Asif Rustamov-director, screenwriter. He is the director of the films “The House” (2007), “With the Back to Qibla” (2009), “Down the River” (2014). Based on the script, the movie “Knot” (directed by Ali Isa Jabbarov) was shot. He is the co-author of the screenplays of the films “Down the River”, “There is no Such Conversation” (dir. Rufat Hasanov), “Pomegranate Orchard”, “Sughra and Her Sons” (dir. Ilgar Najaf). The film “Pomegranate Orchard”, of which he is one of the scriptwriters, was awarded at the 13th Eurasian International Film Festival.
The director’s feature film “Down the River” won an award in the “Best Feature Debut” category at the SEEfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, USA.
– Mr. Asif, where does your professional journey in screenwriting commence?
– I do not work as a professional screenwriter. This question is a bit…
– But in recent times, you are the author whose screenplays have been shot the most…
-Yes, may be. In the local cinema market in Azerbaijan, it is not small number to shoot five full-length films with the script of one person. However, it’s important to note that all of these projects were collaborative efforts, developed alongside co-authors. My environment has been rather narrow – I either engage in writing for my own projects or for friends. Due to this I don’t consider myself a professional screenwriter. I haven’t undergone formal training in professional screenwriting; rather, a substantial portion of my directorial education was dedicated to honing my skills in script development.
My creative process typically originates from small, everyday episodes. Initially, I gather a multitude of notes, drawing inspiration from observations in my daily life or stories shared by others. These fragments are immediately jotted down, a practice I used to carry out in a physical notebook during my student days, but now conveniently captured through recordings on my phone. I regularly read and conceptualize those articles. I combine notes that are similar to each other in one episode, I connect them to each other. This process takes a long time. That is, it is not the work of a year. At the end, there is an episode that gives impetus to the film and begins to connect the collected materials. Often this episode is a micromodel of the main idea of the film. A light frame is created. Then I think about the plot of a specific film and start working. I combine random, chaotic episodes according to the dramaturgical structure of my choice. The blanks are filled and the synopsis is completed.
-What is the golden rule in screenwriting?
– These are general dramaturgical laws. I will not be able to say something original. I like to hide in the details myself. I want the audience to watch the film several times to fully understand it. That’s why I leave hints and hide them in small details. I love how a movie unfolds completely after a few viewings.
–What does it mean for you that the film is full of content? This concept presumably aligns with Quentin Tarantino’s approach, where he mentioned that he crafts comprehensive backstories even for characters with a mere 15 seconds of screen time.
– This is very important. It is important not only for the screenwriter or the director, but also for the performance of the actors. To know the motivations of the characters, it is important to know their history. If it is not in the script, it should be thought of when the director is making the film. It can also be a part of the director’s interpretation. This can vary depending on the director. There is nothing standard. Different directors can shoot the same script differently. Therefore, when writing the script, it is good to write according to the director in a certain sense. For example, I worked with Ilgar Najaf on two screenplays: “Pomegranate Orchard” and “Sughra and Her Sons”. Ilgar wrote the initial version of the synopsis of the film “Pomegranate Orchard”. I got to work with his material. I knew that he would make the film. I had seen his film “Buta” and knew his style of directing. That’s why I wrote according to his style. If I had shot it myself, maybe I would have written it differently.
– Do you think there should be some language dimension in the cinema? At times, the dialogues take on an authentic neighborhood and street vibe.
-It depends greatly on the story, approach, and director’s vision. It’s not a matter of simply taking any movie and transplanting it into a specific neighborhood’s parlance. Factors like the subject matter, time period, and geographical setting play a crucial role. I once watched a film in English, which included extensive street slang. The English subtitles were necessary because even native English speakers found the slang difficult to grasp. However, the essence of the movie remained intact, and this technique effectively enhanced its authenticity. How do you imagine the movie “Babak” in colloquial language?
-In your opinion, where is the typical screenplay flaw in local films: finale, dramaturgical conflict, etc.?
–In modern Azerbaijani films, exposition is usually very long. There are films in which exposition lasts for half an hour. However, it can be easily reduced. So much exposition is exhausting.
– As a screenwriter, does it bother you when the interpretation of the director who made your screenplay differs sharply from your script?
– Yes, it does. I was closely involved in the production of Ilgar Najaf’s film “Pomegranate Orchard”. I was not only a screenwriter but also part of the film crew. I also acted as script supervisor during the filming. Therefore, I had an opportunity of interfering in the process of the script’s realization. I did not participate much in the stage after writing the script in the film “Sughra and Her Sons”. This is what happened in Rufat Hasanov’s film “There is no such conversation” (original name “Yoxdur belə söhbət”) – I wrote the script and handed it over to the “Azerbaijanfilm” film studio, and then I didn’t know about it, and I only saw the film. The scenario had changed quite a bit. Of course, the experience I like is the experience of the movie “Pomegranate Orchard”. There, I had few “losses” as a screenwriter.
– You are one of the three co-authors of the film “Sughra and Her Sons”. The narrative was written by Ilgar Najaf, it seems…
– No, in the film “Sughra and Her Sons” we used Tarkovsky’s famous experiment with Misharin: everyone writes their own episodes, and then they combine the episodes. As you know, the movie “Mirror” was born from this experience. We also used this method: Ilgar wrote his episodes and sent them to me, and I added the episodes I wrote and completed the synopsis, and as a result, the plot was created. Later, a third co-writer, Roelof, joined the work and prepared a preliminary version of the script. In the next step, we improved that version with Ilgar, and finally the ninth version was screened.
– What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with co-authors?
–The beauty of collaboration lies in its ability to transcend subjectivity. Its advantage is the presence of an objective evaluator for your writing. This dynamic not only ensures the creation of finely-tuned, polished material but also serves as a check-and-balance system with your co-author. The end result often emerges as a meticulously edited and perfected piece. Of course, there is the flip side to consider. The collaborative tandem might not always find immediate traction in the market. It’s plausible that a script crafted in solitude could possess a distinct allure. To discern this, it is important to periodically embark on independent projects. Personally, I’ve been fortunate in my partners.
– What about the division of work with the co-author?
– It is different, there is no standard rule. We worked with Ramiz Fataliyev on two short films. He made changes to my finished script and submitted the final version. There was no work except for a detailed discussion. In the end, we put the version he wrote into production. In other words, his work as an authority was taken for granted. We worked alternately with Otar Petrarkhiya in the film “Down the River”. I wrote to him and he sent to me. Both of us were adding changes to what the other side had written. In other words, we were editing each other’s writings without talking to each other. But our working mechanism with Ilgar and Roelof was more complicated.
– Is there any social order taken into account in the scenario stage? For example, to exaggerate a line because it is relevant, because it will touch the audience…
-You usually write what bothers you. The conjectural side: festivals, audiences, state demand and so on remain unimportant. So, they can never be a goal. You can think about it later, but at the creative stage it is unacceptable. After the script is finished, you can simply analyze it and predict how relevant it is and whether it will be successful. This will not change anything – the scenario is already ready. Of course, when it comes to auteur cinema… in commercial cinema, everything is the opposite.
– Three of your five realized scenarios are based on the theme of “fathers and sons”. In world cinema, as well as in our cinema, this is a sufficiently developed topic…
–This is a topic that always worries me, I call this topic a personal topic. In general, this is a hot topic in many societies. It is especially more prominent in patriarchal societies.
– As modernization increases, do you think this conflict becomes more acute?
–No, on the contrary. I think it’s melting away. Because this topic is no longer relevant in most liberal societies.
– No matter how much you are against it, is there something you want to protect in this national, patriarchal family model?
–It is a patriarchal model, not a national one, and it is collapsing, it has already collapsed in many countries. The way we are going is not new to the world, for example, it is the way France went in the 70s and 80s. We can see how the end will be in the example of other countries. There is no desire to protect, I like to look to the future. I think the best things are yet to come.
– One of the main arguments of anti-liberals is that individualization will gradually destroy the family institution.
– I believe this is already occurring, and if it does unfold as predicted, it might not be worthwhile to engage in arguments about it.
– Are you worried about it?
–It seems a little unusual. It is no longer new to the world. Look at modern European society. If it doesn’t scare you, then there’s nothing to worry about. It’s true, sometimes I’m a bit patriarchal too…
– Perhaps there’s a necessity to address this issue, as there seems to be a patriarchal framework inherent in the shooting process itself: where the father figure functions as the primary ideologue, demanding unquestioning obedience for the actualization of his vision.
–Indeed, the very plot of my new film aligns with this traditional model, seemingly resistant to embracing innovation. There’s an inherent belief that nothing should be coerced; instead, it should evolve organically. The challenge lies in the importation of these institutions of civilized values, which our society might not yet be prepared for. While it’ should be rooted in our straightforward way of life, various entities such as institutions, politicians, sociologists, and NGOs attempt to artificially reinforce these values, leading to a somewhat agonizing process.
–In this matter, social networks play more role than the institutions you listed. Let’s take the idea or model of happiness – everyone aspires to it but no one is infected with it.
– This is artificial again. There is nothing wrong with this, but there are complications. Most of the societies that import social institutions have progressive values, and after economic progress, they also experience a moral crisis. This is inevitable, because these ideologues are individuals who grew up outside the society, not in it. The process is normal, it’s just fast. The process that should take place with the transition of generations takes place within five to ten years. This leads to conflict and moral crisis. Look at the history of the Russian or Japanese empires – the fall of both empires was the result of the importation of social institutions.
– Your recently released film “Cold as Marble” is also dedicated to the father-son, patriarchal family problem. Interestingly, from what angle did you approach the known topic this time?
– In this film, the focus is on the father’s perspective, delving into the issue from his side. An earnest attempt is made to unravel the father’s philosophy and comprehend his viewpoint.
– What about the image of mother? How do you feel about it in general? In your first two works (“Knot”, “Down the River”), the father is a tyrant, but a secret anger is felt towards the mother. Or am I wrong?
– Possibly. It is very difficult to create a female image. Maybe that’s why I avoid delving too deeply into female character complexities. Maybe I’ll try in the next movie. I’ll probably need a female co-author because female psychology is a mystery to me.
– Can it be said that you are saying goodbye to the theme of “fathers and sons” with the movie “Cold as Marble”?
– I wouldn’t say so. I thought of these films as a trilogy. Quadrant of elements: water, earth, fire, sky. “Down the River” was water, “Cold as Marble” is land, if it becomes possible, I’m planning two more films.
– Do you already have scripts?
–Not yet, but I’m thinking. There are chaotic episodes. The last film should be about love – the celestial element. We’ll see as long as we live…
– When talking about national film production, there is a problem that is highlighted: script, script, again script. What do you think is the root of this script crisis?
– While script-related challenges exist in global cinema, it’s worth noting that Azerbaijan faces a multitude of issues. Therefore, it might not be entirely accurate for us to solely attribute our problems to a shortage of scripts.
– Losing ties with literature – is this a good thing for screenwriting or vice versa?
-Of course, this is a negative situation, but it is not caused by cinema, but by problems in literature. In general, cinema is not an autonomous art, but a synthetic art. Therefore, the cause of many problems of cinema are problems from other arts and fields. The problem of high school is also the problem of cinema. Even the problem of the Azerbaijani family comes and stops in the cinema. These problems kind of hold the cinema hostage. Everything in cinema nowadays is a problem: distribution, financing, actors, creative staff, etc. All of them are problems.
– Mr. Asif, you were part of the jury in the competition announced by the ministry for a full-length film. The board also published an appeal regarding the competition. What was the most typical problem you encountered with scripts?
-First and foremost, I want to emphasize that the scene depicted in that competition does not accurately represent the true state of Azerbaijani cinema. Speaking from my perspective as an individual within the film industry, it’s important to recognize that the budget allocated for the competition was a mere three hundred thousand manat, a relatively modest amount. Consequently, the limited funding led to a dearth of substantial projects being submitted. This is my understanding of the situation. A significant portion of the submissions consisted of non-professional works, and many lacked a proper script altogether. What was often presented were synopses or, at best, treatments. It appears that some participants had caught wind of the competition and hastily pondered, “What can we submit? What material do we possess?” “Somebody had eight pages of writing, so they decided to submit it.” Those eight pages had actually been penned a decade ago. Astonishingly, the application also claimed that shooting would commence within a month. It’s quite a frivolous approach, to be honest. Let me share a fact: a significant majority of the projects submitted on the theme of Karabakh were essentially synopses, born from the self-analysis of individuals who had yet to move beyond the sense of defeat following the First Karabakh War. It’s almost as if the events of the Second Karabakh War never transpired, as if we didn’t emerge victorious and our flag didn’t proudly wave in Shusha. Many of these submissions were unconventional endeavors, seemingly holding onto a relevance that has long since shifted. However, the collective mindset of the people has undergone a transformation. The audience now yearns to witness their triumph, to connect with their heroes.
-What do you think should be in Karabakh films now?
– When it comes to social order, there must be victory and heroes. Because that is what the social order is. People want to see their heroism. Of course, after a certain time, when the mood of victory ends, when we start dealing with our own social problems, there can be films that reflect the traumas of the Second Karabakh War, human destiny, philosophical and psychological approaches, and even a more serious analysis of the conflict between the two nations. However, at this stage, the social order is only and only victory. People want to see their victory and heroes, their victorious soldier on the screen!
– Asif, you have been to Shusha. As a person, citizen and creator, how did you get an impulse and motivation?
–Our generation, the one that witnessed Khojaly tragedy, carries a profound trauma and complexity. This victory seems to have provided a closure to that emotional burden, in my opinion. The whole paradigm of a person’s perspective changes.
It’s not about false patriotism or fleeting euphoria; the challenges persist, the same officials hold their positions, and we continue living in the same society. However, my perspective on these issues has undergone a significant shift. I’m not categorizing this transformation as either positive or negative; rather, my entire outlook has undergone a transformation. Let’s imagine that we could rewind time, erase the pain we collectively endured. Personally, that pain has been reset for me. This transformation directly influences my creative thinking. I’ve started to delve into the root causes of problems within myself rather than placing blame on others. When we find aspects within the state that we’re dissatisfied with, it’s crucial to recognize that we’ve played a part in shaping this state. Consequently, we bear the responsibility to address and resolve these issues ourselves. As we solved the Karabakh conflict ourselves! There was support from the outside, but an Azerbaijani soldier fought and died there! We have to solve the problem of cinema ourselves. This is what our cinema and our state are now. This is what we could create and build. If something is not done, it means that this is all we can do at the moment. Before the victory, you were like a hostage. It seemed to you that you did not solve anything in what was happening, that you had no influence. But now there is a feeling like “we control everything”. If something doesn’t work, it’s our personal problem.
– Let’s take a general approach to the issue I’m going to ask now, without relating it to victory. In our cinema, as well as in other fields of art, there was a condition of “optimistic ending” from the Soviet era. Until recently, officials who could not get out of the Soviet overcoat put it as a demand. Even for this reason in your movie “Down the River” there were several versions of the finale. However, in today’s modern and open system, as well as in an era saturated with information, the question arises: does the responsibility lie with the author to impart optimism and a glimmer of hope?
-If the creative person does not fulfill a specific order, he/she does not have any obligations. Officials work with a directive, it is demanded from them, and they, in turn, demand it from creative people. This is a normal and permanent process. In the commercial sector, there is also a producer’s dictate and a social order. If there is no order, the creative person is free and should be free.
– Did the jury have any unanimous priority in the above- mentioned contest?
–Our priority was to grant a chance to any potentially successful scenario concerning Karabakh. As a jury, our overarching objective was to address the concern that the allocated funding was already inadequate. Given the limited support for the private sector, it was imperative to ensure a judicious distribution of these funds. This meant considering projects that might not be deemed fully successful by our standards but still held a certain degree of promise. Redirecting this funding back to the ministry would undoubtedly deal a blow to the private sector. The concept of a project competition has become a tradition, one that needed to be established at some point. Due to the prolonged lack of support for the private sector, it had fallen into a state of stagnation, resulting in a scarcity of well-developed projects. Introducing a competition was akin to pouring hot water into unprepared hands; the sector was unaccustomed to the process. The absence of substantial support over an extended period had precipitated a crisis within the private sector. If such competitions continued for a long time, it would be possible to increase good scripts and successful pitches. Therefore, we should give a chance to projects with potential, even if only a little, so that we can overcome this crisis and the quality will gradually increase, and as a result, a tradition will be created in the market, and there will be a fight for a larger amount. As there is no tradition, there is no communication consequently. The screenwriter can’t find a studio, and the producers don’t have a relationship with the directors, etc.
There is also a point, there is a cult of directors in Azerbaijan: everyone wants to be a director. A good screenwriter or a successful producer aspire to be a director. I would like the number of professional screenwriters to increase and take this field from us.
The interview was prepared by: Aliya Dadashova