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I.Najaf: “A film needs not only a story, but also a script”

I.Najaf: “A film needs not only a story, but also a script”

Our interviewer is Ilgar Najaf, the director of the films “Theatrical Life”, “Buta”, “Pomegranate Orchard”. Although his last feature film “Sughra and Her Sons” has not yet been screened in Azerbaijan, it has already won the “best screenplay” award at the Kerala International Film Festival in India, the Worlds of Filmmaking section of the Turkish-German Film Festival in Nuremberg, Germany, and the XIV Asia and Pacific Screen Awards nomination, and was awarded a special diploma of the jury at the Southeast European Film Festival held in Los Angeles. We start our conversation with Mr. Ilgar from the film “Sughra and Her Sons”.

– Mr. Ilgar, Azerbaijani cinema hasn’t explored the theme of World War II in almost 30 years, with the last notable films being Rasim Ojagov’s 1989 production, ‘If I Die, Forgive,’ and Sergey Ratnikov’s 1990 film, ‘Japan and the Japanese.’ So, why did you decide to revisit World War II after almost 30 years?”

– First of all, let me say that the script of the film “Sughra and Her Sons” was made up on the basis of approximately 12-13 stories. Some of them are events that happened to my grandfathers, that is, my own family.

Ilgar Najaf and Aygun Aslanli

– Were they also repressed?

– Yes, they were forced to leave their places of residence and suffered many losses during that migration. Some of the stories are stories of people I know personally. We worked on the initial version of the script with Asif Rustamov, then sent it to Roelof (Roelof Jan Minneboo – ed.) and made sure that many of the stories we included there took place during the war. Therefore, the script inevitably directed us to that period. In fact, I think the main thing in a work of art is the story, the period is secondary, you can put the story in any time and place you want. If the stories that are the basis of our script took place during the war years, why not choose that period as the time?! Of course, it took courage for us to bear this burden. Exploring a historical period that was 85 years ago presented some unique challenges, especially considering the need for accurate decorations, props, costumes, and concrete period details. Given the limitations of our film’s budget, we had to find creative solutions. This is why we ultimately decided to shoot the film in black and white. We believed that this choice would not only help us depict the era more authentically but also work within our budget constraints. One key factor in making this decision was our trust in our cinematographer, Ayhan Salar. “Sughra and Her Sons” marked our second collaboration, and as a director-cinematographer duo, we had developed a strong understanding of each other’s creative sensibilities. This synergy enabled us to effectively translate the story’s essence into visual solutions, making our working relationship incredibly comfortable. It was also a creative choice that we believed would enhance the authenticity of our depiction of the 1941-1945 years. In many ways, the materials and circumstances themselves guided us back to that pivotal period in history.

The movie “Sughra and Her Sons” reminded me of the movie “The Sound of the Pipe”. Rather, it is as if you drew the lining of “The Sound of the Pipe”: (original title of the film “Tütək səsi”) the wartime, the chairman of the collective farm, women, the elder, etc. However, all events there take place against the background of the desire for victory. You, on the other hand, show that everything is not unipolar and that there is another reality. Was this parallel premeditated or accidental?

– The film ‘The Sound of the Pipe’ is indeed one of my all-time favorites in Azerbaijani cinema. While Rasim Ochagov’s body of work is extensive and can be discussed at length, ‘The Sound of the Pipe’ holds a special place in my heart. It’s interesting that you mentioned this film now, as when we were writing the script for “Sughra and Her Sons” we hadn’t really considered any parallels with it. Personally, I can attest that it wasn’t on my mind during the creative process. Certainly, in ‘Sughra and Her Sons,’ the central character is the chairman of the collective farm, and I understand the comparison you’re drawing with ‘The Sound of the Pipe,’ where this character is portrayed in contrasting, more positive light, making bold decisions in challenging times. However, I had heard numerous accounts of the unwarranted actions of kolkhoz chairmen from that era, stories of how they manipulated the system’s policies and committed acts of violence against people. Barat is a composite representation of dozens, if not hundreds, of kolkhoz chairmen of that era. In this sense, I aimed to accurately capture the essence of the character, grounded in the historical context and stories I had encountered.

“Sughra and Her Sons”

– One of the aspects of the film that I liked was the acting. In particular, I could see Gunesh Mehdizadeh from a different perspective. The character of Barat was very suitable for Ilgar Jahangir. The children played their roles as well as their professional counterparts. Did you know from the beginning who would play which role, or was it just casting? Of course, we are talking about the main characters.

–“Sughra and Her Sons” marked my third venture as a professional director, and by this point, I had accrued some valuable experience. It’s quite common in the filmmaking process that, as the director and scriptwriter, a specific actor or actress springs to life in your mind, and many script moments are tailored to their abilities. This is all part of the creative journey.

Interestingly, for the role of Sughra in the film, I initially had a completely different actress in mind. However, due to unforeseen family circumstances, she had to decline the role. Subsequently, we invited several actresses for casting, and among them was Gunesh Mehdizadeh. During the first round of casting and discussions with Gunesh, I felt an immediate connection to her energy and presence. It’s worth noting that this was our first meeting in person. Although we both belonged to the same artistic world, we had never crossed paths before. I had only known of her through social media and screen. But from that very first casting session, it was clear to me that she was the perfect fit for our Sughra.

– I must admit that the facial expressions and mimes in the photos from the filming process had a theatrical effect on me. But when I watched the movie, I saw that I was wrong. She plays with restraint, there is no artificiality or exaggeration in her performance.

– Gunesh is a very talented actress. The director’s job is how and in what framework to work with the actor and actress, and how to build the dialogue is, and this is very important. As for me, I can’t say about the movie “Buta”, but after the movie “Pomegranate Orchard”, I had a personal experience of working with professional actors. That’s why I was able to find the necessary harmony with Gunesh, Ilgar Jahangir, and Rasim Jafar in my last film. I worked with Gurban Ismayilov in “Pomegranate Orchard”, he played one of the main roles. For me, when I work with actors, there is only one frame, and that is the frame I set for the film. I don’t let the actor go beyond that frame. But he/she can do what he/she wants in it. If it doesn’t trample on the story in my heart, it’s not a problem. Moreover, I can see the effect of this work style on the screen, and it satisfies me. In this regard, I did not have any particular difficulties in the process of working with the actors as well as with child actors. We found the children at the shooting location – Dashkasan. I brought them to Baku and worked with them here. Then we went to Dashkasan a little early. Thanks to Rasim Jafar, he helped us a lot, he started working with children.

My next question is just about children. Children have a special place in your films; you always raise them prematurely. In other words, you mostly show children who cannot experience their own childhood – in “Pomegranate Orchard”, “Sughra and Her Sons”, and partly in “Buta”. Does this vision stem from your own life?

-You emphasize very accurately. I was 13 years old when we, as a family, became refugees from our home – in Armenia. Not living childhood to the fullest, growing up in need, the difficulty of psychological adaptation leaves certain traumas in the brain. Whether I want it or not, it all settles into the subconscious and begins to influence your art, whether you are a writer or an artist. Therefore, it is normal to have such children in all three of my films. You can even call them Ilgar. There is an “Ilgar” in each of my films. It’s like I’m trying to heal his childhood traumas. I think things like that help creativity. Everyone has a child inside and it is the most sacred part of us. That child pulls us along, encourages and motivates us. I’m glad I was able to keep that child in me. He reminds me of my wishes and dreams in every film and in every new job.

– You usually collaborate with co-writers when crafting scripts, and even in your last two films, you’ve had a team of three screenwriters. When working together, how do you divide roles?

– I can’t speak on behalf of other directors, but, me- Ilgar Najaf, I find that collaborating with multiple authors can be highly effective. Admittedly, having four authors might be a bit too many, but having just one author can be too limiting. In both “Pomegranate Orchard” and “Sughra and Her Sons,” we collectively developed the story alongside Asif and then transformed it into a script, which we later sent to Roelof.You could even liken this experience to that of a “script doctor.” However, when we take into consideration Roelof’s contributions and notes, he transcends the role of a script doctor and becomes a co-author. His insights and additions are invaluable. I’ve noticed the positive impact of having a Western author alongside two Azerbaijanis and two Eastern authors; it brings a unique dynamic to the creative process. Roelof approaches the script from a Dutch perspective rather than an Azerbaijani one, which brings a fresh and valuable outlook to the story. His insights are incredibly important to me because, as filmmakers, we aspire for our films to resonate with audiences worldwide, not just locally.At least, we claim it.The actual reception of the film after shooting is a separate matter altogether. Neither Asif Rustamov nor I are professional screenwriters. While I can craft a compelling story and am quite ambitious, a film requires more than just a narrative; it needs a well-crafted script. In that regard, Roelof is an invaluable collaborator for me. I’m pleased to mention that he and I have already embarked on writing the script for my fourth film.

– Mr. Ilgar, I want to expand this topic a little. I am sure that there is a lot of interest in writing scripts, especially for young people. One of your sentences caught my attention: additions of Western thought to an Eastern story, a Dutch approach to the script… Can you give an example of this from your practice in the films “Pomegranate Orchard” or “Sughra and Her Sons”?

-I can provide several examples to illustrate this point. Take, for instance, a scene in the movie “Pomegranate Orchard” that involves a couple making love. In Roelof’s version, this scene was set amidst the pomegranate grove, among the trees. However, I opted to relocate it to the attic. This highlights a notable difference between Western and Eastern sensibilities. We, as people from this region, often prefer a greater degree of privacy. There are certain things we don’t openly discuss. Westerners tend to be more open, less constrained by boundaries. They don’t hesitate to express their love, and if the neighbors happen to catch a glimpse, it’s no concern for them. I’m not suggesting that Roelof’s version would have lacked appeal; it simply wouldn’t have felt convincing here. In filmmaking, every scene is like a bead on a string, each with its unique and self-contained character. These scenes must come together like a puzzle, and each one differs, from the framing, visuals, and dialogues, to the actors and camera movements. In this regard, I personally favor the subtlety and secrecy of our culture. It’s a preference I cherish and wish to convey in my work as an author. It might not be as applicable to Asif and Roelof, but for me, privacy holds a special place. That’s how I like it. Indeed, when one prays, it’s not typically done with loud shouting; it’s a quiet, heartfelt act, often whispered. Similarly, within every individual, there exists an inner sanctuary that they guard closely, not allowing anyone to trespass. This analogy extends to my approach with co-authors. Once I’ve made a resolute decision, I am determined to see it through. I possess a keen understanding of which scenes will elicit positive reactions from the audience and which might lead to post-film criticism. To avoid ever hearing the phrase “it doesn’t happen like that,” I prefer to stick to my own creative vision. For me, storytelling should flow naturally from the author’s and director’s minds, like water from a pristine spring. If it doesn’t resonate with a sense of authenticity and harmony within me, I know I won’t be able to convey it to the audience. I understand that setting out with the mentality of “let’s shoot and see what they will say” is a recipe for mediocrity.Let me illustrate this with an example from the movie “Buta.” I wrote the script for “Buta” while in Georgia, under the artistic guidance of Zanussi. Upon completing the script, I was plagued by a sense of unease. It felt like I had poured my very soul into that screenplay, and I feared I might abandon it midway through. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to see this project to fruition. That’s when I reached out to Ramiz Fataliyev. Bless his heart, he read the script and appreciated it. Certainly, “Buta” was initially a bit of a creative chaos.

Mr. Ramiz played a pivotal role in bringing order to the script, adding a much-needed layer of dramaturgical structure. His contribution to “Buta” is something I deeply appreciate and acknowledge. Now, let’s shift our focus to “Sughra.” After Asif and I completed the script, we entrusted it to Roelof, who skillfully reorganized the sequence of events. In our original version, some scenes were scattered in different places, but Roelof adeptly rearranged them into a more coherent order. This brings me back to my earlier point: when a writer works in solitude, they often approach their story with a touch of conservatism, even a hint of dictatorship. However, when two authors collaborate and share the storytelling process, this dominance over the narrative naturally diminishes, and this can yield remarkably positive results. Furthermore, when a third author, typically a seasoned playwright, becomes involved, their level of intervention can vary, depending on the stage and complexity of the screenplay.

Did you do any research on the period in pre-production or when you started writing the script? I ask because there are some details in the film that are not typical of that time. For example, the lighting of unlit street lamps. As far as I know, during the war it was forbidden to turn on lights at night even in houses.

–You make a valid point, and it’s essential to consider the historical context in which the story unfolds, particularly in a remote mountain village of the Caucasus. During that time, Hitler’s reach extended only to the North Caucasus, and the entire region wasn’t under complete German occupation. Even in the 1940s, there were electric poles lining the streets in many provincial areas. It’s worth noting that in the Soviet Union, megaphones were a tool for influencing people’s thoughts, and every village center had them. The people were informed every day. These megaphones required electricity to function. When it comes to lighting lamps at night, as long as German planes weren’t patrolling the skies, there would have been no obstacle to doing so. Additionally, I place great emphasis on thoroughly exploring not only the historical period but also the depth of the story itself. I’m not content with merely observing events; I prefer to delve into the intricacies of the human psyche. I scrutinize each character’s potential actions within their given situations. Can they realistically take a certain action, or would it come across as contrived? I’m meticulous in this regard because I want every scene to feel authentic within its specific context, to be utterly believable. I don’t allow such details to be overlooked; they must align with the story’s credibility.

– One of the most psychologically difficult scenes of the film is the rape scene.

– The directors are well aware that shooting such scenes isn’t easy. I’m not just referring to the technical challenges. As a human it’s challenging, and it’s also emotionally and psychologically demanding for the actors and actresses involved. While a director can meticulously plan and aspire for something bold and ambitious during pre-production, the actual moment of shooting forces them to assess the current circumstances and, to some extent, make compromises. This was evident in both “Pomegranate Orchard” and “Sughra and Her Sons.” I must admit that the rape scene was intended to be particularly intense and brutal. However, during the shooting, some compromises had to be made.  The actress, too, faced her share of challenges. Despite my efforts to communicate everything in advance, preparing her as much as possible so that she doesn’t feel blindsided on set, the experience remained emotionally taxing.

– In such scenes, it is not easy to find the golden mean from an emotional point of view, to achieve believability. You got it.

– If you, as a viewer, felt this, then I made the right step by compromising thanks to the actors. Aydan is an actress with great potential and I am sure that she will create many good characters in the cinema. Actually, I really liked Gunash and Aydan. It was the first time I worked with Aydan, whose performance I had never seen before. Although it was our first job, she made a good impression on me because she is comfortable to work with. She is a very intelligent woman. It is very important to have an understanding and dialogue between the director and the actor and actress.

-In general, it appears that our actresses are now more relaxed and natural in their performances, giving their art the space it deserves. Perhaps one reason for this shift is that our films have started to come out of local settings and stories. In the past, directors often voiced their concerns.

– Directors don’t have the right to complain; it all depends on us, the actors and actresses we nurture. We must work in a way that when another director, not necessarily Ilgar, wishes to create a film, they’ll say, “I’ve seen this actress in such and such a film, and she can embody the character I need.” I always emphasize and reiterate: Azerbaijani cinema doesn’t lack talented actors, actresses, or composers. The real challenge lies with the directors. Consider this scenario: an actor reads a script and encounters a scene that finds psychologically challenging. It’s the director’s responsibility to guide and support them. I’m not suggesting that a director should conjure something out of thin air, but if the director recognizes the potential in the actor or actress and is confident in their ability to portray the role, they must cultivate inner harmony. When this happens, everything flows smoothly, like water finding its natural course. I don’t intend to criticize my colleagues or distance myself from them. It’s insufficient to claim that there’s a shortage of talented actors and actresses. If we look back in time, we’ll see that in Soviet Azerbaijani cinema, we had highly skilled actors, actresses, and composers who often overshadowed the directors. When you watch those films, you can witness the composers challenging the directors, striving to make the music fit seamlessly.

– The film “Sughra and Her Sons” has already been screened at several international festivals.

– Yes, at the Kerala festival, we were represented by Gunash Mehdizadeh and received the symbolic award of ‘successful display’.  Roelof (screenwriter) went to the Busan film festival.

– How did foreign viewers react to the film?

–The film was shown twice in Nuremberg, and both times the hall was filled to the brim. The reaction of the Germans was so fantastic that I even felt like crying. They came close and held my hand and asked if it was true that Azerbaijanis suffered so much in that period, or is it just the director’s fantasy? I said no, the film is based on real events, most of which happened to my family.

– It was a consolation for them, especially in Nuremberg.

–My interview was featured in a prominent magazine, and during the interview, the journalist drew intriguing parallels between the Ukrainian war and the themes explored in the film. We discussed the impact of military and imperialist power on families in Azerbaijan, and how these historical forces have, even today, taken a toll on our nation. The journalist even inquired about Russia’s perceived aggressiveness towards our country. In response, I mentioned that a closer examination of history would reveal the stark reality. Just consider the number of our people who were exacuted by shooting between 1937 and 1939 alone.

Mr. Ilgar, you probably know about the recent demands on artists. For some reason, such an idea has arisen, or is being created, that the creation of works related to the 44-day war and victory is delayed. How do you see this process? How and when should this war be reflected in Azerbaijani cinema?

– Significant upheavals on Earth often find their reflection in art, but art assumes two distinct forms in response. The first is the statistical and ideological approach, often serving as a means of propaganda. The second form of art involves deeply experiencing and then conveying these events to people. Wars, due to their monumental scale, profoundly impact people’s lives. Initially, works about war tend to be more focused on statistics and propaganda, aimed at conveying a certain truth and representing the interests of the nation. To be honest, this path never truly piqued my interest. There are those who choose this path and undoubtedly do commendable work in it. Even if I wished to embark on such a journey, I doubt I could do it justice, as an author and director. My passion lies elsewhere. We achieved an unprecedented victory, and I’m more inclined to explore the human aspect of this war – the victory itself, and the indelible marks it left on people’s lives, hearts, and minds. Such exploration demands time. You carry it in your heart, allow it to purify your thoughts, and so forth. In that respect, I have my own approach to the 44-day war, and when the time is right, I’ll create a film based on it. I’d rather not divulge too much at this moment. If others choose to criticize us for our approach, so be it.

– An order has already been issued to establish the long-requested Film Agency. You work both independently and cooperate with the Ministry of Culture. From this point of view, in your opinion, how should the structure of the institution be, so that it is more useful for local cinema and fulfills the expectations, even partially?

-First of all, I’ve directed three full-length films as a professional director, and I’ve personally financed the majority of the budget for all three. From that standpoint, I’m not reliant on the Ministry of Culture, and I don’t have any trouble collaborating with them.To put it plainly, I operate as an independent entity in a way. When it comes to selecting a topic or shooting a film, I don’t worry about how the ministry will perceive it. However, as a citizen of this country and a part of this industry, I am naturally concerned about the overall state of affairs. You see, I’m not alone in this. In the world of art, there are numerous individuals constantly seeking funding for their projects. It’s a process of knocking on this door or that door. This is why it’s imperative for the film industry to be overseen by a separate institution, without a doubt. Cinema needs to be liberated from the clutches of officials’ desks. When you find yourself constantly bending to accommodate the preferences and moods of those bureaucrats seated behind those desks, the likelihood of your script and film turning out to be truly exceptional diminishes. Hence, it’s of utmost importance to detach cinema from this bureaucratic entanglement and transform it into an independent institution. However, the journey doesn’t end there. Even within that institution, it cannot be left to one person’s whims to do as they please, to make decisions solely based on their personal tastes and ambitions when selecting a script.

“Sughra and Her Sons”

In an independent institution, individuals with the ability to choose projects, execute them effectively, and exercise critical thinking should hold key positions. This is crucial because occasionally, personal biases can creep into project evaluations. It stems from a mentality and always creates a problem. Suppose, I’m one of the five people responsible for project selection. In that case, it’s my professional duty to make decisions based on my expertise and not simply align my choice like Ilgar. Otherwise, the consequences can be dire for the person who proposed the project. Therefore, it’s of utmost importance to establish transparent procedures for evaluating projects submitted to this independent institution. These procedures should be so clear that they don’t stifle the creativity and initiative of project authors. To be honest, I have a glimmer of hope, which I didn’t have before, ever since the agency was created by decree. I’m cautiously optimistic that this might lead to positive changes. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that no individual treats this institution as their personal domain. It’s crucial for them to understand that there are people in this country ready to hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Only time will tell, and we must be proactive in safeguarding the integrity of this institution.

– I’m delighted that our discussion has been productive. Thank you for engaging in this conversation.

Aygun Aslanli

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