Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Pages 40-45

Cinema in Azerbaijan

War provides an immensely riveting and powerful subject for cinema. But making war movies is exorbitantly expensive. Filming battle scenes may require hundreds, even thousands of actors and extras. The additional salaries, uniforms, tanks and artillery all add substantially to costs of filming. Here's how resourceful filmmakers from Azerbaijan have dealt with this challenge.

The theme of war has always captured the imagination of cinematographers. Azerbaijani filmmakers are no exception. World War II or what Soviets usually refer to as the "Great Patriotic War" (1941-1945) broke out rather unexpectantly on June 22, 1941. Although Azerbaijan never became a combat zone, the republic suffered tremendous losses. Between 1940-1946, the population declined more than half a million people from 3.27 million to 2.73 million. In other words, one out of every six Azerbaijanis became a victim of the war.

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Left: From "Her Great Heart" (Onun Boyuk Urayi), 1958. Directed by Azhdar Ibrahimov. This is a story about World War II. Gunduz Abbasov plays Rajab.

Right: From "I Loved You More Than Life" (Sizi Dunyalar Gadar Sevirdim), 1985. Rasim Ismayilov, Director. The story features general, Hazi Aslanov, played by Ramiz Novruzov.

And, of course, Hitler had his eye on Baku, obsessed with the idea of capturing the vast oil supply to sustain his own war effort. In fact, he had designated September 25, 1942, as the day German troops would attack Baku and seize the oil fields. Fortunately, the harsh, icy, inclement weather of the Caucasus mountains which the Germans had to cross to get to Baku forced them to abandon their plan.

Azerbaijan played an immense role in the victory of the war, providing much of the oil for the Soviet war effort. In 1941, the year of the highest oil production, Azerbaijan produced 25.4 million tons-a record for the entire history of its oil industry which today has still never been surpassed. Every able-bodied person was involved in the war-whether at the front or at home laboring in munitions factories, oil fields or with agriculture.

Cinema in AzerbaijanDepiction of the War

Left: From "Wail" (Faryad), 1993. Directed by Jeyhun Mirzayev. This is the only film that has been made about the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the military occupation by Armenians of 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. Malik Dadashov (above) plays the Armenian officer.

Depicting war has always interested Azerbaijani and other Soviet filmmakers from two angles. First of all, they were keen to reflect the process of war directly by showing actual battle scenes. Secondly, they sought to examine it from its psychological impact on the population.

Actually, it was very difficult for Azerbaijani filmmakers to film battlefield scenes. There's hardly a single Azerbaijani movie which reflects actual events or, for that matter, even staged battle scenes. Either the projects were too complicated or, perhaps, the filmmakers simply didn't take enough initiative.

But there were other factors that influenced this decision as well. First of all, making such films was extremely expensive. The national film studio "Azerbaijanfilm" was only allotted funds for four or five films each year. Financial support for any grand-scale epic project was always difficult to obtain.

But, there was also the issue of jealousy which must not be underestimated. The theme of war was monopolized by Russian cinematography. Only the "older brother" (meaning Russians) could be shown as war heroes. They were the only ones allowed to be shown defeating the enemy. The "younger brothers" (meaning, the other republics) could only take minor parts despite the critical role that Azerbaijanis and other nationalities played in winning the war. Simply, the main heroes were written into cinematic history as Russian.

Cinema in AzerbaijanWorld War II Heroes
"Azerbaijanfilm" did manage to produce two films about World War II heroes. The first was entitled "On Distant Shores" (1958) and directed by Tofig Taghizade.

Left: From "The Winds Blow in Baku" (Bakida Kulaklar Asir), 1975. Directed by Mukhtar Dadashov. The story is about the involvement of Soviet Azerbaijanis in WW II.

It describes the heroic deeds of Mehdi Huseinzade who was wounded near Stalingrad and taken prisoner by the Germans. He later escaped and joined the partisan effort, using his knowledge of the German language to disguise himself as a German officer and carry out resistance efforts. He died during one of these operations. In the movie, the well-known Nadir Shashigoglu plays Huseinzade and Gara Garayev, one of Azerbaijan's foremost composers, wrote the music.

Twenty seven years later, Rasim Ismayilov made the movie "I Loved You with My Whole Heart" (1985) which depicted the life of the great Azerbaijani General Hazi Aslanov.

But these two films are about the extent to which movies with battle scenes were produced in Azerbaijan.

Psychological Consequences
Of course, war is not only the story of generals and soldiers, or of blood, fire and destruction. War is the story of fear and powerlessness and the bitterness of grief and sorrow. It is the intense examination of some of the hardest questions posed by life itself-those which have no concrete answers or which are totally unanswerable.

Azerbaijani films often touched on these crucial themes. Sometimes they succeeded in finding simple objects to express the tragedy of war even more effectively than if they had had access to a vast array of artillery stretched over a wide landscape.

The Cherry Tree
"The Cherry Tree," directed by Tofig Ismayilov, is the story of an old man-Gulam Kishi - and the cherry tree which grew in his garden. As the story opens, the village children consider Gulam their best friend. But as the war wears on, Gulam directs his kindness and affection to his cherry tree, shielding the tree from the children who are starving. In the process, Gulam becomes very aggressive and eventually is seen as the enemy of the children.

The movie shows how war can destroy even the most tender and gentle feelings, as well as the most basic moral values of being human.

Cinema in AzerbaijanOur Jabish Muallim

Left: From "On Distant Shores" (Uzag Sahillarda), 1958. Directed by Tofig Taghizade. Left, L. Borduyukov plays Karranti and Nodar Shashigoglu plays Mehti.

Another interesting movie about the war was "Our Jabish Muallim" (1970) directed by Hasan Seyidbeyli. This film shows the war from the perspective of the generations of people who were physically unable to go to battle.

Jabish is a teacher. His eyesight is weak and prevents him from going to war. Nevertheless, he tries his best to assist the war effort. One day, he discovers how to make soap-a much needed commodity both at the front and at home.

A charlatan named Abulfaz finds out and speaks to Jabish's wife, scheming ways to buy the soap and sell it on the black market. Jabish's family desperately needs cash, so his wife agrees to the plan. As the film develops, the viewers are led to believe the story will turn out in favor of Abulfaz and Jabish's wife. At the very last moment, however, Jabish succeeds in sending the soap to the soldiers at the front.

This film tries to reflect how you can't judge people from their appearances-nor can you always distinguish who is strong and who is weak. Azerbaijanis have an expression, "It's impossible to build a Chinese wall between the two." As a character, Jabish is obviously weak. He has to struggle to support his family. On the other hand, his lofty feelings and great patience enable him to remain resolute and carry out his goals.

Shared Bread
The subject of the deprivation caused by the war was examined by Shamil Mahmudbeyov in the movie, "The Shared Bread" (1971). This film tells the story of children who weren't even able to find a morsel of bread to eat during the war. Vagif is 12 years old. His father is at war and his mother, on a business trip.

Cinema in AzerbaijanThe youth has lost his ration card, but doesn't want the other boys living in the same courtyard to feel any obligation to share their bread with him. He is too proud; begging for something to eat would contradict his nature. Besides, he realizes it would not be easy to gain the right to share the bread. Vagif finds a way to work for people and earn his own bread rather than beg.

Left: From "The Winds Blow in Baku" (Bakida Kulaklar Asir), 1975. Directed by Mukhtar Dadashov. This is a story about Soviet Azerbaijanis involved in World War II.

One interesting episode in the film shows a young girl who has no doll. She experiments with substituting other things to make her own doll. She tries the water tap, tying her scarf around it. But the lower part of the tap makes the doll's nose appear too long. Then, she experiments with her knee, tying the kerchief around it and drawing eyes and a nose. Her simple creation brings her great satisfaction. This doll scene may well be one of the most memorable in all of Azerbaijani cinema.

Sound of the Pipe
In "The Sound of the Pipe" (1975), directed by Rasim Ojagov, the problem of war is viewed from the perspective of love. Almost all of the men of the village are at the battlefront. The women who stayed in the village are working night and day to support their efforts. Children wake up in the middle of the night, crying for bread. All of the villagers feel anxious for the men to return. Mothers are waiting for their sons; wives, for their husbands and children, for their fathers.

When Sayali's husband dies at the front, her husband's friend Jabrayil proposes to her. The people of the village are furious. Jabrayil's brothers leave home, convinced that their family has been disgraced. One brother goes crazy; the other falls ill and dies. The only person who doesn't blame Jabrayil is the "agsaggal" (the wise old man) of the village-Isfandiyar Kishi. In this film, not a single sound of weaponry is heard, nor are any battle scenes depicted, yet we still witness the inherent tragedy of war.

Karabakh War-Innocent Victims
So far, only one film, "Faryad," (meaning loud cry) concerns the Karabakh War with Armenians which has been going on since 1988. A brusque, heavy-set Armenian officer sees a 5-year-old child playing with a toy gun and gathers the child in his arms, points to an Azerbaijani hostage and says, "Do you see him? He is your enemy. You must kill him. Otherwise, he will kill you."

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Both scenes from "Shared Bread" (Sharikli Chorak), 1970. Directed by Shamil Mammudbeyov. Story is about a young boy and the difficulties he and other children have coping with WW II. Left: The asphalt maker, Mohammad (Fazil Salayev) is sure that they will win the war. Right: Dad Ismayil is played by Aghahusein Javadov and the young boy Vagif is played by Kamran Rajabli.

In contrast to this scene, another character, Ismayil, an Azerbaijani, is being held captive by an Armenian officer. The soldiers torture Ismayil, beating and kicking him. Despite the physical pain, he doesn't consider it as brutal as the time when he saw an Azerbaijani girl being raped and brutally murdered. In another scene, he is pained by overhearing Armenians in another room celebrating the capture of the Azerbaijani towns of Khojali and Shusha which were major towns inside the region of Nagorno-Karabakh where all Azerbaijanis were forced to flee or be killed by approaching Armenian troops.

Meanwhile, Ismayil tries to revenge his situation. He slips off the bed, crawls towards a box of matches and gathering all the loose papers he can find, manages to start a fire. Upon succeeding, he breathes a sigh of relief, pleased with his small victory. Suddenly, he hears a child crying upstairs. He realizes that it's an Armenian baby. Tears gather in his eyes when he realizes he has endangered the life of an innocent child.

This scene from "Faryad" brings to mind what Anar, a famous Azerbaijani writer once said: "If a soldier doesn't have a feeling of hatred, he won't be able to fight. But a soldier should confine his hatred to the soldiers of the enemy and not to the entire nation."

Alisaftar Mursaloghlu, a screenwriter and journalist, lives in Baku.

From Azerbaijan International (5.3) Autumn 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.

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