Go to Turkmenistan, they said. Make a film about it. I can't, I said. The country's closed off. No one knows anything about it, and you're not allowed to film there. Find a way, they insisted. Film it secretly. But isn't that dangerous? Won't I get caught, and thrown into prison, and kept there for the rest of my natural life? What are you, they snapped back, a man or a mouse? Squeak, squeak, I went. But they sent me anyway. And I did end up becoming the first Western journalist to make a film about Turkmenistan or, more precisely, about the thoroughly potty dictator who ran the country.
I'd heard about Turkmenistan while making another film about some naked performance artists in next door Kazakhstan. The performance artists, who were girls, made their naked art in temperatures of -20C, so I knew that people were tough and different in this part of the world. Before that, I'd filmed in Uzbekistan, a really heavy location where things had been tense. But, perversely, I liked it. And I'd learnt that this entire slab of central Asia consisting of dodgy former Soviet republics trying to acquire modern identities for themselves was fascinating, and unlike anywhere else. I wanted to find out more. And everyone seemed to agree that the weirdest place of all hereabouts was Turkmenistan.
Since independence in 1991, Turkmenistan had been in the hands of a particularly eccentric and unlikely despot called Turkmenbashi, below. In these parts, all the despots running the new countries are thoroughly disagreeable and dangerous ex-Soviets. To qualify as the dictator of a Stan it appears you need to have spent your early years as a communist lackey. Looking back even further, ever since Genghis Khan led the Golden Horde into these deserts, this has been the territory of the Big Man. That's obviously the preferred mode of government. No one has ever voted for it, of course, at least not in completely fair and transparent elections. But it cannot be a coincidence that the whole of Borat Land is now run by hardened wielders of the big stick who enjoy their jobs so much that they show no sign of leaving them. There is also no doubt that among the crazy dictators, Turkmenbashi was the craziest.
As I see it, the chief attraction of being a dictator is that no wheeze of yours, no whim, however eccentric or impractical, will ever be dismissed by anyone else as undoable. Turkmenbashi was particularly good at acting on whims. The list of things he banned includes circuses, ballet, dogs, car radios, gold teeth, lip syncing to live music on television, make-up, hamburgers, and, alas, film crews.
His penchant for statues of himself was legendary. But he also liked giant photos, and his own bons mots, which he wrote up in 20ft letters on every suitable Turkmen surface. On the plane over, you find yourself being examined by him because all Turkmen planes sport a smiling Turkmenbashi on the cabin wall in front of you. He's also on the money, the vodka bottles, plates, watches, dishcloths, carpets, school noticeboards, and every television programme on all the channels. Ashgabat, his capital, which was still being built when we arrived, consists chiefly of statues of Turkmenbashi with a few government agencies crammed into the spaces between. The statues are gold and the agencies are white, as they are made entirely of Italian marble imported from the same quarries that Michelangelo used when carving his David. When the desert sun hits the white government agencies they glow with an angelic radiance.
Fortunately for us, there was one more thing that Turkmenbashi was fond of building: hotels. Particularly five-star hotels. There are more of those in Ashgabat than there are in London. Onenew street had 30 of them arranged in a line along it, all five star, all microscopically different from the one before, and all empty. Thus the only way to get into the country is to enter on a tourist visa, and book yourself into one of the empty hotels. There are various hoops you have to jump through first, but it is, occasionally, possible. Eventually we got lucky. Which is where our problems began.
The trouble with secret filming, if you're not very experienced at it, which I wasn't, is that in the effort to appear natural you overplay your ordinariness. And try to become extraordinary. What can five blokes with cameras who keep whispering things into those cameras pretend to be? It was the director who came up with our ridiculous cover story which was that we were a bunch of blokes on a stag week. The thinking was that we could pretend to be drunk while accidentally wandering into places we were not supposed to be - which was basically everywhere - and that constantly taking pictures of ourselves was a normal thing for blokes to do on a stag week.
The flaw in this thinking was that no one in their right mind would go to Turkmenistan for a stag week and, more seriously still, as it turned out, that no one in Turkmenistan had any notion whatsoever of the entire stag concept. To their way of thinking, if you're getting married, you spend your time with your family getting ready and preparing yourself mentally for the sanctity of the occasion. Even the Russian whores who crowded into our hotel bar as soon as the sun showed any sign of dipping below the horizon could not understand the idea of a stag week. Why aren't you with your family, they boomed.
By some perverse trick of destiny, the only guidebook to Turkmenistan has been written by the former British ambassador to the country, and in the section on hotels, Her Majesty's ex-man in these parts warns you explicitly that the hotel rooms are bugged. So you can't film in the rooms; you can't film in the streets; you can't film government buildings or the President's Palace; you can't film interviews, and you most certainly cannot film pieces to camera while standing in front of golden statues of Turkmenbashi. So what can you do? You'll have to wait and see for yourselves.
By the way, two days after we got back, Turkmenbashi died. So if anyone from the Turkmenistan authorities is reading this, I swear that was merely a terrible coincidence.
Travels with My Camera: The Happy Dictator is on More4 on 18 April at 10.30pmReuse content