Oliver Stone has interviewed Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev for a new eight-hour film series which has been attacked as a hagiography that contributes to the leader’s cult of personality.
In the film, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, Stone employs the same non-confrontational approach to interviewing autocrats that has made him a favourite of Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych and others seeking to polish their reputations by sitting down with the Oscar-winning director of Platoon and JFK.
“Call #Nazarbayev what you want – dictator, strongman, tyrant, founder,” Stone tweeted about his film. “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 its disposal of its nuclear weaponry.”
Modest is not a word often used to describe Nazarbayev, 81, who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades. He won elections in 2015 with 97.5% of the vote and has adopted the name elbasy, or father of the nation, and the capital city, airport, main university and high streets have been named after him. Two new statues of him have been unveiled in the past week alone.
The film “is obviously part of his ongoing cult of personality”, said Joanna Lillis, a veteran reporter on the country and the author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. She noted similar efforts, such as a six-part biopic of Nazarbayev produced in Kazakhstan. “It can only be described as propaganda … this one though is obviously directed at a foreign audience to burnish his reputation and his legacy.”
In a telephone interview from Nur-Sultan, the Kazakhstan capital renamed after Nazarbayev, Stone rejected questions about whether his film would be used as propaganda and whether he should have pressed Nazarbayev harder on his cult of personality.
“I’m not going to come over and lecture these people about how to run their country and how to run a democracy,” said Stone, adding that he viewed Nazarbayev as something of a “tribal chief” managing a difficult country. “It doesn’t work. Democracy barely works in the US.”
The film follows a series of documentary projects featuring Stone about Russia and Ukraine that reflect a strongly pro-Kremlin worldview, including glowing interviews with Putin and former Ukrainian officials such as Yanukovych and Viktor Medvedchuk, a confidante of the Russian president. Stone has noted that the films, which are strongly critical of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and have been attacked as propaganda vehicles, are very popular in Russia.
“What’s wrong with celebrating Nazarbayev for 30 years in office,” he said when asked if he was concerned the film would be used as propaganda. “Give him credit for building up the country and keeping the peace and not turning it into a trash heap like Ukraine.”
With the new film, Stone has confirmed his credentials as a go-to western interviewer for current and former strongmen hoping to avoid prickly questions about democracy, and who prefer to discuss their historical and geopolitical missions in broad strokes.
Stone “sounds a lot like the people managing the ideology in Kazakhstan,” said Vyacheslav Abramov, the founder of the independent Vlast.kz news site. “Nazarbayev of course has had successes, but Stone quite ably ignores what might be called the mistakes or problems that have arisen during his 30 years in power.
“Of course Stone didn’t want to make an honest film about Kazakhstan. That wasn’t his goal, his desire. He’s a common, and I think, disgraceful, propagandist. At least, that is what he has turned into.”
Stone and his producer, Igor Lopatonok, declined to discuss the financing behind the film but denied that the Kazakh government had any involvement. Nor did Stone name his fee, but said it was commensurate with his work as an interviewer and producer of the documentary. He would have earned more making feature films, he said.
Stone, who had never been to Kazakhstan before the film, said he received much of his information about the country from Lopatonok, a businessman turned film producer who had also served as his guide to Ukrainian politics.
Asked whether they included any dissenting voices about Kazakhstan in the film, Lopatonok said they did not.
“I heard you asking if we were talking to opposition,” he said. “No, my directorial view, I want to follow my script, and my script was to tell the story about the country through interviewing the leader.”
Both men sat in Nur-Sultan this week alongside Nazarbayev’s press secretary for a press briefing on the film covered widely by state media.
Abramov said his outlet had intentionally not written about the film, which it recognised as propaganda. In the decade since founding Vlast.kz, it has had not obtained an interview with Nazarbayev or the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
“Nazarbayev’s access to journalists is extremely screened, extremely controlled,” said Lillis. “The idea that an independent or critical journalist or filmmaker could get any access … is absolutely out of the question.”
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