Our interviewee is the famous director Vagif Mustafayev, who has a special place in Azerbaijani cinematography with his signature. We talked with Mr. Vagif about the films he made, including his latest work “Life Seems to be Beautiful”, as well as the peculiarities of the art of directing and cinematography.
– Mr. Vagif, each of the films “Scream” and “All for the Best” ends with the hope of victory. When you made these films, did you see the perspective?
I’d like to share some of the profound hopes and experiences I’ve had with specific films. Let’s begin with “Scream”. In this movie, the protagonist finds himself in a dire situation, imprisoned and surrounded by adversity. However, what stands out is his unwavering moral strength, which sets him apart from his Armenian captors. Towards the film’s conclusion, a pivotal moment unfolds when a young boy, mounted on a white horse, emerges and strikes down the enemy with a sword. This moment embodied both hope and a powerful realization of that hope. Moving on to “All for the Best”, the characters embark on a unique journey, carrying the coffin of an Armenian soldier throughout the film. In a poignant scene, Yashar Nuri’s character utters the prophetic words, ‘Victory is with us,’ back in 1997. Remarkably, this statement became a reality in 2020, becoming a testament to the director’s hope and unwavering belief. There is one more movie “I Bear My Pain”, where I aimed to convey the tragic events of Khojaly. However, I recognized that I couldn’t do it alone. That’s why I collaborated with Seyidagha Movsumov, a cameraman who had a deep connection to the subject matter. Seyidagha had been one of the first individuals to witness and document the aftermath of the Khojaly tragedy.
The Armenians resorted to beating him in the car with the butt of a machine gun. Seyidaga Movsumov, an Azerbaijani cameraman, piqued my curiosity about how he captured those images and what emotions he experienced during those moments. We managed to bring that to light in the film “Life Seems to Be Beautiful.” The film delves into the tragedies that unfolded and the intricate relationship between our two nations—a historical connection that has seen periods of improvement and deterioration. Now, it’s imperative that we work towards restoring neighborly relations.
However, one obstacle stands in the way—the lingering notion of a “Greater Armenia” stretching from sea to sea, which has embedded itself in the minds of some Armenians. “Life Seems to be Beautiful” aims to spotlight the absurdity of this idea. You might wonder why I chose the tragicomedy genre to convey this message. Well, my intention was for Armenians themselves, as well as other nations, to see just how preposterous the concept of a “Greater Armenia” appears in today’s world.
In order to build friendships and foster good neighborly relations, it’s essential for individuals to comprehend the negative and detrimental aspects. I believe that “Life Seems to Be Beautiful” serves as a valuable film from an ideological perspective. As for the other aspects of the film, those will be subject to critique and evaluation by experts and critics.
– During the 44-day war, social networks shared the scenes in which the hero of Malik Dadashov came to Ismayil and announced the names of the occupied regions in the film “Scream” and demanded the continuation of the film. After the victory, we heard that the movie “Scream 2” will be shot. Was it your own wish or a social order?
– It’s true, I was also following social media closely and noticed that the movie “Scream” was gaining popularity, with more people watching it and viewers clamoring for a sequel – “Scream 2”. However, during that time, I was deeply immersed in the “Molla Nasreddin” project. Then, one day, I had a meeting with Rufat Hasanov, who headed the Audiovisual and Interactive Media department. Rufat suggested postponing the “Molla Nasreddin” project for the time being because there was a desire for me to create a sequel to “Scream”. Interestingly, it turned out that this social demand aligned perfectly with a state order.I pondered the idea and, with genuine belief in its potential, I agreed to take on the task. Within a month, I managed to draft the script for the film. While the first “Scream” depicted the capture of Azerbaijani Ismail by Armenians, in the second installment, we flipped the narrative, showcasing the capture of two Armenian brothers by Azerbaijanis. The only difference was that we named the second film “Life Seems to be Beautiful” instead of simply titling it “Scream 2”.
-The film is very bright. The camera is always on such a spot that the light penetrates through a window or other place. Compared to your previous films, this was something new for me. The reason why there was so much light was to make full use of the possibilities of the technique, or…
-No, I have my own style, I think about everything when I work with the cameraman, I know how the shot will look. Fortunately, I met a talented cameraman like Orkhan Abbasov and we understood each other. Orkhan understood very well that this was an author’s film and knew that the better a cameraman can implement the director’s thoughts and ideas, the more skillful he is. As for the abundance of light… Of course, there had to be light because the events in the film take place on the eve of our glorious victory. This film is about what prevents the normal neighborhood of two peoples. It was necessary to show it in such a way that they themselves would laugh at this idea. When you laugh at something, it loses its drama and is no longer scary or important. I think I have achieved it. “Life Seems to be Beautiful” is a tragic comedy; there is also quite a bit of drama here, because the situation itself and the relationship are dramatic.
– You used unedited shots in the film. This method is currently widely used in world cinema. There are even films the interesting aspect of which is that they are shot with one shot, without editing. For example, like the movie “1917” by Sam Mendes. What function does this trick perform in your film?
-As a director of comedy films, my diploma states this, although I believe it’s not solely up to me. I strive to create humor not only through dialogue but also through visual and other elements. Let me provide you with an example: In the movie “Scoundrel” there’s a scene where Hatam enters the subway, which appears to be “Memar Ajami” station. There was a small, red “M” on it, and the station itself resembled a large “M.” It occurred to me that if the protagonist stood next to that letter, we could juxtapose these two “M”s in the editing. So, I transitioned from the small “m” to the big “M.” I was determined to shoot this scene, and I might have even annoyed the crew a bit because of my persistence. I believed it had the potential to be funny, and indeed, some of the audience laughed. Humor can be quite subjective, varying depending on an individual’s sense of humor and their internal richness. Some may find amusement in slapstick humor like Alasgar’s fall when Sayavush Aslan shouts “Alasgar, Alasgar” in “Kidnapping of the Bridegroom,” while others appreciate more subtle humor. In essence, I explore comedic elements beyond just verbal humor and physical gags. Now, let’s revisit the one-shot scene in the film “Life Seems to Be Beautiful.” I approached it with irony. There is both irony and great drama in that scene; an imaginary crime takes place, and in the background two people have a funny and absurd conversation. The absurd dialogue in the background creates a sharp contrast with the camera’s extremely serious panning of the room.
-The dream scene’s setting is truly intriguing, with mirrors playing a significant role in both enhancing the composition and adding aesthetic beauty to the episode.
-We filmed this scene inside a small cube, and for me, mirrors have always held an air of mystery and fascination. Every time I pass by a mirror and catch a glimpse of myself, I’m captivated. Interestingly, we chose to shoot this scene at a salt lake, aiming to create a surreal ambiance with a distinctive glow. However, on the shoot day, the sun didn’t make an appearance, and the wind picked up so much that we even contemplated relocating to Gobustan. Yet, I was determined not to give up on the salt lake; after all, this was my third film shot there. Now you might be wondering where the mirrors came into play. Well, while scouting for interesting locations, I stumbled upon a workshop adorned with mirrors, flowers, mirrored tables, and even a swing, all apparently used for weddings. We managed to secure the mirrors for our shoot. It’s funny how life, and cinema, often surprise us with the notion that there’s nothing truly unnecessary.
–In the final scene, one of the characters goes towards the sun, as if leaving room for hope. However, this finale left me with a sense of desperation rather than hope because she had no choice.
– Desperation has taken hold, as he stands at the precipice of a life-altering decision, halted by the border that now divides his destiny. With each passing moment, the weight of his past experiences bears down on him, leaving him with a solitary choice: cross to the other side or remain rooted in this familiar terrain. In the end, he embarks on a journey that follows the sun’s trajectory along the border, drawn by the unyielding allure of its radiant light. For, in the realm of the sun, there exists no partiality, no favoritism. Its rays graciously touch all, showing no discrimination.
-Mr. Vagif, you have written the script of the films “Scream”, “All for the Best”, “Life Seems to be Beautiful”, and even “Japan and the Japanese”, in all of them you show a humanistic approach to the topic of war. Do you think that an artist should always be a humanist in spite of everything, or is there a limit to humanism?
–Humanism is a crucial theme in all aspects of life. Even in the case of the finest war films, the aim should be to convey an anti-war message. Why do we depict the horrors of war? It’s to deter people from pursuing war. When we examine world cinema, we can observe that the most notable examples are those that advocate against war. I have personally embraced this principle in my work as well. Take, for instance, the film “All for the Best,” which garnered four awards at the Oberhausen Festival in Germany. Remarkably, each of these awards contained the word “humanism” in its title: the Association of Catholic Churches Award for Humanism and the “Ulenspiegel” Award from the international jury “for peace and humor.” It’s evident that this aspect was underlined everywhere. I remember when Armenians requested access to this film through “Internews.” I was uncertain about what to do and sought advice. I was advised that there was no need for hesitation. We hadn’t created the film solely for our own sake. So, we allowed the Armenians to view it and witness our commitment to humanism. They, too, appreciated it. On our YouTube channel, the film garnered positive reviews.
I find great pleasure as an artist when the other party shares our perspective. In other words, it’s heartening to know that there are individuals on the other side who do not desire war. Why should brutality and hatred persist between people? It simply shouldn’t, even in the XXI century. I believe they also viewed the movie with this intention in mind. This is the essence of filmmaking: to encourage us to watch, to inspire others to watch, and ultimately to foster agreement. So, yes, movies should embrace a sense of humanity. Each film should convey a message to its viewers. Naturally, this message shouldn’t be presented in an overt, didactic manner, but rather in an artistic and sometimes subtle way, appealing to the senses so that people can truly feel and understand it. Every movie should serve a purpose. As a professional director, I’ve come to understand this deeply. If a film is created solely for the sake of creation, or as a means for someone to display their personal issues, it won’t hold much interest for anyone. Audiences should derive moral satisfaction from every movie they watch; they should take something meaningful away from it. In our childhood, my friends and I would often visit the cinema. I would always wait until the end credits rolled and then stand up to the accompanying music, letting it accompany me as I walked down the street. I always aimed to leave the movie theater with a profound impression of the film. Most of the films I watched left me with something meaningful from a spiritual perspective. However, filmmakers must exercise caution because cinema is an art form that often involves a process of identification, where viewers immerse themselves in and even imitate the heroes on screen. I remember that in Sovetsky, children who were heavily influenced by the movie “Vagabond” used to climb walls or howl like Tarzan until the early hours of the morning. We knew these movies by heart, and I, for instance, had seventeen of them memorized. It was as if the films lived within us, and we communicated with each other through them. This illustrates the magical power of cinema, which makes identification a significant and impactful element.I understand that realistic cinema should reveal the complexities of life, but even in such films, there should be a glimmer of hope at the end. I’m not referring to the clichéd Hollywood happy endings, but rather the idea that a person should take something meaningful back to their home and family after watching a movie. How is cinema created? It’s the result of directing a stream of light from the projector onto the screen. Therefore, this journey of light should ultimately lead to light, not surrender to darkness. Cinema is inherently a play of light and shadow. Interestingly, lately, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the shadows in films, perhaps because they hold a unique fascination for me.
– Continuing the discussion on the war theme, a topic that has been gaining considerable attention recently is the idea of inviting directors from other countries to come to Azerbaijan and create war films.
–Certainly, it’s fascinating to discuss the impact of cinema on a global scale. “The Scoundrel” was a movie that truly captured the world’s attention, resonating with audiences worldwide. It enjoyed widespread success and even led to intriguing offers from various countries to collaborate on films featuring historical figures from their own lands. However, my response to these proposals has remained consistent throughout: “The history of your people should be portrayed by your own storytellers. My perspective might inadvertently add a touristy touch, as it doesn’t flow in my veins.” It’s important to acknowledge that specialists from different parts of the world hail from diverse and culturally rich backgrounds, each with their unique vision. As film critic Sevda Sultanova aptly pointed out, if someone like Mel Gibson were to come, it might result in a captivating action film but might not capture the essence we desire. Hence, I believe it’s crucial that we take the lead in creating films that portray the story of Karabakh and our hard-fought victory ourselves. While some of our colleagues might feel that Azerbaijani cinema lags behind others, I see this as an unnecessary self-doubt. If we perceive ourselves as being behind, then why seek external assistance? Instead, let’s focus on nurturing our own cinematic talents. Vagif Mustafayev is a shining example of someone dedicated to this cause.
I could never claim that the cinema of any other country surpasses our own. When asked about my stance on Azerbaijani cinema, I always maintain that Azerbaijani cinema holds a unique place in the world. It possesses a distinctive trait – the “native cinema” phenomenon. Even if you don’t resonate with it today, you will invariably find yourself drawn to it in the future. Over time, your sense of nostalgia will deepen and grow richer, making this phenomenon truly special. When I watch our films, I intentionally set aside my professional cinematographer’s perspective, allowing myself to immerse in the pure pleasure these movies provide.
– Then these films are not just interesting as museum exhibits?
–It’s more than just an exhibit; it’s life. Cinema itself is life. I was around 17 or 18 years old when I first set foot in the film studio. But even before that, from the tender age of five, I grew up wandering through the yards and corridors of ‘Georgianfilm.’ Those memories are etched into my soul. I’ll never forget a particular incident from my early years. I must have been about 5 or 6 at the time. I was strolling along the corridor when suddenly Aunt Dusya, my uncle’s wife – Yevdokia Alekseyevna – gently pushed me against the wall. I glanced ahead and saw a man making his way down the corridor, followed by a retinue of five or six people. When I asked Aunt Dusya who he was, she whispered that he was a director Dolidze. I never encountered the name of that director again, but that moment has stayed with me throughout my life. Aunt Dusya’s hushed words, ‘Let’s not obstruct the director,’ left an indelible mark on my memory. Allow me to share another anecdote. In the courtyard of the ‘Georgianfilm’ film studio, there stood a remarkable glass building.
On Friday of every week, they used to screen films that had either not yet been released or would never see the light of day. I was already in the eighth or ninth grade at that time. It was during one of those screenings that Aunt Dusya and I watched Georgi Natanson’s film ‘About Love Again.’ Aunt Dusya didn’t particularly care for the movie, but I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed it. After the screening, we stood before the film’s poster. Aunt Dusya pointed to it and said, ‘See, I may not have liked the movie, but look at the name on that poster, “G. Natanson’s movie.” I want you to become a director someday, and I want to see your name, “director V. Mustafayev,” hanging right here. Even if the film isn’t perfect, I’d be overjoyed to see your name on this wall. It’s moments like these that have all been collected and have fostered a deep love for cinema in my heart”.
– Returning to the subject of Karabakh, what kind of films should not be made on this subject? Or what should we pay attention to portray our sufferings?
– I cannot set some rules and say “it should be like this or that”. I can only say that these films should be made completely freely and sincerely. The main thing is sincerity. In general, sincerity and closeness to reality are very important in both documentary and feature films. You probably see that modern feature films are gradually approaching documentary cinema. As if the “new wave” is coming upon us again, neorealism is starting again. In documentary cinema, on the contrary, the artistry increases. That is, the border between the two is erased. I would like to see sincere films about Karabakh. Let love for the motherland be felt, but not with pathos. Because of the inappropriate pathos, it is immediately felt whether the author really loves his country or not.
– When I asked the cameraman Orkhan Abbasov about the genre of your last film, he said that the film is in the genre of “Vagif Mustafayev”. When the “Vagif Mustafayev” genre is mentioned, everyone understands that we are talking about tragicomedy, and you laid the foundation of this genre in Azerbaijan.
–Yeah, “Vagif Mustafayev genre” is all about reflecting life as it is. Now you laughed, but when you talked about Khojaly, there was sadness in your eyes. This is the life.
–Is it important for you to accurately determine the genre of the film? In general, what function does a precise genre designation serve in a film, and how important is it? For example, sometimes modern films have a long genre designation – thriller with elements of psychological drama, etc.
– This is for the general public. Because the public chooses which movie to watch. They take the genre, analyze it, and make the decision to go and see it.
-As for the author, what genre resonates most with them?
– I don’t like to generalize but I can only talk about myself. Tragicomedy is a genre that comes from within me. I would even say this is God’s gift, this is his light. The environment, people, my parents, my grandmother, my grandfather brought me to this genre since childhood. I opened my eyes and saw them, and I observed their way of thinking, their sense of humor, their personalities. Let me tell you a story. If I write a book myself, maybe this will be the first episode. There was a circle in the Sovetsky district, the last stop of trams 11 and 15. Our gate was opposite that parking lot. We used to play football with the children in that circle. So, one day when we were playing football, our gate opened, my grandmother shouted, “Hey, son of a dog, they killed Lumumba, they will kill you too, come home!” You know, he heard the news that Patrice Lumumba was killed on the radio or somewhere. Now you tell me, what did Patrice Lumumba have to do with me? I want to say that maybe the talent of these people passed on to me. Or, for example, after watching movies as a child, I would come and tell my friends about what happened in the movie. Then the children would go and watch and come and ask what movie I had watched?
I added some humor to the film because when I initially submitted my documents to All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography, my ambition was to join the faculty for directing musical films and create musicals. I believed I had a strong sense of music, and my family was quite supportive of the idea too. In fact, I even turned Jalil Mammadguluzade’s story, “Two Husbands,” into a musical. However, my plans took a different turn when I was unexpectedly drafted into the army, despite having successfully passed my exams. During that time, I started to wonder if I could be good at musicals. Moreover, it seemed that whatever I said or did, people found it amusing. Sometimes, I would find things hilarious that others didn’t. Then, an opportunity arose to apply for Eldar Ryazanov’s workshop, and there were approximately two thousand candidates vying for just one spot. It was during this period that I realized I had a knack for comedy. It was easier for me to create humor than to approach filmmaking seriously. Many people could take it seriously, and that’s why my teacher often emphasized that making people laugh is indeed a serious matter. I should also mention that there’s a distinction between something being merely funny and genuinely comedic. There’s the kind of laughter that’s surface-level, where a crowd can look at something and laugh. Then, there’s comedy, which is rooted in culture and often requires a deeper understanding to appreciate fully. For instance, the humor in “All for the Best” and the comedy in mainstream commercial films are worlds apart. Yet, my audience seems to have a genuine fondness for my creations. I don’t attribute this solely to my eccentricity, but rather to the intricate layers I weave into my films. My aim is to craft them in a manner that encourages viewers to unearth something fresh each time they revisit them. Now, witnessing “The Kidnapping of the Groom”(“Bəyin oğurlanması”) attain classic status and continue to delight audiences brings me immense joy. It’s a testament that the collective efforts of my colleagues, those exceptional actors, and myself have not been in vain.
– Did you include the cinematography line in the film “The Kidnapping of the Groom” or was it in the first version of the script?
–In the original iteration, it wasn’t a comedy at all; it leaned more towards a musical drama. Initially, it revolved around someone’s quest to depict something, kosa was searching for his roots, delving underground, and a grandmother determined to shield her grandson from the world. Then, in a span of just ten days, I wrote and filmed “The Kidnapping of the Groom” you now see: the director’s wavering decisions, the intense drama, the memorable line, “if I were born again, I wouldn’t be a director,” the comical “hello-bye” moments, the quirky character Mirish, the enigmatic Israfil, Yashar Nuri’s character and his love story, and even the relationship between Musa and the make-up master, which was absent in the original version. Sayavush Aslan’s character had an entirely different purpose back then. I reshaped them all and wove in some parallel love storylines. It was almost on set that I thought of Mukhtar Maniyev slapping Sayavush Aslan and Nasiba Zeynalova delivering the iconic “Antonio, my dear” line.
– In “The Kidnapping of the Groom,” every character is meticulously fleshed out, leaving no one untouched by the depth of their portrayal. You can glean entire life stories simply from their gestures and behavior. Take, for instance, Bibikhanim. It’s quite probable that her life has been marred by the harshness of an abusive husband, leaving her with her blindness and a palpable fear of her own son. She even attempts to do everything for him, perhaps as a survival instinct forged through her challenging experiences.
– All of these images are drawn directly from life. Bibikhanum was the name of neighboring woman and Israfil was someone I knew. You see, it’s all about life; you just need to observe and uncover it. I’m not saying this to boast; it’s a self-perpetuating journey. Generally, art remains a mystery to me. If you were to ask me how I create it, I wouldn’t even understand it myself. It simply flows on its own, independent of my intentions.
– To confirm your words, many books have been devoted to the process of writing a screenplay, methods of finding a story and a plot. The plot in your films is very simple. For example, the movie “Musical Khash”. A few people go to eat khas early in the morning. In “It’s Necessary”, the engineer storms the editorial office because the picture on the cover of the magazine looks like his wife. The story of “Between the Earth and the Sky” and the “National Bomb”… It’s quite simple, it’s happening around us. You see the cinematic potential of these stories, and you take them and wrap them in layers like cabbage and turn them into a film.
– At university, they teach the intricacies of scriptwriting and plot construction, but the magic of it all lies in the unpredictable journey of creativity. Take, for instance, the film “Life Seems to be Beautiful.” When I received the offer to work on it, I had no idea where it would lead. How could I fathom the continuation of “Scream”? Yet, slowly but surely, an original story unfolded before me. The birth of an idea, the spark that ignites one’s imagination – it’s a fascinating enigma. What goes on inside the mind? What chemical processes are at play? These remain profound secrets, a source of perpetual wonder. If I could, I’d eagerly document this creative process every day. We’re discussing the work of a truly gifted individual. What is it that makes people resonate with what they write and create, evoking laughter and tears? I recall the screening of “All for the Best” at the Heydar Aliyev Palace. From the very beginning, the soundtrack was drowned out by the sounds of laughter. Months later, someone reached out to me, introducing themselves. They confessed, “I must admit, I didn’t laugh for the first 6-7 minutes of the movie.” When faced with such comments, it feels akin to a personal affront. I didn’t know how to respond, so I apologized. However, they continued, “No need for apologies. Although I didn’t laugh initially, I couldn’t resist it later.” I inquired why they hadn’t laughed at first, and they revealed that their son had been martyred. When the movie began, they wondered, “How can one laugh at a story like this?” Yet, in the end, laughter prevailed. This is the sheer power of art.
–Mr. Vagif, I remember that when you talked about “Villain” you said that the audience did not laugh when they saw that movie. Why is the laughter of audience so important to you?
-I can’t see what’s happening inside the audience! I’m accustomed to the crowd reacting, making noise, and sharing laughs. “Villain” is an exceptionally dark and pessimistic film that doesn’t put me in the right mood. That’s precisely why I don’t particularly enjoy it. However, it’s intriguing that others praise it as a work of art. As for your question about filmmaking, my approach leans heavily towards creating films for the audience rather than solely for myself. It reminds me of a scene in one of Fellini’s films: a character takes the stage to sing a poem, but the audience despises it, throwing tomatoes and even a lifeless cat onto the stage. Yet, the performer remains unfazed. Why? Because there’s a reaction. In my perspective, establishing a connection with the audience is of paramount importance. When I’m on stage, I’m taking up the time of those present, and it’s my responsibility to captivate and engage them with substance, not meaningless chatter. Both people and art should be inherently fascinating.
– Your temper doesn’t always align with the structured script and established rules. From what I understand, you have a tendency to make on-set script changes and additions. Is this sort of “struggle” with the script ultimately for the benefit of the film or does it sometimes work against it?
-Well, in my view, a person often finds themselves in a conflict, not just with others, but also with their own thoughts. Times change, ideas evolve. In my genre, what might be funny today could lose its humor tomorrow; it doesn’t stand the test of time and loses its relevance. That’s why adjustments during shooting are necessary. However, I do it without causing offense to the crew. For instance, in our last film, I had to make cuts whenever possible due to budget and time constraints. But the key is to do it in a way that maintains the coherence between scenes. Take, for example, our battle with the wind at the salt lake that took up half the day. To make things work, I had to trim certain parts while preserving the most crucial scenes.
-You don’t spend an excessive amount of time editing the film because, in your mind, you already have a montage envisioned.
-I’ll reiterate: we need to adapt to the production process. For instance, if we’re given 42 shooting days, we must work within that timeframe; it’s impossible to stretch it to 50. Let’s say there’s a month, maybe a month and a half allotted for editing; we have to fit within that timeframe. That’s why you must consider editing right from the beginning, from the moment you start writing the script. If you’ve sketched a scene, you should be prepared to trim it later if necessary. In the past, I used to shoot first and then cut scenes that didn’t quite fit the film’s overall narrative. However, it’s far more effective to plan for editing right from the script stage. And that’s how it goes.
–When talking about the problems of Azerbaijani cinema, one of the first thoughts is about the problem of dramaturgy and screenplay. Does this problem really exist or are we exaggerating? Or both cases are normal – someone can write a screenplay, someone can’t.
-I don’t want to make generalizations. I’ve never had a problem with the script because I usually have a clear vision of what I want to shoot. Take, for instance, the idea behind the film “Musical Khash”… It revolves around people who, despite the hardships of life and the daily grind, find more life in the span of an hour or two between night and morning than they do throughout the entire day. Interestingly, this movie was initially intended to have three parts, but it got shortened. It was during a time when ideological censorship played a significant role in filmmaking. Then there’s the film “This is how it should be.” Bogomolov, the editor-in-chief of the USSR, personally came to watch the film alone. What’s intriguing is that this was actually a coursework project by a student. Bogomolov himself had a rather imposing presence, reminiscent of the chief of the tsarist police, and he didn’t hold back his opinions. After viewing the film, he called me over and suggested I focus more on making sports films because there wasn’t much ideology in it. Of course, he sensed that people were yearning for something exciting in the film. It was summer, it was hot, and people were craving some sort of crazy action. Towards the end, Samander Rzayev’s character asks, “Ahmadov, are you happy?” And Ahmadov replies, “What about you?” To which Rzayev responds, “Me too.” You see, in Soviet times, saying “I’m not happy” wasn’t really an option. There were these subtle nuances woven into that film.
– You used a very interesting method in that film. The events take place in a narrow space where there are absurd dialogues, and everyone is bored. There is also a chaotic phonogram – the sound of cars, news on the radio, noise on the street… The phonogram parallels the description and dialogues and conveys the real atmosphere and environment to the viewer.
– Yes, the phonogram is dynamic. When this film was shown in Leningrad, many people came. There was a discussion after the demonstration. By the way, the phonogram issue was also mentioned. I shot that film in one of the rooms of the movie studio, and I built the phonogram in such a way to activate life and show tension. It created a counterpoint with the environment and enriched the film even more.
– There is no false intellectualism or snobbery in your films. There are quotes. You mostly use your own films, and this is not at the expense of demeaning the audience. How do you strike this balance?
“In general, the director and the concept of personality are closely intertwined. A filmmaker’s cinema often reflects who they are as a person. I don’t mean to suggest that one’s inner self is directly projected onto the screen, but a lot is influenced by a person’s upbringing, personality, and outlook on life. I have a deep love for people, and I often find inspiration during my walks. When I’m strolling down the street, I observe people around me. If I come across someone who appears sad, I can’t help but wonder about the reasons behind their emotions. Sometimes, I find solace in the simple sight of a well-lit window. This fascination with people and their lives has been with me since my childhood; I have a genuine desire to see the goodness in people. Additionally, I incorporate a sense of self-irony in my films and scripts. I believe in not taking myself too seriously, and you’ll often find moments of humor and self-mockery in my work.”
–You already said that you are ahead of the audience. Doesn’t that make you feel proud?
– Absolutely. When I say getting ahead of the audience, I mean making films in layers. Every spectator can comfortably look at the upper layer. Then comes the second layer and so on. Most importantly, I am trying to make the audience stay longer with this film, watch it tomorrow, and the day after that. For example, after filming “The Kidnapping of the Groom”, people did not immediately accept it. It happened slowly because they didn’t understand some things there. There is a director who shoots, shows and everything is understood. The director himself revealed all the meanings. Of course, my thinking runs a little ahead, like a clock running ahead, but it is not necessary to withdraw it. Let him go ahead and not be late.
– You are smarter than your audience, how do you hide it?
-No, I don’t consider myself smarter than the audience. Being smarter or not isn’t the point. What’s crucial is that a filmmaker, in general, should be astute. If a filmmaker lacks intelligence, how can they impart meaningful lessons? A director should be someone with a sharp mind, capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. It’s important for them to have a strong moral compass. A filmmaker often brings to the screen what personally troubles them. What irks or bothers them becomes the subject of their work. To do this, a filmmaker must have the ability to make decisions. Consider a film crew with around 70 people; if each one has questions, that’s a multitude of inquiries. Each person might pose multiple questions, creating a web of decisions to be made. Imagine, for instance, a scenario where there’s a plan to shoot on a salt lake in windy weather. Everyone is looking to the director for a decision. Perhaps an actor has arrived from abroad, and other issues are at play. In such moments, the director’s personality becomes pivotal. I once interviewed the head of Russian Railways, Yakunin, for the film ‘Special Assignment,’ focusing on Heydar Aliyev. He noted that Heydar Aliyev was among the rare leaders who could decisively make choices. I inquired whether this was a problem, and he confirmed that indeed, there are individuals who struggle with decision-making. A great director is one who can take charge, saying, ‘This is how I want it, this is how it will be, and this is my decision!’ This capacity to make firm decisions is tremendously important. A director must possess leadership qualities, akin to a commander, efficiently managing the film crew. As an example, we completed the fight scenes in the movie ‘Life Seems to be Beautiful’ in just four days. In reality, such a feat might seem impossible.
– By the way, it was not possible to set up the scenery for that scene here, did you go to Hadrut?
-They suggested that maybe we should dig a trench somewhere nearby to make things easier. I, however, disagreed. There’s a distinct authenticity to the real trenches in Hadrut, and both the actors and I felt that it added a unique dimension to the scene. It was a mined area, and we were treading carefully, following each other’s footsteps. There was no room to veer left or right. Ultimately, that was the decision I stood my ground on. It reminds me of what my grandmother used to say about me – ‘To achieve what you desire, sometimes you have to lead the person right to the enemy’s doorstep.'”
– From Bresson to Tarkovsky and Antonioni, many directors have expressed different opinions about actors. Who is an actor for you?
–Somerset Maugham had an intriguing perspective on actors. He believed that there are two personas living inside them: one being their true self, and the other, a different entity. I find this concept fascinating. It suggests that as a director, your task is to discover and unveil this ‘other’ person within the actor. Hence, selecting the right actor is a complex endeavor. You must find someone who not only bears a resemblance to the character they will portray but also possesses the capacity to reveal not just their own self but what lies within them. It’s about tapping into that hidden aspect of the actor’s persona and bringing it to the forefront.
– Maybe that’s why I found it interesting that you chose, for example, Hikmet Rahimov.
-I was also quite intrigued by the idea of casting Hikmet Rahimov. As you’ll see in the film, Hikmet truly found his place in the role. It’s as if we uncovered that ‘other’ person within him, and he played his role remarkably well. In general, a talented actor is someone with the ability to think deeply, and this quality is immensely valuable. Working with me on set was indeed challenging for him, but he was determined to adapt. He displayed a strong work ethic and persisted even when things got tough. I, too, never waver from the goals I set. As a director, I have a clear vision of how each actor should portray their role, especially since film shooting isn’t always done in sequence – sometimes it’s the middle, sometimes the beginning, and sometimes the end. It can be a bit disorienting for the actors, and that’s where the director’s guidance comes in. We conducted thorough rehearsals with all the actors before shooting, what some might call ‘cabinet exercises.’ During these sessions, we delved into the inner lives of the characters, and it proved to be invaluable. Working with an actor is feasible if they possess the necessary technical skills and ‘apparatus.’ Furthermore, I look for actors who bring interesting emotions and characteristics to their roles, regardless of whether they are male or female. Emotions like joy, sadness, and surprise should be rich and genuine. I’m not one to accept actors who rely on tired, template performances and are hesitant to break free from clichés.
-You have experience working with both local and foreign actors, mainly Georgian actors. What are the differences between the two?
-As I mentioned earlier, when it comes to the ability to think and the internal culture of acting, there’s a certain specificity to it. Take Avtandil Makharadze, for instance, a highly skilled actor who portrayed Beria in the movie “Repentance” and also appeared in three of my films. But this doesn’t imply that Yashar Nuri is in any way overshadowed by Makharadze. Absolutely not. In “National Bomb,” Ajdar Hamidov, Yashar Nuri, and Makharadze all delivered exceptional performances. “National Bomb” was a collaborative project between Azerbaijan and Russia. Russia joined the production after the script was finalized and preparations were in full swing. At that point, they requested that we include a Russian actor in the cast. I suggested the name of a distinguished yet hard-to-find actor, Leonid Kuravlyov. Despite his tight schedule, he agreed to participate, and the production covered his fees. I had to craft new scenes to incorporate Kuravlyov, including one involving an explosive movie shoot. They took care of all the logistics, even providing fireworks, which I found amusing. However, during the editing process, I noticed that, despite Kuravlyov’s undeniable talent, he didn’t quite mesh with the Avtandil-Yashar-Ajdar trio. It would have been evident if I had retained those scenes in the film. Later, Kuravlyov contacted me, having heard that his scenes were cut. I confirmed this and explained my professional reasoning. He understood and even expressed his desire to work with me in the future, even in episodic roles, because he appreciated my approach to working with actors.”
-At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you have a project called “Molla Nasreddin”. What happened to this project?
-It is still not clear. Let me start with the fact that the project is called “Molla Nasreddin or the Friend of Hard Days”. Negotiations are currently underway with “Uzbekkino” and it is likely that the film will be a joint one. Even other countries can join this project because the character of Molla Nasreddin is in the folklore of many countries, and we want to combine them and show him as a genius representative of the Turkish world. The most beautiful features of all the peoples of the Turkic world should be united in Molla Nasreddin. I gave the second name of the script “Friend of My Difficult Days” because Molla Nasreddin’s anecdotes make a person overcome difficulties in any situation. In general, humor has a great power, and this is reflected in the plot of the script: it pulls a person towards life in the most difficult circumstances. As I said before, comedy should be related to culture and cultural level. A person should think after laughing. If laughter doesn’t make you think, what do we need?
– My last question. As far as I know, you watch modern cinema. Are there any directors you follow with particular attention and what trends in modern cinema are you interested in?
–I watch a lot of movies; it’s a big part of my job. With so many films being made these days, some catch my interest while others don’t. It’s rare for anything in modern world cinema to truly surprise me. Instead, I find myself focusing on the craftsmanship and talent behind the camera. I appreciate the cinematic language employed in certain films and the direction they take. For me, this aspect is crucial. I’m intrigued by the various new trends that have emerged in recent years, including the development in Russian cinema. Just recently, I had the pleasure of watching two films produced by Rodnyansky, one of which was directed by Kira Kovalenko. I’ve also delved into the works of directors like Nikolay Khomeriki and the duo Chupov and Merkulova. Their films are truly impressive and showcase a high level of skill and artistry.
–Are there any directors in world cinema whose film language you like?
– Yes, there are many.
– During the conversation, you used Tarantino as an example a couple of times, and even recommended watching a documentary about him.
– I recently watched a fantastic movie, and I recommended it. They filmed it in a way that elevates the storytelling to another level, but in a refreshingly original manner. Speaking of Tarantino, his background is quite fascinating. He practically grew up in a film library and even worked as a salesman in a videocassette store. He learned the art of directing by immersing himself in films without any formal education. It’s truly intriguing as a form of entertainment. I have some memorable moments related to Tarantino as well. Mikhalkov once asked me to send the film “National Bomb” to the Moscow Film Festival. The film made it to Moscow, and I arrived a couple of days after the festival’s opening. The first screening of our film took place at the “Russia” cinema, where it had its premiere as part of the festival. The theater was packed to the brim. I remember starting my introduction with a bit of humor: “Tarantino left, and here I am.” Then, I greeted my teacher, Eldar Ryazanov, who had come to watch the film. However, there were some disappointments along the way. Our film didn’t receive an award at the festival, which led to a headline on the front page of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” newspaper: “Tarantino is gone, I’m here,” said famous Azerbaijani director Vagif Mustafayev; “but ‘Ours’ won.” They were referring to Meskhiyev’s film “Our Own.” When it comes to art, there’s a wide array of talent in world cinema, and each artist has their unique vision. Some want to capture the essence of the forties, while others seek different time periods. The only real difference between the past and the present lies in technical capabilities. Nowadays, we have more extensive and versatile tools at our disposal. However, all contemporary trends are influenced by the past. So, why not strive to stand out? To truly distinguish oneself, an artist needs their distinct characteristics. No two individuals can tell the same story in the exact same way. Everyone brings their own perspective and attitude to their work. Personally, I appreciate films that provoke more questions and provide answers. Life can be quite perplexing at times, and cinema can attempt to shed light on those questions. Eventually, the light will emerge, and that’s what makes cinema such a remarkable medium.
Interview by: Aygun Aslanli