Does a legend make a film or does a film make a legend?
This was one of the questions I often asked myself as I followed the path of the film Kurmanjan Dakta: Queen of the Mountains and its historical heroine over one partly snowy, partly sweltering week in April across the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Born in 1811, Kurmanjan became datka (“righteous governor”) of several tribes in the Alai and Pamir mountain regions in 1865, a title she held until her death at age 97. She worked tirelessly to unite the region’s more than two dozen tribes amid regional and colonial threats that often set one against another.
At the heart of the film, which runs a bit over two hours, is a layered love story. On the one hand, Kurmanjan Datka fulfills the dream of intertribal unity promoted also by Alymbek, her second husband and predecessor as datka. On the other, it is a paean to Kyrgyzstan itself, a young nation formed in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film’s panoramas hint at why Kyrgyz culture abounds with stories as epic as the land itself.
Released in 2014, Queen of the Mountains ran on three out of four Kyrgyz theater screens in its first month, and it kept running in many for up to six months, setting box-office records and becoming the highest-grossing Kyrgyz film to date. In 2014 Kyrgyzstan submitted the film for Oscar consideration. With a budget of about $1.5 million, it was also the most expensive film made to date in the country and the first to receive substantial government arts support.
Located in Kurmanjan’s home area of Gulcha, near Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, the Kurmanjan Datka Museum of History and Ethnography is shaped like a traditional nomadic yurt. – ALIA YUNIS
At one of our last stops, we are in the town of Cholpan Ata. We find several schoolgirls gathered outside a dilapidated cinema. They’ve been sent by their teacher to watch last year’s Zar Zaman (Desperate Times), about the Youth Revolution of April 2010, when people took to the streets of Bishkek to protest government corruption. They’ve seen Kurmanjan Datka—of course—and now they’re looking forward to studying her. The seats in the theater are falling apart, and the screen dates to the 1960s, but for their generation, this is where legends and history make and remake each other.
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