islam plays a significantly less important role in Kurmanjan’s world even after she enters the male sphere of politics. She thanks the Emir for “fulfilling his Muslim duty” but never participates in Islamic rituals herself. Instead, she is closely connected to Tengrism, more generally through her emphatic attachment to the ancestral land and its ancient traditions and particularly in the childbirth scene: still wearing her mourning attire, Kurmanjan oversees a particularly long and painful delivery in her village. A full moon shines upon the steppe settlement and a shaman circles the birthing woman’s yurt with a prayer: “Heaven, hear us now. Let the child be born and ease her pains. Stop this torment. Don’t let her die. You’ll regret it.” The prayer metaphorically evokes Kurmanjan’s own “birthing pains” from which she will emerge as the Mother of her nation. As the Kokand army approaches and Alymbek is no longer there to protect the tribe, Kurmanjan decides not to flee to safety with the other women and children, choosing to lead her people in the battle. At the end of the film, after the 95-year-old Kurmanjan poses for the famous photograph of her on horseback taken by Gustaf Mannerheim shortly before her death, her spirit lives on in the beautiful tigress that continues her free journey through the vast Kyrgyz steppe.
 
Overall, Kurmanjan Datka raises the important issue of the Kyrgyz north-south divide and attempts an analysis of the country’s complex colonial legacy. In commemorating a compassionate and inclusive woman politician who places public good over personal interests, the film models leadership for Kyrgyzstan’s divided society torn between modern civic ideals and rootedness in traditional ties. As a state-sponsored patriotic epic, the film clearly seeks a balance between the civic-based and ethnic-based approaches to contemporary nation building. In its conscious attempt to differentiate Russian and Uzbek imperial abuses against the Kyrgyz people from the meaningful cultural and political ties that link these ethnic groups with Kyrgyzstan, the film most closely approaches the more liberal national concept of “Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home.” At the same time, it connects the nation’s identity too closely with ethnic Kyrgyz culture, to the extent of marginalizing or even replacing some of the non-Kyrgyz influences with ancient Kyrgyz practices and artifacts.  Even though it does not always live up to the proposed ideal, in promoting Kurmanjan Datka’s legacy of honorable compromise for the sake of both national unity and peaceful coexistence with ethnic others, the film takes the first step in articulating the need for greater intra- and inter-ethnic unity in independent Kyrgyzstan. 

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA

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Works Cited

Abikeeva, Gulnara. 2014.  “Nashe kino.”

Canning, Emily. 2014. “The Two Films Inside Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanjan Datka.” Radio Free Europe. 30 December.

Marat, Erica. 2008.  “Imagined Past, Uncertain Future: The Creation of National Ideologies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”  Problems of Post-Communism 55: 12-24. 

Marat, Erica.  2009.  “Nation Branding in Central Asia: A New Campaign to Present Ideas About the State and the Nation.”  Europe-Asia Studies, 61.7: 1123-1136. 

McBrien, Julie. 2009.  “Mukadas’s Struggle: Veils and Modernity in Kyrgyzstan.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (issue supplement s1), pp. s127-s144. 

“Roza Otunbaeva: God Kurmanzhan datki otmechen na samom vysokom urovne.” 2011. 9 October.

Tolomushova, Gul’bara. 2014.  “Skazanie ob Alaiskoi tsaritse.”  Vechernii Bishkek, 29 August.  

Yessenova, Saulesh. 2011. “Nomad for Export, Not for Domestic Consumption: Kazakhstan’s Arrested Endeavour to ‘Put the Country on the Map.’”   Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 5.2: 181-203.


Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains, Kyrgyzstan, 2014
Color, 135 minutes
Director: Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Screenplay: Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, Bakytbek Turdubaev, Sultan Raev
Camera: Murat Aliev
Music: Bakyt Alisherov, Murzali Zheenaliyev
Sound: Bakyt Niyazaliev
Art Director: Abylkasym Ismailov, Dzhamal Kozhakhmetov
Editing: Eldiyar Madakim
Cast: Lunara Aiaskanova, Elina Abai Kyzy, Nasira Mambetova, Dzhamal Seidakhmatova, Aziz Muradillayev, Adilet Usubaliyev, Mirlan Abdulayev, Adyl Bolorbek-Uulu, Ashir Chokubaev, Jenish Smanov, Abdykalyk Akmatov, Akylbek Abdykalykov, Ulan Omuraliev, Nurbek Samatov, Aleksandr Golubkov, Vasiliy Polzunov, Ryspek Jumabaev, Dmitriy Mitrofanov, Ruslan Jumabaev.
Producers: Zhyldyzkan Dzholdoshova, Farkhad Bekmanbetov, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz.
Production: Kyrgyz Film in association with Aitysh Film. 

Sadyk Sher-Niyaz: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (Kyrgyzstan, 2014)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2015

Updated: 03 Jul 15