Azerbaijan International

Summer 2003 (11.2)
Page 11

Readers' Forum
Reviving Cinema

John Rushkin, famous Victorian thinker of the 19th century, once stated: "Great nations write their autobiographies using three manuscripts-the book of deeds, the book of words, and the book of art". Two centuries later, such an important task can be simplified by employing cinematography to immortalize a nation's portrait of itself. For Azerbaijan, this should not represent a major problem, at least hypothetically, since we already have a cinematic tradition of 105 years.

The reality, however, is that Azerbaijani cinema is currently in a systemic crisis which began well over a decade ago. In the era of globalization, it is difficult for such a small nation to match the previous Soviet-era record of a dozen feature films each year. During those years (especially from the 1940s to late 1980s), such award-winning titles were released as "Arshin Mal Alan" (The Cloth Peddler, 1916, 1917, 1945, 1965), "Koroghlu" (Son of a Blind Man), "Nizami", "O Olmasin, Bu Olsun" ("If Not This One, That One"/"Mashadi Ibad", 1956), "Nasimi" (1974) and "Babak" (1979). Most of these films dealt with the country's history, reflecting not only the Azerbaijani people's great interest in it, but the ability of the Soviet cinematography school to create impressive historical documentaries.

Thus, it is especially saddening that no full feature or even short films have been produced during these recent decades that deal with our country's history, especially the Karabakh war. In addition, since our independence (late 1991), we have, for the first time, many possibilities to develop documentaries defining our own national historical development.

Consider such nation-building themes as Prince Javanshir of Caucasian Albania, the founding of the independent Karabakh khanate and its subsequent incorporation into the Russian empire, or the Azerbaijani khanates and their rulers or the ethnic Azerbaijani Safavi, Afshar and Gajar dynasties of Iran, or Nakhchivan khans which gave Azerbaijan six generals.

In fact, despite Soviet-era feature films about the WWII hero General Hazi Aslanov and the post-independence documentary about Artillery General Ali Agha Shikhlinski, there are many more that need to be made from the Nakhchivan-Kangarli generals to the Artillery General and ADR Minister of Defense Samad Mehmandarov, the 19th century Vice-Admiral Ibrahim Aslanbeyov, and numerous others.

At this stage in our country's development, given the state resources and talent pool, it is definitely possible to produce a few full-length feature films, several more short films, a few cartoons, documentaries and TV serials each year. Fortunately, there are now several independent media companies, which generate enough revenue to partially sponsor filmmaking-exemplified by the fact that they purchase rights to foreign films and soap operas.

It is a standard practice throughout Europe for several media corporations from different countries to come together to produce a film, almost always with substantial financial state support.

Similarly, capitalizing on the world's interest in regard to this part of the world (remember James Bond's "The World is Not Enough" (1999), "The Peacemaker" (1997) and other Hollywood films which have incorporated Azerbaijan in their plots), every effort should be made to pass favorable laws and create an attractive climate for the development of the film industry so that foreign filmmakers come to Azerbaijan and incorporate their stories in the plot or use it as a backdrop location.

A separate issue is that our cinematographic jewels in Azerbaijani which are part of the Soviet and the world's cinematography, are either rotting or, at best, collecting dust on the shelves in our archives. The masterpiece "Arshin Mal Alan" is the most unfortunate example. It is practically lost for us. Much of the master footage of these older films has already been partially lost. We will definitely lose the rest in the near future unless we take urgent action to save these films.

As is customary in the West, these older titles must be restored, re-mastered and re-issued on VHS and DVDs and, whenever possible, additional footage that had been cut due to censorship, as well as interviews with the directors, screenwriters and actors, should be introduced. This process has long been embraced by the film industry worldwide. Not only is it cheaper and easier to save our old masterpieces than to shoot new movies, but such a process also fulfils the moral obligation of the nation to its own heritage-which is the backbone of any nation.

Keep in mind that the American MGM studio has always been valued for its massive collection of classic movies. Entire cable channels such as Turner Classic Movies (TCM) exist in the U.S. and a similar situation exists in Russia as well with "Nashe Kino" (Our Cinema).

This "total remastering process" should, of course, be done in parallel with the making of new movies shot inside the country as well as abroad, a process which actually is already beginning. With intelligent marketing, the success of re-issued, re-mastered films can be guaranteed. I'm sure that everyone from Azerbaijan, now living in various corners of the world, would be happy to purchase some of these wonderful cinematographic narratives for their own and their family's enjoyment.

John Ruskin would have been pleased to witness such an extension of his original concept. So would the Azerbaijani nation.

Adil Baghirov
Washington, DC

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