A recently released minute-long music video promoting an upcoming movie in Kyrgyzstan has provoked a swell of indignation about a perceived surge of impropriety among young women. The controversy is but the latest episode in a simmering public debate over conservative and progressive values.
In the clip – a musical promo intended to generate chatter ahead of the release of “Albarsty,” a horror movie hitting the big screen on June 1 – three young women sing in sultry anticipation of being visited by a bogeyman, the Albarsty, the title character of the movie. While the movie is serious and dramatic in tone, the creators of the promo teaser opted for something more light-hearted.
According to Kyrgyz storytelling tradition, Albarsty, a mysterious and malevolent being, comes a-visiting while victims are sleeping, and strangles them.
But the singers in the promo clip turned the idea on its head, adding a sly implication of sexual mischief: “Every night I lie in bed with my clothes off/ He comes and I pretend not to see him/ He crawls on top of me, all over me/ And that is when it all begins/ First Albarsty plays with me / And then I play with him.”
If the readily offended conservative lobby in Kyrgyzstan were not exercised enough by those lyrics – and they were – some other verses, sung by an effete Albarsty figure clad all in black, compounded the outrage: “And I play with girls / And I play with boys / And I play with the old / And I play with the young / I even play with goats!”
The reaction from the online community was immediate and overwhelming – a response that took the creators of the clip by surprise. Rano Alymbayeva, one of the stars of the video, explained that their main aim was to advertise the upcoming movie. “We have a movie coming, so we decided to create this teaser made with a bit of black humor. Something for the over-18s,” she said.
The director of the clip, Askar Dumanayev, said he was taken aback by the public outcry. “We didn’t think people would be so critical and so cynical [toward the video],” Dumanayev said. “Humor is just humor, people should take things a bit more easy.”
Critics were indignant at what they perceived as the licentiousness on display and, even worse, that the creators of the video had tainted a Kyrgyz folk tale with themes of sexuality.
“I would say this was a total wash-out,” said Urmat Kaleyev, a former member of the Academy of Sciences, listing his complaints. “For a start, it was immoral. Second, don’t they have any idea what clips to film? Third, what kind of clownery is this? Fourth, you must not mess with otherworldly forces. This will come back to haunt you!”
Quite a few people online seemed to share his views. Some accused the three women in the video of being little better than prostitutes who had brought “shame on the nation.”
“We Kyrgyz people value such notions as discipline, traditions and customs. If we allow our beauties to lapse in this way, then tomorrow we can simply give away our land, freedom, honor and dignity to neighboring nations,” a YouTube viewer wrote in one of the most up-voted comments.
The opposing camp was supportive of the girls in the video for poking fun at Kyrgyzstan’s traditional mores and challenging the taboo on sexual themes in the local entertainment scene.
“In our society, which has so many hang-ups, and which is so critical to creative expression, I am all for any videos like these. It was funny, some of the humor was, well, you know… but I liked that the girls were not shy or afraid,” said Bishkek-based entrepreneur Sumsarbek Mamirali, a self-described feminist.
Bishkek activist Reina Arturova was a little more skeptical about the humorous value of the promo. Arturova said that although the clip could hardly be described as espousing feminist ideals, it was refreshing that the women depicted in it were cast as active participants, rather than helpless victims.
The Kyrgyz internet has seen a proliferation of crude sexist humor in which women are shown in a subordinate position to men, and the Albarsty video did at least buck that trend, Arturova said.
“It would seem like this is all just a joke, but they are increasingly cornering us into an unequal role in society,” she said. “But when in a song they bring up taboos, intimate issues, it is a sign there has been some female emancipation in videos.”
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.