It was the latest life-imitating-art moment around the Netflix thriller 6 Underground.
Viewers in eastern Turkmenistan this week watched the film’s bevy of international stars overthrow the dictator of an imaginary country with echoes of their own, thanks to a TV broadcast from neighboring Uzbekistan.
It is unclear whether the programming choice by Uzbek Sevimli TV was simply a response to the film’s growing popularity, a trolling of Ashgabat, or effectively a hack to skirt Turkmen censorship.
But 6 Underground’s fictional, foreign-led conspirators hack the dictatorship’s national TV network at one point in the film to air a call to insurrection by the dictator’s brother.
Turkmen officials have sought to block 6 Underground’s circulation in their post-Soviet republic and warned the public of Western propaganda and alleged U.S. efforts to undermine Turkmenistan’s statehood since the film’s release in December.
It depicts an American billionaire and vigilante leader who has been traumatized by the brutality of a Central Asian regime in “Turgistan” trying to violently overthrow its dictator.
The locals in 6 Underground seemingly speak Turkmen and have Turkmen-style names, Turgistan’s state symbols resemble those of Turkmenistan, and the villainous dictator shares his first name with a very real favored horse of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Netflix is blocked in Turkmenistan, as are most international social networks and major Western-based news websites.
But Uzbek Sevimli TV, whose broadcasts reach several districts of Turkmenistan, aired the film in a late-night slot on January 21.
An RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan’s Lebap Province confirmed that Sevimli TV is popular locally and that its programming can be seen in the districts of Dargan Ata, Sayat, and Khojambaz.
Many Central Asians are acutely aware of government censorship efforts and their limited menu of options for evading them, including old-fashioned TV antennas to catch foreign broadcasts and other, more modern workarounds.
Netflix announced recently that more than 83 million viewers had seen 6 Underground on its service since its release last month.
Like a number of American action-film director Michael Bay’s other movies, it’s generally been panned by critics.
But those reviews are nothing compared to the response of authorities in Turkmenistan, which has never held an election deemed fair by Western observers and whose politics have been dominated by two men since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Security officials and prosecutors in Lebap Province earlier this month were convening meetings of civil servants and students at local schools and cultural centers to lecture them on the perceived evils of Western propaganda, according to an RFE/RL correspondent there.
The correspondent said 6 Underground was a focus of the gatherings and that officials had referred to the United States as “the enemy of Turkmenistan.”
Berdymukhammedov quickly dashed hopes of greater openness and democracy soon after taking over as president in 2006, and his own state-imposed cult of personality now rivals that of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The fictional dictator in 6 Underground is named Rovach Alimov.
Rovach is the real name of one of Berdymukhammedov’s prized horses and the title of a song purportedly penned by the president that was broadcast last year on Turkmen state TV.
The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat took the unusual step of responding publicly to the furor around the film, saying in an e-mailed response to questions from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that 6 Underground “is a work of fiction produced by a private entertainment company.”
The embassy said it and the United States “remain committed to a strong and productive relationship with Turkmenistan.”
Influential Uzbek national cinematic agency Uzbekkino’s director-general, Firdavs Abdukholikov, is thought to be a major stakeholder in Sevimli TV.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has pursued limited reforms since coming to power three years ago that have kindled hopes of greater freedoms and democratic elections down the road for Turkmenistan’s neighbor to the north.
Human Rights Watch said last month that Mirziyoev had introduced “important reforms,” including improvements to an “abysmal” human rights record, but that Uzbekistan’s political system remained “largely authoritarian.”
Netflix’s media center did not immediately respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment on the Turkmen developments or the situation around Sevimli’s right to broadcast 6 Underground.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Turkistan, a city in Kazakhstan with around 200,000 inhabitants and a UNESCO Cultural Heritage listing, issued an open letter to Netflix and director Bay noting the similarity of Turgistan to the name of his city.
Mayor Rashid Ayupov lamented via Facebook that “millions of people around the world might wonder about the fictional country ‘Turgistan’ and in many ways negatively think about our city, since both names sound very similar.”
He said Kazakhs were also buzzing with speculation about whether Turkistan — not Turkmenistan — was an inspiration for the film.