arts / Film

Cinema of Azerbaijan (Bu Kino Çox Gözal) festival

The Cinema of Azerbaijan (Bu Kino Çox Gözal) festival, organised by the Turkish branch of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) and the Pera Museum – one of Istanbul’s leading cultural institutions –  opened yesterday.

The festival began on January 23 with a gala screening of Arshin mal alan (The Cloth Peddler), one of Azerbaijani cinema’s greatest triumphs. This has recently been digitally restored and colourised with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and ATA Holding.

Featuring the dashing Rashid Behbudov, the legendary Azerbaijani lyric tenor, the film was made in 1945. It is based on Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s world-famous comic operetta of 1913, and features some outstanding melodies, which synthesise western writing with Azerbaijani mugham, graceful national dances and amusing comic sequences. It was popular across the entire Soviet Union and Turkic-speaking world, and was remade in 1965.

The Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli composed Leyli and Majnun‘ in 1908, the first opera in the Muslim world.

To read more about him, go to the Wikipedia page on his life and work.

Comprising eight Azerbaijani films, the festival runs until February 2.

Azerbaijan has a rich cinematic history, which began in 1898 with a documentary entitled The Oil Gush Fire in Bibiheybat, filmed by Alexandre Michon, the French entrepreneur, photographer and cameraman. He was closely connected to the Lumière brothers, the inventors of the Cinématographe.

The remainder of the programme focuses on some of the country’s recent cinematic successes, including The Bat (Ayaz Salayev, 1995), an homage to silent cinema; Fortress (Shamil Najafzadeh, 2008), an intriguing story about how a crew filming a war film gradually become engulfed in a real war; Holy Animal (Yavar Rzayev, 2011), an allegorical tale of an adolescent shepherd in a remote, challenging region of the country; and Steppe Man (Shamil Aliyev, 2012), Azerbaijan’s Official Submission for the Best Foreign Language Film in the 2014 Academy Awards.

The film industry in Azerbaijan  developed significantly after the Belgian Pirone brothers came to Baku and founded a joint-stock company, Filma, in 1915. They also established film distribution offices in Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi, and invited the Russian director and film producer Boris Svetlov, who directed and produced several films, some of which later became very well-known. In 1915, with the financial support from oil barons of Baku, Svetlov directed the first full-length feature film in Azerbaijani cinema – In the realm of oil and millions, which was remade by Fikrat Aliyev in 1980 as Abyss of gold. A year later, Svetlov directed the first musical comedy, albeit as a silent film, based on Arshin mal alan by Uzeir Hajibeyov, with the well-known themes being played by a piano accompanist. At this time, it was the convention for male actors to play female roles. Years later, in 1945, the film was remade with sound and female actors, becoming one of the most popular Azerbaijani films of all.

In general, pre-Soviet films in Azerbaijan mostly focused on the lives of laborers, oil fields and revolution. Once Soviet power was established in 1920, Azerbaijan SSR decided to nationalize its cinema. In 1922, the first cinema studio was founded, which was renamed as the Azerbaijan Photo-Film Department a year later. During this period, the most famous and popular films were musical comedies. Remaking Svetlov’s Arshin mal alan in 1945 (also in 1965) popularized this genre, and over the years film like Rendezvous (1955), Bakhtiyar (1955), If not this, then that (1965), Where is Ahmad? (1964) and Mother-in-law (1978) were made.

After regaining its independence in 1991, Azerbaijani cinema entered a new era. Since the early 1990s, the country has directed a growing portion of the revenue it derives from massive oil and natural gas reserves toward cultural projects. And now, since the creation of the Azerbaijan Film Commission in 2010, it is starting to turn its attention back to cinema. Despite the fact that the comedy genre retained its popularity (Lucky Ring, 1991;,Hungry Dupes, 1993 etc.), more serious issues were also addressed. Over 1000 films have been made since 1990. In the last five or six years, new cinemas were opened and existing cinemas were renovated in Baku, encouraging public interest in cinema.


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