Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Pages 24-29

By the beginning of the 20th century, the oil boom in Azerbaijan had reached its peak, and Baku-once a sleepy medieval city-had become the center of an oil industry, producing more than 50 percent of the world's supply of oil. In this newly charged atmosphere, there was a rapid influx of ideas from other countries, especially from Europe. For instance, film enjoyed an early introduction to Azerbaijan, arriving there just a few years after its invention in France. In the following article, Asim Jalilov provides a sense of what has happened to film in Azerbaijan as filmmakers sought to reflect a true slice of life through the artistic form of motion pictures.

On May 14, 1916, Baku cinema goers were stunned by the premiere of a movie entitled "In the Realm of Oil and Millions." The film was based on a novel by Ibrahim Musabeyov and opened at the "Biography," a very fashionable theater those days.

In the story, a group of local men try to convince residents that oil deposits worth millions literally lay at their feet. To access it, one had only to pierce the road with something sharp, such as a walking stick. The hero of "Realm," it turns out, ends up making a fortune on a field two steps away from the corner of his house.

Azerbaijani cinemaLeft: From "Sevil," 1929. The film was directed by A. Beynazaro and the screenplay written by Jafar Jabbarli. The film deals with women's rights. It challenged women to take off their veils.

The movie, a melodrama, was produced at the local studio "Film." It astounded moviegoers from all backgrounds, not because of any unusual special effects, but simply because the filmmaker managed "to show everything as it is," without artificial nuances. Up to that time, audiences were mostly used to watching entertaining pieces about life abroad-films based in countries like France, Germany and England. "Realm" provided one of the first opportunities for Azerbaijanis to see their own native city and their own people in motion pictures.

The movie was an eye-opener. It showed a world of glaring diametrical opposites, a bipolar society eternally divided between rich and poor, strong and weak, where the interests of one group clearly did not coincide with those of the other.

The most striking scenes showed sweaty, dirty laborers working in filthy, polluted oil fields. For the first time a filmmaker dared to show the truth, no matter how bitter it was. He challenged the audience's feelings of sympathy while leaving the final judgment up to them.

The trend toward realism continued in the movies that followed as there were no restrictions concerning the filmmaker's choice of topics. Problems began to arise, however, when the Bolsheviks came to power in Azerbaijan in 1920, causing the collapse of the short-lived independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920) and the eventual establishment of Soviet Azerbaijan (until 1991).

Movies for the Masses
The Commissars who led the movement in Baku not only monopolized the government and abolished personal property; they also interfered with intellectual and spiritual spheres. Only two attitudes were allowed: condemnation for everything connected with the past and praise for everything related to a new set of values based upon the Leninist interpretation of history. The slogan "Anyone who is not with us, is against us!" won widespread acclaim.

The wave of nationalization affected everything, including cinema, which Lenin deemed "the most important of all arts," since he believed they were the best way to propagate revolutionary ideas to the masses.

Azerbaijani cinemaLeft: From "26 Baku Commissars" (26 Baku Komissary), 1966. Aghdar Ibrahimov directed the film. The main figure (above) is Adil Iskandarov who plays Khachatorov. The movie is about the dramatic revolutionary events in Baku in 1918.

Echoing Lenin, one of the leaders of Azerbaijan at that time wrote: "In the East, where people are used to thinking mostly in images, the cinema is the only possible means of propaganda that doesn't need any preliminary preparation of the masses."

In July 1920, barely two and a half months after the Soviets occupied Azerbaijan, a decree was made to nationalize the film industry. This decision politicized the entire creative process and severely limited the choice of topics. It meant that filmmakers had to follow government policy.

One of the veterans of Azerbaijani cinema, film director Tofig Taghizade, born in 1919, observed: "Before the Soviets came, seven or eight entertaining films had already been produced. They were mainly comedies and melodramas. Though I'd rather not discuss their quality, one of them ("In the Realm of Oil and Millions") was quite serious. But with the arrival of new power, the Azerbaijani screen reflected the headlines of newspapers-such as "The Parade of the 11th Red Army in Baku," "'The Funeral of the 26 Baku Commissars" and other similar titles.

A whole series of films about the Revolution [of 1917] followed. In addition, there were films about women's emancipation and the struggle against religious fanaticism. These revolutionary movies were based on the same pattern, variations on the same theme. Always central to the plot were workers or peasants from remote villages, full of class hatred toward their exploiters. The landlords and capitalists were depicted as being evil and were often satirized. There were no nuances in the description of the heroes or events. The characters were like pawns on a chessboard-whites on the one side, blacks on the other.

But at the beginning of the century, the truth is that Azerbaijani peasants were so backward and uneducated that they didn't understand the nuances of what "class struggle" meant. The same was true of Azerbaijani workers. They were too occupied with their own everyday, mundane problems to think about destroying the foundations of society. So the characters in these revolutionary movies were quite exaggerated. Without a doubt, they misrepresented the reality of the period.

I don't want to condemn the creators of these films. Obviously, they either believed in what they were doing or, perhaps, didn't have any other choice. They were obliged to deal with the system and yet try to make a positive contribution in it.

Filming Between the Lines
When I asked Tofig Taghizade whether some filmmakers tried to step outside these boundaries, he told me he didn't remember. "The rules of the game were very cruel, especially after Stalin's 1937 repression when hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, many of whom were only suspected of resisting the government, were hauled off to labor camps in Siberia. Most of them never returned."

What freedom of speech could have existed in this environment? Even "Arshin Mal Alan" (1945) risked being stopped. Based on a comic opera (1910) by composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov, the film was attacked because of its "bourgeoisie inclinations." (The events take place in the homes of a landowner and a merchant.) In fact, the plot is actually not about wealth but rather about finding a bride to marry. The only reason the movie wasn't banned was that Stalin liked it himself. In fact, he honored Hajibeyov with the Stalin Prize for it, making him the first Azerbaijani to receive such an award.

Azerbaijani cinema

Azerbaijani cinema

Left: From "Gold Precipice" (Gyzyl Uchurum) 1980. Directed by Fikrat Aliyev. Scene at a restaurant in Paris. Jalil with his mistress.

Right: From "Sevil," 1970. Directed by Vladimir Goriket. Left, Sevil (Valentina Aslanova) is insulted by Balash (Hasan Mammadov). Original film in 1928 challenged women to take off their veils.

I, myself, experienced a few incidents with censorship while preparing the movie, "On Distant Shores." The film was about an Azerbaijani WW II hero, a secret service agent named Mehdi Huseinzade. Since the movie was based on a true story, the script was based on historical facts and documents. But the movie was stopped in Moscow at the very last moment. The censors didn't like the fact that the hero was Azerbaijani. "Are you saying that some southerner from Azerbaijan won the war against the Germans?" they pressed me. I tried to persuade them of the truth of the events, but they balked and didn't want to allow me to release the film. I finally succeeded after contacting some influential people that I knew personally.

Unfortunately, the destiny of all films from the 15 republics was in the hands of Moscow censorship. To get film approval took months, sometimes years. Everything was centralized. Films were allowed to be shown only after the process of "purification from ideological ambiguity." Even those movies which had been made according to very high levels of professionalism were not able to escape; often, realities were replaced by contrived situations and events.

One famous Russian actor recently talked about his experiences on a television interview. "It was the post-war years in Russia. Life in the country was extremely hard. People were hungry, almost everything had been destroyed. But we were making a film showing happy faces as if life were a paradise. Once while we were taking a break from filming, a local citizen, an old woman dressed very shabbily, approached me. Looking at the expensive shirt I was wearing, she asked, 'Whose life are you telling about?' And I replied 'Ours.' And she looked at me and said, 'You're too young, and, besides, you're lying,' and then she walked away."

Azerbaijani cinemaA New Generation

From "Last Mountain Pass" (Akhirinji Ashirim) 1971. Directed by Kamil Rustambeyov. Left, Hasan Mammadov as Abbasgulu bey with Hamlet Khanizade as Talybov.

During the "Khrushchev thaw" after the death of Stalin, a new generation of filmmakers emerged. They were progressive-thinking artists who resisted dogma. They included names like Magus and Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, Rasim Ojagov, Anar, Eldar Guliyev, Ogtay Mirgasimov and others. All of them had graduated from the Moscow Institute of Cinematography.

In 1979, the steady, predictable course of Soviet cinema was disrupted by a film called "Inquisition" (Rustam Ibrahimbeyov and Rasim Ojagov). This landmark film was based on a psychological drama. The hero, Seyfi, is an honest magistrate who looks for evidence to prove that the responsibility for a certain crime lies with the rulers of the society, somewhere in the government. The plot develops to show that the man accused of committing the crime is actually the victim of it himself.

Left: From "Interrogation" (Istintag), 1979. Directed by Rasim Ojagov, screenplay by Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. Elena Smitnova as Ayan.

When the film appeared, there was a huge uproar, not only in film circles but among the general society as well, especially among party officials. The regime wouldn't tolerate any ideological deviation, especially one critical of the law. The creators of the film were trying to penetrate this forbidden sphere. In their film, they challenged a society that worshiped false values and who allowed a double standard of moral and social justice to exist.

It was difficult to get permission to screen the film. Naturally it was the Party representatives who resisted the most, along with the office of "ideological customs" in Moscow. But times were changing.

The opinion of Heydar Aliyev at the time proved very helpful: "Let them know that there is corruption and bribing going on in Azerbaijan. The more we hide it, the worse it will become." Nevertheless, the film was forbidden in certain regions of the USSR.

Rather ironically, "Inquisition" was awarded the top prize at the 13th All-Union Film Festival in 1980. A year later it won the USSR State Prize.

Today's Azerbaijani filmmakers continue the quest to present reality as they understand it. As Rustam Ibrahimbeyov says, "there have always been people who have felt the necessity of change earlier than others. Such people are essential for society. Nothing is more important than human initiative and the freedom to create...To find and support such people is the great task of both literature and art."

Asim Jalilov is a screenwriter and journalist living in Baku.

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

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