Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Pages 52-53

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Well, we don't have jungles in Azerbaijan to serve as backdrops for fimmakers. Nor will you find icebergs or deserts. But in most other respects, my tiny little country provides an extraordinary range of exotic landscapes and cityscapes for cinematographers. It's often said that Azerbaijan has nine of the world's eleven major climactic zones. You'll find everything here except the extremes-no frigid Arctic climes, no scorching tropics. But high on the mountain ridges of the Caucasus, you'll find icy landscapes. And the plains and some of our southern regions where tea and rice are grown are considered sub-tropical.

Sometimes, even aspects of our landscape that we don't consider especially inviting tantalize filmmakers. Many years ago, I was traveling with some Hungarian cinematographers between Baku and the town of Shamakhi, about an hour west of the capital. There is quite a long stretch along the road where all you can see is barren, uninhabited, scruffy hills. The sight always saddens and depresses us, but, surprisingly, it absolutely delighted these foreigners. They jumped out of the car and started pretending they were shooting their movie cameras. They scattered to the hills, looking like characters right out of a scene from the Bible.

Below: Azerbaijan is known to have more mud volcanoes than any other country in the world.

Barren landscapes
I thought of them several years later when the great Italian Michaelangelo Antonioni came to Baku in search of a setting for one of his films. Born in 1912, Antonioni went on to become a classic filmmaker known for using film as a metaphor, rather than a mirror of reality. In the Soviet Union, he didn't always get the support he wanted, and I remember how he used to threaten the cinema bureaucrats, saying that he would call on his friend, the Shah of Iran, to provide a helicopter to hasten his search. Antonioni, too, was struck by our uninhabited landscapes.

Another place that struck his imagination was the exotic Sufi Hamid cemetery located about an hour's drive out of Baku. From olden days, this graveyard was considered sacred, but beyond that, there's a mysterious magic about the aesthetics there. A white sculptured camel stands enclosed in a courtyard next to a small white-washed mosque. Outside, there are hundreds of hand-painted bas-relief tombstones, mostly in pastels-quite unlike anything else in the world. Objects carved on the gravestones, such as samovars, jewelry, sewing machines, worry beads, even cars symbolize the life of the deceased person.

In fact, Antonioni started making plans to shoot a film there. But his ideas were so removed from Soviet reality that it soon became evident that he wouldn't get the cooperation he needed to do it. That was back then; too bad, he's not here trying to film today. Also, Tonio Guerra, his screenwriter, came along, and he, too, became fascinated with the landscapes, especially on the Absheron peninsula on the outskirts of Baku, where thousands of creaky, old, rusted out oil pumps-those nodding "donkeys"-clutter the barren, moonscape-cratered landscape. Some of those pumps date back nearly to the turn of the century. They weren't able to film them, but Tonio later went on to write about them.

Unfortunately, visits to Baku by some very distinguished cinematographers have not always become fixed in film. In November 1926, the classic filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein (1898-1948) came down to Baku to explore the possibility of shooting some footage in the plains for his film "General Line." But, it didn't happen. Then, in 1930, a well-known documentary film producer, Yoris Ivens, visited Baku. Unfortunately, he didn't end up shooting anything here either. But Dzigi Vertov, who became known for directing daring documentary films, used to shoot quite a bit in Baku.

Baku in Film

Photo: City Hall in Central Baku, like many other buildings constructed at the turn of the century, is based on European architecture.

Baku and the Absheron peninsula, on which the capital is situated, are another subject for conversation. Baku's charm always manages to mesmerize. Maybe it's the proximity to the sea. Maybe it's the juxtaposition of the medieval inner city next to the glorious architectural monuments and palaces of the oil barons built at the turn of last century. Each one has its own peculiar characteristic, on the one hand, clearly European; on the other, decidedly Eastern. Despite the fact that the capital has roots in medieval history, its shape and image seem always to be changing. These days many of the glorious old buildings are being refurbished and restored to their original glory after decades of neglect and accumulated grime.

Old "Inner City"
Cinematographers have a tendency to gravitate towards the old part of the city-"Ichari Shahar" (Inner City), which is surrounded by a citadel wall. Laden with history, its narrow, winding lanes are extremely picturesque with enclosed balconies extending out over the narrow streets intended for pedestrians and pack animals of a different era, certainly not for modern day traffic. People born here are proud to call themselves "Ichari Shaharians." One of them, Arif Balayev, became a film producer and as you can imagine, his films are vivid with Inner City scenes.

"Ichari Shahar" also provided the backdrop for the outstanding producer Sergey Parajanov, an Armenian from Tbilisi [Georgia]. He filmed an Azerbaijan tale, "Ashug Garib" there. It seemed like half of the city came out to watch him film. Even in 1989, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had already begun and tensions were building between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, he still proceeded with his work.

Sometimes cinematographers use Baku's villas and palaces of millionaires built at the beginning of the century. For example, the 1945 version of "Arshin Mal Alan" (Cloth Peddler) is one such film that became very famous and even won the "Stalin Prize." Many of the scenes for "Mashadi Ibad" (If Not This One, Then That One) were shot in one of the old bathhouses of Baku. Built at the turn of the century, several of these old public bath houses like Fantasia are extremely attractive inside.

The most recent attempt of capturing "Ichari Shahar" as a cinematographic backdrop was done by Ayaz Salayev in his film "Bat," which is on tour traveling all around the world for the past year and a half.

Maiden's Tower
Of course, there's always Maiden's Tower-the 12th century fortress that stands as a landmark for the city of Baku. Climb up the winding steep circular stone-hewn stairway to the roof, and you'll find an extraordinary panoramic view of the city and sea.

"In a Southern Town" (produced by Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, Eldar Guliyev and Rasim Ojagov, 1969) had its setting in one of Baku's suburbs on the Khrebtov streets. [See Interview with Rustam Ibrahim-beyov-Censorship] for the difficulties they had in getting the film produced. People from Baku thought the film depicted Azerbaijanis as uncivilized when what the screenwriter really intended to show was that a person's environment can cause him to do things counter to his beliefs and his nature. "Southern Town" was one of the first movies to challenge the Soviet system.

Battle Scenes on the Sea
Another setting that should not be forgotten was a basin, built close to the seashore at Shikhov. This used to provide a backdrop for filming battles at sea and shipwrecks. Only two such sites existed in all of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this basin has long since been flooded by the perennial rising of the Caspian Sea. Alexander Ptushko used to shoot films there. He was one of the "fathers" of Russian cinema and fairy tales. He made his first feature film with puppets in 1935.

Caucasus Villages
There are many other places in Azerbaijan that filmmakers, especially foreigners, have yet to shoot. There are remote mountain villages in the Caucasus so difficult to reach that roads are impassable much of the year.

Then there's the quaint picturesque town of Shaki with its 18th century residential palace of the khans. The town, long a center for silk production, has its own charm. One of the most photogenic locales is the restored caravansary that once was a bustling center of the ancient Silk Route and which now has been converted into a hotel.

The Gobustan Caves, about 30 miles outside of Baku provides evidence that human beings inhabited this region at least 5,000 years earlier. Then there's the numerous fortresses that still exist throughout the countryside-some in better condition than others. The list could go on.

Azerbaijan has its own charm and mysteriousness. Numerous landscapes and cityscapes are unique and cannot be duplicated anyplace else in the world. Azerbaijan has yet to be seriously discovered by the international filming community, we hope now with our independence that all this will change.

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

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