While the US government cuts funding for research and education in Central Asia, J Lo’s surprise birthday serenade in Turkmenistan reminds us of what Americans truly do best: entertainment. Although satiating the whims of an appallingly repressive regime is perhaps not the most productive form of exerting influence, entertainment does have the capacity to effect social and political change. Thus in Kyrgyzstan, blessed with the region’s least stringent media controls, we can explore the fruits of a productive form of influence: the new television series Dorm.
At first Dorm, or Obshaga in Russian, seems like a typical youth-oriented sitcom. Like the long-running American series Friends, the show centers around three male and three female characters that share intimate friendships and relationships. Like the Russian comedy Univer, the protagonists are all college students who share a dormitory. Then the similarities fade, for American and Russian sitcoms tend to have clearer boundaries between genres. Friends and Univer are unambiguous comedies with a hefty dose of slapstick and few soul-wrenching soliloquies. Obshaga likewise offers genuine hilarity, but before you hit the floor laughing, out pours unexpected pathos. The series unabashedly confronts Kyrgyzstan’s most pressing social problems.
The central issue tackled by Dorm is the tension surrounding nationality. Although the early Soviet period helped entrench aspects of ethnic identity in Central Asia that were previously non-existent, during the majority of its history the state worked to subsume ethnic differences in favor of a shared Soviet citizenship. Since Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the narrative promoted by its first president Akayev of “Kyrgyzstan – our common home” has become steadily unraveled in favor of practices that exclusively promote the titular nation. The breaking point of increasing tension in the wake of April 2010 revolution occurred two months later in Osh, where several hundred people were killed largely along ethnic lines. Since this “war” as many in Osh referred to it at the time was perceived of as between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Dorm promotes an alternative vision for interethnic relations: make love, not war.
Thus enter our dormitory heroine: a strikingly beautiful Uzbek girl from Osh named Tahmina. The object of her affections? A handsome Kyrgyz lad who in his spare time practices Judo and strums his guitar; that is when he’s not busy saving damsels in distress. Yet it’s not just their love story that gets your heart racing. The other characters are equally intriguing. There’s Drei – the cool, rich city boy who has fallen out of his father’s good graces – and bankroll. Drei is the perfect foil to naïve country bumpkin, Azamat, who is constantly falling prey to the shenanigans of his shaardyk (urban) peers. For instance, there is an episode where Drei explains to Azamat that thongs are all the rage in fashion and convinces him to wear one . However, this faux pas does not prevent Tahmina’s sweet Russian roommate, Nadya, from finding Azamat adorable and feeding him borsch.
The show tempts tolerance in the same way that all great works of fiction do: through empathy. As we follow the characters through their trials and tribulations as they attend university in Bishkek, we see beyond their labels and relate to them as individuals. As such, I noticed some incredible changes in people’s comments on the website namba.kg, where you can watch the show’s 25 episodes. At first there were lots of nationalist statements like, “what, you couldn’t find any Kyrgyz girls for this show?” This alludes to the fact that in addition to Tahmina and her Russian roommate Nadya, who are played by Uzbek and Russian actresses respectively, the third female roommate (Meerim) is also an Uzbek actress playing the part a Kyrgyz girl. Yet comments like “it’s such a shame what happened to Meerim!” or “Poor Tahmina!” far outnumber the occasional racist troll. The empathy was spreading.
In addition to fostering empathy toward those with diverse ethnic backgrounds, the show confronts other pressing social issues. From corruption among the police to the bribing of professors, the young characters strive for fairness in a political system that is weighted against them. Yet corruption is an uncontroversial problem compared to the much heavier issues that arise. For instance, it seems like no soap opera would be complete without a surprise pregnancy—and viewers will not be disappointed there. But the fact that sex happens in the dorms of Bishkek—before marriage—is not at all sugarcoated. There is desire. There is danger. Characters change; they become disillusioned. But not all hope is lost.
One hopeful sign for the future is the show’s linguistic medium of choice. Seeing each character as an individual rather than as an ethnic stereotype is abetted by the fact that they speak in Russian – a more politically neutral choice given the region’s diversity. Yet the show’s characters still pepper their Russian with words and phrases from their mother tongue. Azamat switches languages most often; he is first introduced rambling in Kyrgyz about how he lost his only T-shirt while getting mugged just moments after arriving in Bishkek. An even more startling language choice occurs in the opening scene of the first episode: a conversation between Tahmina and her mother is shot entirely in Uzbek. Although Russian subtitles are included in such instances, the show’s humor will be especially appreciated by those who speak Russian and Kyrgyz. Azamat valiantly speaks in Russian even though his accent betrays his rural origins, while Nadya speaks softly to Azamat’s mother in Kyrgyz. The characters put forth the effort to speak in each other’s languages, and this symbolic choice demonstrates a level of mutual respect that makes a world of difference.
At the end of the show when the credits roll, the seal of the US Department of State presents a telling sign. It appears that the American embassy in Bishkek lent some assistance toward getting this show off the ground. While I lament the cuts to programs that assist Central Asia and even more so the use of funds for destructive rather than constructive purposes, this time I applaud American assistance. The local creators of this show are hip and worldly. They are able see their compatriots not as Kyrgyz, Uzbek, or Russian, but as fellow Kyrgyzstanis. They understand the most serious problems of the day, but are frustrated by a political system that excludes their generation. This is how they can reach out to their peers—through doing the hard work of getting people to swallow sensitive issues by wrapping it in a savory coat of sentimentality. Surrender to Obshaga’s charms, and you won’t regret it.