Now Reading
Azerbaijan-style Robinsonade

Azerbaijan-style Robinsonade

Engaging in a captivating pursuit, I find myself immersed in the world of new Azerbaijani films crafted by the creative vigor of young talents. I hold a candle to these contemporary cinematic gems with the timeless classics of old Azerbaijani cinema, now etched into history. Reminiscent of an envious sentiment expressed by a renowned film critic, who, in a moment of reflection, mused over the ease with which literary critics can dissect their subject. A literator merely needs to unfurl the pages before them, perusing at will or revisiting passages at whim. In stark contrast, we film critics are tethered to the screen, ensnared in a dance of attention, lest even a fleeting detail evade our discerning eyes. The pace and cascade of visuals demand unswerving focus, a pursuit wherein something inevitably eludes capture. Yet, even as this film critic lamented the challenges of their craft, an undercurrent of optimism flowed through their words. A belief, steadfast as the march of time, that the evolution of technology would one day gift us the ability to unfurl a film’s narrative at our discretion, akin to the pages of a well-thumbed book.

Indeed, we find ourselves in an era where such aspirations have materialized. The capability to download and preserve a movie on a computer ushers in a newfound freedom. We possess the power to navigate, rewind, and meticulously study specific segments ad infinitum. Furthermore, we can intricately juxtapose a contemporary cinematic marvel with a classical masterpiece, two distinct narratives conversing in the language of cinema. Episodic analysis beckons, where a fresh release dances in tandem with an age-old treasure, or episodes unfurl in seamless succession, offering a dynamic contrast that breathes life into the narratives. In this unfolding panorama, a subtle defiance arises, as we diverge from the author’s original intent. The linear continuum of cinematic experience yields to our interpretive impulses. The cinematic work ceases to be a monolithic edifice; rather, it transforms into malleable material, subject to our intellectual dissection. Akin to an artist’s palette, we wield our newfound authority over the narrative, scrutinizing its facets not as a finished opus, but as a pliable entity—open to our inquiries, ripe for analysis. This approach, as alluded to earlier, paints a canvas of distinct perspectives across epochs. The juxtaposition of disparate eras unearths an array of attitudes, breathing fresh life into timeless themes.

For example, let’s compare the views of the hero of the 1970 film “The Day Passed” with the hero of the 2020 film “The Island Within”, although they are different characters. We can see more than fifty percent of what was shown in the first film, thanks to the views of the architect Ogtay. Seymour, the chess player in the second film, has his eyes on his own world. In front of him, on the opposite side of the chessboard, sits a girl in a tight pants that gives a naked effect. The portrait of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov behind Seymour is placed upside down so that the naked eye does not touch the naked girl. The point is that Seymour is not looking at the girl either, he is, as always, somewhere in his dream world, on his own island. Whatever is around seems to accidentally fall on the camera that follows Seymour.

But this time, respecting the author’s will, let’s watch the film in sequence and share our thoughts from the perspective of our general impression. “The Island Within,” a film both written and directed by Rufat Hasanov distinctly mirrors a prevailing trend that has gracefully woven its way into recent Azerbaijani films, predominantly crafted by the hands of young talents. In these cinematic creations, we discern a common thread that binds the protagonists—an inclination towards solitude and detachment from society. As we delve into the fabric of “The Island Within,” a pattern emerges—one that finds resonance in the final chapter of “Bilasuvar” (2019, directed by Elvin Adigozelov), resonates through the frames of “The End of the Season” (2019, directed by Elmar Huseynov), and lingers within the documentary realm of “The Last Man” (2019, directed by Fariz Ahmadov), among others. This motif, akin to the essence of Robinson Crusoe’s plight, reverberates across these narratives. However, it is in Rufat Hasanov’s deft hands that this motif blooms into the very crux of the film.  I call this cinematic problem as the “Azerbaijani-style Robinsonade.”

It can be compared to driving a car. To what extent does a person drive a car? Ten percent at most. The remaining ninety percent of control is performed by the car itself and the rules of the road. Over the years, innovations such as the replacement of the manual gearbox with an automatic gearbox and the widespread use of navigation guides have reduced the ten percent to five percent. They may object that the ability to increase speed, make unexpected transitions, or follow rules skillfully, and react instantly, are not all these personal driving styles? Yes, it is, but they are all within that five percent. For the control of a complex mechanism like a car, all this cannot be more than the small individual approach I mentioned.

The diminishing role of individuality across various aspects of life is a trend that has persisted over time, not just a contemporary issue. Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, luminaries like Ibn Sina and Ibn Tufayl were already articulating concepts of human perfection achieved independently, accompanied by narratives that illustrated these notions. Fast forward to the 18th century, where Daniel Defoe, an English writer, penned a novel with an impressively lengthy title – a staggering sixty-five words – featuring Robinson Crusoe as its protagonist. This character went on to symbolize solitude and the essence of individual existence not only across Europe but eventually across the globe.

At the core of this issue lies a fundamental question – how much of myself truly constitutes “me”? If my identity is woven solely from the concerns of others, predetermined paths to tread, pre-cooked meals, and even almost automated breaths, coupled with thrust-upon sensual fantasies or, put simply, pre-fabricated desires, then what room is left for genuine self-expectation? Granted, humankind is inherently vulnerable; a child requires the nurturing embrace of their mother for at least the initial six years, lest they face demise. Acknowledging this, customs are designed – if it’s a boy, he is lovingly sheltered in his mother’s warmth and care until the age of ten. Afterward, the father takes charge, plucking him from the cocoon of maternal comfort, and ushering him into a world governed by chilly, unyielding rules – a rite-of-passage, an age-old tradition known as “initiation.” We too bore witness to this rite, observing the ceremonial tradition where an adolescent lad embarks on an odyssey alongside his father or elder brother. In lands of the Muslim faith, the circumcision of a male child continues to serve as an official initiation ceremony, a testament to tradition’s enduring grasp.

The film “The Island Within” commences by delving into footage from this ceremony, meticulously preserved on a mid-90s VHS tape, inevitably weathered by the passage of time, resulting in a loss of its original clarity. A metamorphosis unfolds as a young boy changes into manhood. Abruptly, the video on the cassette concludes, supplanted by unadulterated, current-day imagery. A twenty-four, twenty-five-year-old lad now occupies the frame, standing before a mirror, resolutely piercing his ear and donning an earring. This earring ritual stands as a lighter, more feminine counterpart to the male circumcision. In the inaugural episode, we bear witness to the protagonist’s distinct rebellion against his surroundings. Throughout the annals of human history, earrings have intermittently epitomized the status of esteemed figures, yet conversely, also functioned as emblems of the subjugated and enslaved. Until recent times, earrings predominantly adorned women as ornamental accessories. This particular scene can be interpreted as a young boy’s protest against people who molded him into a man without his acquiescence – a poignant assertion that his prerogative of choice remains resolutely intact.

Thankfully, the earring motif concludes within this scene, and there are only occasional returns to both the earring and the female theme in three subsequent episodes throughout the film. In the initial episode, from the adjacent hotel room, one can hear the passionate cries of an unidentified woman who seemingly shared an intimate encounter with Seymour’s father. The second episode, previously mentioned, depicts a striking image – a girl and a woman, their silhouettes cast upon a curtain in the boatman’s house. The woman is dressed in nothing, but a form-fitting tights, seated behind a chessboard with a living Seymour and an inverted portrait of a lifeless Ilyumcinov. That`s that.

Another instance of the female theme arises with the unexpected arrival of a gentleman in Seymour’s father’s room, evidently awaiting an opportunity to question his absent son. It’s not implausible to speculate that the young lady accompanying the man might be his wife, possibly Seymour`s mother. If the woman captured in the portrait indeed represents Seymour’s mother, then it implies that she is either deceased or estranged from his father. The film remains conspicuously silent about the hero’s mother. Furthermore, during a poignant moment when Seymour’s grandfather hosts a khash (Azerbaijani meal) gathering in honor of his grandson, who possesses the potential to ascend to the rank of a world champion, a crucial piece of advice is bestowed upon him: “Remember, khash holds distaste for three things – cognac, lengthy toasts, and women.” The reasoning behind this aversion to women is rooted in the essence of khash as a food for men, reinforcing the notion that a man’s company should be exclusively with other men.

Seymur doesn’t asccept it. He yearns to grasp the essence of masculinity from within, rejecting the notion of it being imposed on him. Thus, on the brink of a momentous international match, he flees and seeks refuge on a secluded island. This cannot be labeled as desertion, as he had previously confided in his grandfather about his longing to retreat into seclusion, granting himself the space to ponder independently, devoid of external influences. Yet, even to his sole confidant, his grandfather, he struggles to articulate the specifics of his yearnings. A dichotomy emerges: the want is present, but its form eludes him—an enigma of his own creation.

In Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” the protagonist seeks solace and communion with God by venturing out to sea. The open waters hold the promise of a harmonious existence, where everything falls into place as it should. Eventually, Robinson’s journey leads him to the shores of an uninhabited island. Unlike our protagonist, Robinson chooses not to fully disrobe upon reaching the island. His awareness of a divine presence, perhaps God’s company alongside his own, influences his actions. He senses an unspoken connection, an all-seeing gaze that permeates the surroundings, and he consciously avoids baring himself completely. Seymour sheds his inhibitions and embraces the island’s solitude. With a sense of vulnerability, he undresses, wades into the sea and reclines upon the rocks, curling his knees to his chest in a fetal-like position.

This film truly embraces the avant-garde cinema genre through its artistic style and aesthetics. The deliberate use of long, profound pauses, where dialogues serve to amplify the mood rather than advance the plot, and the intentional withholding of crucial information, such as the hesitant news delivery by a stammering security guard about the boy’s discovery, all work together to distance us from the conventional grip of plot progression and dramatic tension, prevents audience anticipation as well.

In each scene, the constraints of calendars and clocks fade away, immersing us in the current moment. We willingly surrender to the silence, attuned to the subtle sounds and whispers that linger in the background, uncertain about what’s to unfold. And that uncertainty is exactly the point. The narrative doesn’t revolve around a linear sequence of events, nor are we held captive by our expectations. Instead, it pivots around the transformative journey of the central character. He, like us, is in the dark about what lies ahead and how to proceed. The film’s progression isn’t dictated by a fixed itinerary; it’s the father who holds the reins, deciding which paths to tread and which scenes to explore. Even when his son goes missing, the father returns to the driver’s seat, but the car remains still, symbolizing a halt in motion and direction.

Top of Form

Rufat Hasanov’s film beautifully adheres to a traditional dramaturgical structure and plot composition, seamlessly embracing the monomyth model, commonly known as the “hero’s journey”. The central character, a young boy named Seymour, is deeply connected to his parents, and an internal calling beckons him towards a solo, unsupervised expedition. Along this transformative path, he encounters a series of adventures, undergoing initiation and emerging as a matured individual, only to return home with newfound wisdom. Guiding Seymour on this profound expedition is his grandfather, who, tragically, is destined to depart in the subsequent chapter. Acting as a benevolent mentor, he steers Seymour toward an enigmatic island, once a thriving farm tended by Russians and now eerily abandoned. An essential element of Seymour’s odyssey entails crossing a mystical river. One fateful night, he seeks refuge with an eccentric boatman, where his ethereal dream lady materializes into a tangible reality, shattering the boundary between reverie and existence. Seymur is not yet ready to embark this heroic act like Malikmammad to liberate the girl from the clutches of a formidable giant

It is during his time on the island that he encounters his second guardian, akin to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, yet distinguished by the fact that he predates Seymour’s arrival, already an inhabitant of the island. The climax sees Seymour wandering the island’s darkened expanse, a lantern in hand, amidst the tumultuous night illuminated by lightning flashes. In this realm where untamed creatures roam, he searches for the wellspring of his courage and determination. Probably he finds it. And in this profound moment, much like his circumcise, the resonating rhythm of a drum reverberates once again. It beckons, ignites, and propels him into action. Both instances, underscored by the drum’s cadence, epitomize the juncture where boyhood melds into manhood.  

However, our hero’s determination doesn’t stop here. As he miraculously transforms an old, discarded motorcycle into a functional marvel, he experiences a euphoria akin to the protagonist of the renowned film “Arizona Dream”. Sent by his father, formidable guards take to the air in a helicopter, soaring even higher than our hero. A sense of foreboding fills the atmosphere as the helicopters scour the landscape, their mission to locate Seymour seeming inevitable. Driven by an unyielding spirit, Seymour refuses to succumb to mere mortal limitations. In an act that defies conventional norms, he assumes a fetal position on the rocky outcrop amidst the vast expanse of the sea. Here, in this vulnerable stance, he yearns for a metaphorical rebirth, aspiring to shed his former self and emerge anew as a true embodiment of humanity’s potential.

The film’s cinematic style is intricately woven around the motif of contemplation, embodied by the central image of a thinking individual. It’s no mere coincidence that our protagonist is a skilled chess player, for chess serves as a powerful metaphor. Within the game’s unfolding, crucial moments arise where choices hang delicately in the balance, and the very trajectory of the game hinges on the forthcoming move. In these instances, much like Rodin’s iconic sculpture “The Thinker,” one’s consciousness merges with thought, transcending mere mental exertion to encompass the entirety of being, body, and mind. The camera, like an unwavering observer, tracks Seymour’s mental voyage as he navigates these profound contemplative depths, frozen in an unchanging, tranquil tableau. As he ponders his next move on the chessboard, the lens peels back layers of complexity, revealing life’s intricacies akin to a vast chess match. The luxury of slamming a laptop shut in frustration is absent here, for life’s challenges demand a more nuanced approach. Sometimes, even the act of thinking must be momentarily subdued. A gradual revelation takes hold, emerging from the sequence of uninterrupted, lingering shots—a realization that Seymour’s significance momentarily recedes. Within this continuous flow, life itself unfolds, a tapestry woven with threads of experience that envelop not only Seymour but also the rapt audience awaiting his decisions, and even the camera itself. This convergence mirrors the essence of reality, an intricate dance where Seymour searches for his path throughout the film.

In recent years, a noticeable trend has emerged in our cinema, leaning towards themes of isolation and solitude akin to the narrative of Robinson Crusoe. To unravel the underlying reasons behind this shift, I propose a comprehensive approach involving the simultaneous exploration of contemporary and classic films. In retrospect, our earlier cinematic creations were distinctly characterized by a prevailing preference for collective experiences over individualism. The films of yesteryears adeptly portrayed a collective group, with each member retaining their distinct individuality. However, in the modern cinematic landscape, the prominence of individualization has grown more pronounced. While individual characters remain integral, the connection and amalgamation into a unified collective are conspicuously absent. This brings us to the emergence of characters akin to Robinson Crusoe. Now the next trajectory is given to Robinson. But he invariably comes back to the society he once left behind

Consequently, it appears plausible to anticipate a forthcoming phase in our cinematic art, centered around the notion of “return.”

Nadir Badalov  

© 2022 Azərbaycan Kinematoqrafçılar İttifaqı.
Bütün Hüquqlar Qorunur.

Scroll To Top