This week, Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage attended the Eurasia International Film Festival in Astana, Kazakhstan. His appearance spurred a flurry of positive press coverage for the country’s authoritarian government. One photo of him went viral, and the regime bragged about Hollywood stars visiting its capital in state media. Cage's appearance was an opportunity for the dictatorship to claim international leadership in art and film, while it stifles free expression domestically.
“Nicolas Cage is a world-famous actor, and his endorsement carries great influence. His glowing review gave Kazakhstan's dictatorship much-needed PR, and his photos boosted the regime's visibility on the international stage, even as it persecutes journalists, monitors and arrests social media users, crushes opposition voices, and strangles the electoral process,” said HRF President Thor Halvorssen. “Cage should be mortified that he participated in a whitewashing stunt for a murderous tyrant. If he aims to live up to his previous comments about artistic freedom and freedom of expression, he should donate the hefty payment he received from the dictatorship to independent Kazakh artists and journalists."
During his 26-year rule, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has systematically oppressed the civil liberties of Kazakh citizens. An infamous crackdown began after the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre, when government forces killed more than a dozen peaceful protesters. Since then, the government has shut down independent news outlets and used overbroad and vague charges to arrest prominent editors and reporters, as detailed in HRF’s 2013 report. Censorship and political persecution extend to members of the country’s creative community, such as theater director and Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Bolat Atabayev who was arrested for supporting a peaceful protest.
Cage was vocal in his support of the high-ranking public officials that sponsored his visit to Astana, and participated in several publicity stunts, including planting trees with the city’s mayor. The film festival itself is organized by the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the National Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences. Nazarbayev’s own nonprofit, the Foundation of the First President of Kazakhstan, whose mission is to promote and implement the dictator’s ideas, is a prominent partner.
"Cage and his publicity team could have determined from a quick online search that Kazakhstan is ruled by a brutal dictator. Cage was obviously aware of this. Did he not care?" asked HRF Chief Strategy Officer Alex Gladstein. "Celebrities could play a key role in the struggle for human rights, especially in places like Kazakhstan where artistic freedom is most under threat. To see role models like Nicolas Cage instead take the side of dictators is profoundly disappointing and a sign that human rights aren't a consideration for Hollywood stars."
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.