Central Asia-watching viewers of the recently released Netflix action flick 6 Underground will have been tickled by the appearance of an imaginary country called Turgistan.
Although there is no real country by the name, many of the visual cues for this renegade tinpot dictatorship were transparently based on Turkmenistan. The Turgistani national emblem is identical, the fictitious country appears to speak Turkmen – so much so that one character is seen frustratedly reading a teach-yourself Turkmen manual – and the overblown monuments and buildings in some scenes are clear nods to the type of things one might see in Ashgabat.
The movie, which plays out in broad comic tones, was so absurd and forgettable that it was legitimate to expect it to endure only briefly in the public imagination. Turkmen officials, however, appear to be hopping mad.
RFE/RL’S Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on January 8 that apparatchiks in the northeastern Lebap province have begun organizing public assemblies at schools and culture centers to lecture state employees and schoolchildren about the evils of America.
“Speakers at these gatherings say: “America is the enemy of the Turkmen state. The United States is undertaking massive efforts to destroy our country. It is clear that they are doing everything possible to destroy our country,’” one Radio Azatlyk correspondent reported.
Turkmenistan has been waging war against Turgistan ever since the December 13 release of Underground 6 on the Netflix streaming service.
In late December, Azatlyk reported that film rental stores were being fined for illicitly providing copies of the movie, which apparently grew quickly in popularity once word of the Turkmenistan parallel had spread. Since the movie is not available locally on DVD, the easiest way to see the movie is by having it loaded onto a flash drive – a common practice in countries where the internet is either too slow or expensive. This is forcing Turkmen security service operatives to do some legwork.
“Men in plainclothes are going to rental stories in Ashgabat, Turkmenabat, Mary and Dashoguz and asking to see the Underground 6,” the Azatlyk correspondent said. “When the order is completed, the customer receives the USB stick (with the movie on it), but instead of paying, they flash their badge.”
Netflix was reportedly blocked in Turkmenistan shortly after the movie was released, although one reader has contacted Eurasianet since an earlier version of this piece was published to state that the website was available and that he had watched 6 Underground in Ashgabat. The film is also being distributed through the Google Play website, which has also been blocked.
Although Turkmenistan is used as the template for some aspects of Turgistan, the fictional country is also evidently a grotesquely exaggerated combination of Libya and Syria, with perhaps a dash of Azerbaijan.
In Underground 6, Turgistan is embroiled in a largely unexplained civil war waged by the evil dictator Rovach Alimov – the first name happens to be same as that of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s favorite horse – against his own population. The climax of the movie sees a shadowy American tycoon engineer an uprising of the long-oppressed Turgistani people against Rovach, who is eventually dispatched in a scene that is, in questionable taste, meant to evoke the final moments of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Ramshackle post-Soviet/Afghanistan-style republics have for decades been an easy go-to for Hollywood screenwriters and video game creators. The practice is so widespread that it was itself parodied in the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, which features villains from a terrorist-ridden nation called Derkaderkastan.
Journalists and politicians have unwittingly also engaged in the game of inventing non-existent countries in the region.
In January 2015, New York Times journalist John Branch inadvertently fashioned the country of Kyrzbekistan – a confused meld of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. A raft of internet memes and mostly gentle mockery duly followed.
Less amusingly for Central Asia-watchers, U.S. presidential candidacy no-hoper Herman Cain in 2011 sought to deflect the possibility of being caught out with an obscure world affairs general knowledge question by devising his own -stan.
"I'm ready for the 'gotcha' questions and they're already starting to come," he told a reporter at the time. "And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say you know, I don't know. Do you know?"
The undiplomatic implication being that countries in the region are of so little importance that to be expected to know the names of their leaders would be unreasonable.
Central Asian government can be notoriously thin-skinned and unforgiving about how their nations are depicted on film.
Kazakhstan bristled for several years at what they perceived as the reputational damage caused by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, whose popularity reached a peak with the release of the 2006 movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
With time, however, officials came to recognize the usefulness of the exposure that Kazakhstan had been given by Borat and would attribute a surge in tourist numbers to the popularity of the character.
Update: This article was updated to reflect reader feedback.