Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Pages 36-38

Cinema in Azerbaijan

Even the ushers in Baku cinema houses know that you need at least 99 different film specialists to produce a reasonably successful movie. You need a director with assistants, a screenwriter and an administrative team adept at delegating tasks. You need several writers and editors, including one who writes dialogue. Of course, there's the design team: you need an artistic director and a group of talented artists to paint kilometers of wood and canvas.

Add to your list costume and makeup artists, and a hair-dresser. Critical to any operation is a team of cameramen with several workers assigned simply to turn lights and projectors on and off for each scene. Plus, you can't do without a chief sound technician and assistants with their colorful array of tangled microphones and cords.

Above all, you need actresses and actors. Fresh, pretty faces are a must. They're not hard to find in Baku-you can identify them easily in any commercial shop or supermarket. But watch out for the fat ones. Frankly, that's sometimes a problem here.

Then you need to match male actors with the actresses. It's better to choose tall men; short men don't look good on screen. Nor should they be past middle-age. They should have sensitive, expressive eyes, and full eyebrows, though not as thick as Brezhnev's. And of course, they should have sparkling white teeth-just like TV ads.

The Need for Doubles
Unlike Western actors, each major Azerbaijani actor or actress needs a double. For example, our movie stars don't know how to use their fists for fighting. Their first inclination is always to pick up a stone. Nor are they adept with knives. They're just now beginning to learn how to shoot, but so far, they do it only with their eyes shut.

Most don't know how to drive a car since they don't even own a "Zaparogitch" (the smallest and worst car available in the country). I'm not referring to difficult turns on steep mountain curves where a mistake could land you in a river bed 300 feet below. I'm speaking about just normal driving in city streets (although these days, that's not so easily done in Baku either).

Nor can our actors jump from burning buildings like they do in Hollywood. I don't mean skyscrapers, none of which we have yet, but even those five-storied buildings we call "Khrushevka," which were built during Khrushev's time.

What is a movie without such a huge team? Judge for yourself, and then ask, where can we, a small republic tucked between the mountains and the sea, find such a team of film professionals?

Lack of Filmmakers
In Azerbaijan, we have oil workers galore-drillers, operators, geologists, processors-you'll find as many as you wish. Azerbaijan wasn't called the "Oil Academy of the Soviet Union" for nothing. Our oil industry workers have drilled in Algeria, Vietnam, Siberia, and Tatarstan. No one is more adept at putting out oil fires than we are. In the agricultural realm, we can also provide the best cotton growers, wine makers and even flower growers. But trying to find so many professionals in the film industry is a gargantuan task. Nor are we able to invite other workers from such film empires as America, India or Mexico-they live too far away and are too expensive.

Azerbaijani Cinema

Left: Scenes from "Painful Roads" (Azabli Yollar), 1982. Directed by Tofig Ismayilov. This movie is based on an Azerbaijani fairytale of "Malik Mammad and the Three Princes".

Right: The princes face with three devils. The movie was selected by American film producers in 1989 as one of the 17 best Soviet movies.


History of Training
Few people alive today ever had the chance to watch filmmakers at work in Baku 80-100 years ago. The movie makers of the 20s were said to be skillful but, unfortunately, had no professional education. Then came those who seemed to have an adequate education but didn't have natural talent. No doubt, that's why we borrowed Russia's "classic stars" and used to make them our own films. That was the trend up until the 80s.

Then we started looking for filmmakers with the unusual combination of traits-educated, talented, skilled, full of energy and with a modern outlook. An impossible assignment! But such are the requirements of cinema! This was the task we set for ourselves some 30 years ago, when our Azerbaijani cinema masters were young, and not loaded with honors, governmental rewards, international prizes and prestigious posts. It was a time when our film professionals hungered for glory and success.

Blame in Dark Hallways
And so it was, whether out of luck or misfortune, that the Soviet government assigned me as Director of this worrisome and ambitious world-Film Production and Film Distribution of Azerbaijani Cinema. Actually, they didn't give me much of a chance to decline the offer. Though they seemed friendly enough, they, somehow, managed to pressure me with the party's traditional "You have to!" without really saying it.

At night, my inner voice warned: "Stay away" from the film studio. I knew that if, by some chance, a movie suddenly became successful, the government, which had great respect for cinema, would simply ignore me. Fine!

Cinema in AzerbaijanBut, God help me, if a movie not only was unsuccessful but turned out to be ideologically out of kilter. Then I knew they would track me down in some dark hallway.

Left: From "I Want Seven Sons" (Yeddi Oghul Istaram), 1970. Directed by Tofig Taghizade. Reminiscent of an American cowboy scene.

And thus it happened, once. On my own initiative I had decided to shoot Gara Garayev's ballet, "The Seven Beauties" with the assistance of Moscow's choreography masters. It turned out to be a difficult project because of misunderstandings between the director and the ballet group.

Then one beautiful day, the government found the time to watch the ballet film along with a documentary about the previous session of the Party which had already been edited and was ready to be shown.

Silver in the Film
The "Seven Beauties" pleased them very much. But then while watching the documentary, they discovered some of the speeches of the 35 to 40 delegates and guests had been deleted. They insisted that the missing speeches be added back into the film. It didn't matter that the film director insisted that the documentary would be too long, boring and uninteresting. "What may seem uninteresting to you is of great interest to the people!" the voice of the ideological boss interrupted.

So, in desperation, the director confessed that the tape had already been "burnt out," which means that the unused film had already been sent back to Moscow for recycling so that the silver could be extracted. But no one listened. Everyone cringed at the word "burnt." Then they found me in a dark hallway and demanded an explanation.

Shortly afterward, a special commission that included members of the State Security Committee (SSC) was created, and an investigation was begun. The very next day when I arrived at the studio, several strange people were there, reminding me of those all too familiar detective films. An inquiry was held. The situation became even more serious than in a bad movie. It was very hard to explain that removing silver from the film was just a normal technological process and that the films were always sent to Moscow for this process after the film was completed.

I can't say that this was the only cinematographic sin I committed. I always seemed to have an urge to cross out something in the script, or to cut a couple of "extra" scenes. Once I couldn't resist deleting a section that was 17 minutes long. It turned out to be a bad mistake as the scene had been suggested by the director, who thought he was the new Fellini.

Off to Moscow!
Finding highly qualified personnel has always been one of our difficulties in cinema. We managed to get the USSR State Cinema Board to approve a plan whereby we would receive an adequate number of admissions to the Moscow Institute of Cinematography, the Leningrad Institute of Film Producers, and advanced courses for scriptwriters and producers.

Back home, we received an incredible response from young people, all dreaming of becoming Hollywood movie stars. When we started the selection process, they all arrived at the studio on time. We immediately an-nounced that the usual methods of bribery were forbidden. There would be no rubles slipped into envelopes, no valuable gifts, no telephone calls from people in high places, and no offers of friendships with important persons. The only criteria for admission would be one's own abilities and experience.

Azerbaijani cinemaLeft: From "Babak," 1979. Directed by Eldar Guliyev. "Babak" is an epic movie about an Azerbaijani martyr-hero who revolted against the Arab invasion of the 7th century. Above: Execution scene when Babak is killed. Rasim Bal- ayev plays Babak.

It wasn't an easy job. For each vacancy, the commission had to select three candidates, and these young people, in turn, had to compete amongst themselves. And so it was that in 1979, a group of Azerbaijani students finally graduated from the Moscow University of Cinematography. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan gained a number of good actors, such as Hamida Omarova; in general, our efforts were not very successful. But in 1985, we decided to repeat the experiment and announced another competition. There was no need to advertise. Many mothers brought their sons and daughters to the film studio. For 15 vacancies, we chose from 150 candidates. All of them could easily recite the literary works of Nizami, Pushkin, Omar Khayam and Shakespeare. They could all sing and dance and move gracefully across the stage.

Between 1980 and 1989, 27 Azerbaijanis graduated from the Moscow Institute of Cinematography and received diplomas as producers, cameramen, artists and technicians. Eighteen graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Film Directors and became specialists in sound, cinematographic equipment, and film editing. Eight students graduated from special cinematography courses. These experts now make up the core of our personnel at the national film studio.

Cinema in AzerbaijanProjectors in the Caucasus

Left: From "Ismat," 1934. Directed by Mikayil Mikayilov. The photo shows the camera crew in the process of filming the story about Azerbaijan's first woman pilot-Leyla Mammadbeyova.

We ran into another problem, however. We had equipped the entire country (including the mountain regions) with film projectors, but there was no one to repair and maintain the equipment. Soon we found out that the Cinema College in Kaliningrad was the best place for technicians to study.

We made business contacts with the college and agreed to send 50 students to study there each year. The arrangement was intended for three years. But we soon realized that many students from the countryside didn't know Russian well enough, and their knowledge of mathematics and physics was also weak. Instead, we ended up inviting teachers from the college to come to Baku during the summer. As a result, we eventually had more than 100 technicians working throughout the countryside, even in remote villages high in the Caucasus.

Several years later, we achieved a few successes with a number of state prizes and awards at international cinema festivals. And now finally, we can boast of an Oscar with our own Rustam Ibrahimbeyov's screenplay for "Burnt by the Sun," directed by Nikita Mikhalkov and awarded "Best Foreign Film" in 1995 from Hollywood! Finally, we had arrived!

Today's filmmakers, encouraged by attention from the government, are working on a few more films. Who knows, maybe one of these films will win another Oscar. After all, this is cinema, and with cinema anything is possible. At least, we can dream! If the main criteria for winning were passion, then for sure, that's something we have plenty of.

Azad Sharifov is head of the Journalism Department of the Higher Diplomacy College of Azerbaijan. He is the former Chair of Azerbaijan State Cinema Committee.

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

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