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Featured Film: Shadow of the Holy Book

Why are some of the world's biggest international companies translating an absurd foreign book into their own language, trying to hide their aims and avoid discussion about the human rights and freedom of speech situation in Turkmenistan?

Shadow of the Holy Book investigates the morality of international companies and the dictatorship of oil-and-gas-rich Turkmenistan. These companies help give the dictatorship the propaganda support that it needs to survive. Turkmenistan’s dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, has written a ludicrous book: the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a key tool in the government’s subjugation of human rights and free speech. Yet many international companies give their clandestine support to the Ruhnama and help suppress the country’s voices of opposition and dissidence – in return for multimillion-dollar business deals.

The film follows lawyer/author Kevin Frazier and film director Arto Halonen as they travel from Europe to Turkmenistan, and all the way to the United States. The filmmakers are in search of companies operating in Turkmenistan, particularly the companies that have translated the Ruhnama books into their own languages, and thus supported Turkmenistan's dictatorship in the most absurd way possible.

The film also reflects the current situation in Turkmenistan, the impact of the Ruhnama book, and the ethics of the companies operating there. This is done through the dissidents and refugees, many of whom have been the targets of persecution, torture, and assassination attempts organized by the Turkmenistan government.

Turkmenistan has some of the biggest oil-and-gas reserves in the world, and this has increased the greed and ruthlessness of corporate activities in the region. Well-known companies like DaimlerChrysler, Siemens, Bouygues and Caterpillar praise and support the Ruhnama book, a book that has destroyed the education system and has served as the centerpiece of the dictatorship. The filmmakers look for corporate responsibility, and the companies duck and hide – until a couple of business executives appear who are ready to talk and take responsibility.

The film is the story of a dictatorship, and also of the transition from one leader to the next. After the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov, the creator of the Ruhnama book, power has transferred to Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov who has, on the surface, made reforms but in terms of violations against freedom of speech and human rights everything has remained the same. He has also praised the Ruhnama, and used it to increase his power. Therefore international corporations continue to use the same techniques to please the new leader as they did with Niyazov. The shadow of the holy book continues to stretch beyond Niyazov’s grave.

Director's Note

It has long astonished me how international companies operate in countries where human rights are constantly trampled on. Dictatorships often ruthlessly abuse the propaganda benefits gained from their relationships with international companies—and pose no obstacle to the companies making huge profits in the dictators’ countries. 

Through the use of propaganda, those who live under these dictatorships are made to believe that the companies, and the countries from which the companies come, support the ruling government. It is through the apparent support given by the international companies that the dictators develop a shield against local opposition and dissidents, thus stopping the development of democratization. 

I was filming in China and Tibet when I saw how China “opened its doors” and the flood of international companies started to rush in. Many companies explained their participation in China by saying that they are helping democratization through the free market. The end result, however, is enough to give anyone shivers. The companies have gained enormous profits, and at the same time China has become one of the leading countries in the world. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is now in charge of deciding the destiny of other nations. And yet the human rights and free speech situation has not changed. Indeed, as a stronger state China has grown even more aggressive in its political approach to countries like Tibet and Taiwan. China’s political and economic power is maximized while the chance to influence China on human rights and free speech issues is minimized. When I heard about Turkmenistan and the actions of international companies there, I felt that a subject I had wanted to talk about for a long time was now within my reach. The ruthless self-interest of the companies, as well as the Turkmen state’s propaganda ambitions, could be dramatized and explained through the translation process of the dictator’s Ruhnama book. The absurd twists and turns related to the book provided a superb platform for the story, enabling it to reach from small vivid details to a vast international canvas. 

As oil and gas enter the picture, the actions of the involved countries become even more unscrupulous. Also, the moral boundaries of private individuals become less clear as they find a chance to get rich through actions that test their limits. Our questionable actions increase in the grey area, and the purity that resides in each of us turns darker if we don’t recognize, control, and question the consequences of our thoughts and deeds. 

As an ambitious business executive I may have made the same mistakes as the companies did in Turkmenistan. The settled company policies also shift our morals and easily blind us to the actual far-reaching impact of our actions. The companies and countries grow into monsters in circumstances that we have created, and at the same time we turn into monsters ourselves. The responsibility remains with everyone: communities, companies, and individuals. Further, it is a filmmaker’s responsibility to tell about these matters—perhaps as much for the filmmaker’s own development as for any other reason.