Author: Valentina REZNIKOVA
More than a century ago, on August 2, 1898, a Baku-based photographer of French origin and Russian nationality, Alexander Michon, presented the citizens three short films of his own and a documentary called Попался! (Russian for “gotcha”) showing a set of funny stories that took place in the Baku city garden. It was an unprecedented event of the time. Premiere screening took place at the Vasilyev-Vyatsky wooden circus theatre on the Birzhevaya Street (now one of the buildings of the post office at the Uzeyir Hajibeyov Street). Michon’s original idea was to present his films at the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris scheduled for the same year. On December 18, 2000 President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, signed a decree, which declared August 2 as the Day of National Cinema.
But information about this significant event would be incomplete without a person who made a sensational discovery and proved officially that Azerbaijani cinema originates not in the 20th century, as was previously thought, but in the 19th. This is a member of the Union of Azerbaijani Cinematographers, expert Aydin Kazimzade. For 122 years, Azerbaijani cinema has been marching in time, presenting to the world feature films, documentaries and auteur films, made both by state-run and commercial companies. Azerbaijani films take part at international festivals and do not go unnoticed, regardless of prizes they earn. Despite all the ups and downs of the Time with its economic crisis and pandemic, the cinema of Azerbaijan lives and develops with its TV series, short films, documentaries, auteur films, and cartoons.
On the eve of the National Cinema Day, we had a series of conversations with the masters of national cinema and with the new generation of film-makers - those who create the new history of national cinema.
People's Artist, director, screenwriter, writer, producer, professor, laureate of many national and international awards, as well as Azerbaijan's National Cinema Award for his contribution to the development of Azerbaijani cinema, holder of many orders.
"You are a cinema professional, who knows everything about film-making. What do our contemporaries, who are well familiar with different genres of the cinema, including commercial and art-house films, expect from the national cinema?"
"In fact, it is impossible to know everything. But one’s knowledge seems especially valuable when he realises how little he knows. Our audience, like every other audience in the world, has its own individual preferences. I think it’s important not to forget that cinema is one of the most effective forms of art. Along with its unconditional achievements, the world cinema today has, unfortunately, a certain defect: it recklessly imposes certain stereotypes associated with the lack of taste, spirituality and raison d'être for development. The audience is not homogeneous in its aesthetic tastes. It would be nice to see showrooms of different formats too, which is a popular trend and practice around the world, which brings positive results. Because there is always a choice for the viewers to watch what they want to watch, be it a melodrama, historical adaptation, suspense, action or a psychological drama. Until then, we have to watch low-quality products. By the way, young directors go to cinemas too. And when they do, they see a piece of the so-called "successful cinema", which becomes a model for some of them, unfortunately. According to my humble observation, behavioural stereotypes imposed by low-quality cinema not only generate cruelty in society, but also change the psychological structure of a person, depriving him of spirituality. Unfortunately, this tendency has been developing in Azerbaijan for a number of years. Numerous low-quality cheap comedies cripple the psyche, making people forget moral values. This is a trouble! This is a long overdue social issue, which demands open conversation between all walks of life. Perhaps in this case it will be clear what needs to be shown and what is worth watching."
Actress of the Samed Vurghun State Academic Russian Drama Theatre and cinema. Known for TV series Bir ailəm var (Alina), motion pictures İrs (Anna Nobel), Keçmişdən zəng (Sonya), etc.
"You have experience in TV serials and motion pictures. Where does the crew have more professional responsibility, opportunities for detailed study and deep insight into the nature of their characters and their life circumstances?"
"In fact, we feel responsible in all projects regardless of the genre. As actors, we ought to know essence of any role in detail, including the traits of characters, circumstances that bring my character to the main conflict of the plot through a cause-and-effect relationship, and many more what can be called tools of the craft. The only difference is that in TV series it is often necessary to improvise due to time constraints. You don’t have time to analyse the scene. That’s why you should adapt your character to unexpected twists of the plot. I think this is a very good professional training for any actor, although it requires increased emotional stress."
Director, screenwriter, producer, who directed 30 short films, as well as three full-length films called Pərdə and a fourth part to the series, Mən burada tək idim, a completely new film, which is scheduled to premiere in the fall. The first part had an overwhelming rating of one million views, with the following part having over two million views. The third part is not yet available. Emil is young (34), and began his career in cinema with his own style, which is quite a rare thing for novice directors.
"Certainly, Pərdə is a film that made you famous. You showed your own style. Reviews and impressions of your work are different. However, both your fans and critics continue to watch Pərdə, waiting for the next parts. Do you think you found the pain threshold of our modern society? And as a beginner, what do you think is the best movie to make for the audience - commercial or art house?"
"To be honest, I haven't gone so deep. It doesn't matter whether I'm famous or not. What matters is that people watch these films. They watch and listen to my story – my thoughts, my feelings and my attitude to the global humane problem that exists in the life of modern Baku in the 21st century. I didn't have to search for a pain threshold. I live in this city, and I am part of the very environment that I describe in my films. Nothing is far-fetched in my films. They’re about the truths that we don’t often speak about. It is not accepted to speak, but to live like this seems to be a norm. Double standards... Therefore, the main theme was the problem of shadow matriarchy. I know what I'm talking about. I grew up in this environment. Those who watch my films understand me well. There is no main character in Pərdə in usual sense. To some extent, my hero is the City and Time. I don't see commercial cinema as a form of art. Auteur cinema is the path to hearts, thoughts and souls of people, if you will. It is an opportunity for an open and honest conversation. We must tell the truth to ourselves and to others in order to become better. Otherwise, why do we come to this world then? I don’t have plans after I finish Mən burada tək idim. But I know for sure that this will also be a frank and honest conversation. I want to make films for people and about people. The people I know and among whom I live. And cinema for people should be honest."
About the small genre of cinema...
It would be unfair not to remember the art of animation cartoons. This type of cinema is much younger than big cinema, because the first animated films, in particular Abbasın bədbəxtliyi (written by A. Popov, directed by E. Dikarev), were based on folk tales only in the 1930s. Throughout the Soviet period, the art of Azerbaijani animated cartoons was among the leading in the USSR, as evidenced by awards at various film festivals and competitions. Firangiz Gurbanova has devoted her entire professional life to animated cartoons. Her first work as a cartoonist (Bulud niyə ağlayır directed by Sardarov, 1973) was successful and awarded by the jury of the 7th Baku Film Festival (1974).
Honored Art Worker of Azerbaijan, professor of the State Academy of Fine Arts, head of the Birlik film studio, director and artist of animated cartoons, head of Direction of Animated Cartoon Films school under the Azerbaijan Filmmakers Union.
"Why is hand-drawn animation losing popularity? What measures are needed to preserve this art for children and the culture of Azerbaijan?"
"I think we need to talk about the state of animation as a form of art in Azerbaijan as a whole. Students of art universities are gifted as they see the world a bit differently. Simply put, they can interpret the world in hand-drawn pictures. Now we have compute software that anyone, even those without drawing skills, can learn. You don't need to be talented for drawing, as you can use the computer software to do the job for you! Unfortunately, computer animation has become increasingly preferred over live hand drawing. As a result, we have faceless and uniform characters in all animated films, which are mostly used for advertising purposes. This has nothing to do with great art. This is the art of logistics, but not of artists! When the state provides funding for the rather expensive production of animated films, it hopes that the final product will be recognised at prestigious film festivals abroad. But this is possible only if the films have a pronounced individuality manifested in authors of these films. The screen should be a place for reproduction of live animation handcrafted by artists, not by computer programs. Our film studio, Birlik, is the only one approved by the board of the Union of Cinematographers and the USSR State Committee for Cinematography (1988), which preserves the tradition of author animation films using art graphics on the screen. Thanks to the preservation of the style of artistic graphics in animation, our animation films made under the order of the Ministry of Culture became participants, as well as laureates of various prizes and diplomas of international film festivals in Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Japan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Georgia. In 2019, a film school was opened at the Union of Cinematographers. The students of the school are able to think graphically on paper. They are learning how to reproduce author's films on the screen! The process of direct human participation, not of a computer depersonalising program, in the creation of artistic images is very important for the prestige of Azerbaijani animation abroad, which means it is necessary for the art of Azerbaijani cinema. We hope for the support of the Ministry of Culture in preserving and continuing the development of the tradition of hand-drawn animation. This is a very difficult genre in the art of animated cartoons. As a professional film studio for the production of classic animation, Birlik is ready to continue working for the benefit of the development of animation cinema."
Custodians of Truth
The State Film Fund of Azerbaijan and its staff, who, like priests, keep the truths about the national cinema, also play an instrumental role in the history of the national cinema. They know for sure everything about our cinema and even more. People who passionately love their work and carefully preserve for posterity the historical truth about the development of this art, which no one will ever be able to rewrite or appropriate. Because everything is strictly recorded and everything will now be immortalised in digital format. One of these guardians is Rashad Gasimov.
Chief expert of the State Film Fund of Azerbaijan.
"Is the Fund a repository for all films produced in Azerbaijan for years or only for the best works? Will you digitise all films stored in the Fund or only the selected works?"
"In the Soviet period, it were the USSR Cinematography Committee and the USSR State Television and Radio Fund which order the production of films in all republics of the Union. Original footage was sent to the Beliye Stolby storage facility in Moscow. After gaining independence (1994), our filmmakers handed over the originals to the State Film Fund of Azerbaijan. Now we also store motion pictures made by our filmmakers during the Soviet period, as well as the films made during the independence. Now we also store the negatives (original footage) of the films in our fund. We have excellent cultural and friendly ties with Russian colleagues and if we need to get some of our films from there, we get it digitised. Today we have digitised 70% of our films on our own. This is a collection of about 150 films. But the work continues."
People's Artist of the Azerbaijan SSR (1982), theatre and film actor, winner of numerous awards, laureate of orders Şöhrət and Şərəf. Murad has been acting since 1958, Arşın mal alan (Suleyman), İnsan lövbər salır (Murad), Babək (Caliph Mamun), etc. He also starred in the Ukrainian film Тайна корабельных часов (1983).
"You are closely following the development of modern cinema in Azerbaijan. What would you like to wish your fellow filmmakers on National Film Day?"
"I keep fond memories of the time when our cinema was prosperous. I remember the events that took place at the [Jafar Jabbarly] film studio, when it was run by great masters Adil Iskenderov and Maharram Hashimov. Everything was about creativity! Shooting, editing, field trips, viewing of footage... With the announcement of every new film project, we became agitated with excitement as we wanted to know who would be involved in the project. It has been a delightful process filled with colossal creative dedication of screenwriters, directors, actors, cameramen, make-up artists, composers, technical staff on the set. This creative obsession was the result of high professionalism and informal attitude towards the craft. All pavilions, sound shops, dubbing studios, wardrobes served one and only purpose - to create high-quality cinema. Our national cinema knows many films that we can be proud of. This is our cultural heritage. I wish all my colleagues a lot of work, dedication, love for our work and faith in our highly promising future - both in life and on stage. I wish them have as many films as possible based on the works of national authors, including Ordubadi, Manaf Suleymanov, Chingiz Abdullayev, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. But the most important thing is to love our homeland and culture; to preserve and take the future all our best moral, cultural, and historical achievements."