QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAINS
official selection of the Palm Springs International Film Festival 2015
text and photography JORGE PEREZCHICA
Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains was released in honor of the 200th anniversary of Queen Kurmanjan of Kyrgyz Kaganat, national hero and mother of their nation. “It was a very laborious and long process,” expressed director, writer, and producer Sadyk Sher-Niyaz. “The idea of the film nurtured for nearly 20 years. And only in 2012 the government supported [us] and we started shooting. For me, every period of the film was important and left a lot of memories.” The result of this labor of love became Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains, a sweeping historical epic drama shot in lush locations with lavish costumes and set productions that transport viewers to another world. The film sets the story in the year 840 as the narrator states, “As time passed with conflicts amongst locals and merciless invasions by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the great power of Kyrgyz Kaganat fell… Over a thousand years, this former great empire shattered into pieces. Only 40 remaining tribes are still surviving in the mountains.” Immediately, we are introduced to Kurmanjan as a child in 19th century Central Asia. It is predicted that she will have a great destiny and that she will become the ruler of her country and save the nation from total destruction. Her parents are told, “Your daughter is worth ten sons. Our country will need you tomorrow. Let the lord give you a long life.” This prediction was mocked, as women at that time had no rights. Soon, we cut to Kurmanjan as a young woman, portrayed impeccably by actress Elina Abai Kyz, forced into an arranged marriage with a man she does not love. However, she runs back home the night of her wedding, breaking with tradition and bringing shame on herself and her family. The feud between the two families is resolved by Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillaev), ruler of the Alai highland country, who frees Kurmanjan from the imposed marriage and later takes her as his wife. Initially, Kyz didn’t expect that she could play the part of Kurmanjan, being one of 500 candidates, 200 being professional actresses, but one of the producers encouraged her to audition. Kyz waited four months before she was approved — after that, she says she doesn’t remember much because everything was so hazy. For the part, Kyz learned to ride a horse and she had to block out all social media because there was so much involvement. “It was very difficult because it was in the mountains,” Kyz recalls. Now that everyone has seen the film and likes it, she forgets about all the hardships and says that she has an opportunity to represent her country.
Occasionally, director Sher-Niyaz takes creative liberty placing a fierce tiger on as Kurmanjan’s spirit, illustrating her strength and courage. “[The] tigress in the film [is] named Shakira. Yes, exactly, the name of the famous pop singer,” explained Sher-Niyaz. “We brought her from Moscow. [She] is a definite symbol of courage, bravery and resilience… and appears when Kurmanjan Datka took heavy trials of life.” After her husband’s death, the burden of the responsibility for the safety of the people and the independence of her country falls on the shoulders of Kurmanjan. As time progresses, the Russian Empire invades Central Asia and begins its colonial policy, but after long battles and numerous losses, eventually a peace agreement is signed with Kurmanjan.
Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains was submitted to the 87th Academy Awards, filled with passion, intrigue, bloody battle scenes, spectacular landscapes, and lavish costumes. The film was shot on location with a budget of merely $1.5 million in various parts of the beautiful country of Kyrgyzstan. Remarkably, they were able to shut down St. Petersburg’s Square in front of the Winter Palace in Russia for filming. Over 10,000 people were involved with production in front of and behind the camera. “[Kurmanjan] is very famous,” clarified Sher-Niyaz. “It is very difficult because everyone knows her. Everyone at school learned the history of this woman.” Although he admitted feeling a great deal of pressure from the media, he tried to balance between making a film that was very factual, but also very entertaining.
Now the highest box office grossing film produced in Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanjan Datka Queen of the Mountains has become the most successful film the country has ever seen, and only two months after its release. “The reaction of the audience in Kyrgyzstan and in America was delicious,” said Sher-Niyaz. “The audience warmly received the film after watching, actively discussed [it], and [said] good words. It was a victory. This is what we have achieved with the team.”