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Social theme in the cartoons “Dreams…Dreams” and “Sewer”

Social theme in the cartoons “Dreams…Dreams” and “Sewer”

“Azerbaijani Animation Book” published in 2018, stands as a rare and comprehensive exploration of our animation history, spearheaded and developed by Rashid Aghamaliyev. Among the notable authors contributing to this remarkable work are Aygun Aslanli, Aliya Dadashova, and Aydın Kazımzadeh. Within the book, readers are presented with A. Aslanli’s insightful article, delving into the intriguing topic of “Description of the Social Environment in Our Cartoons Made in 1980-1990”

“Azerbaijani Animation Book”

In the mid-1980s, the USSR, a prominent player in global geopolitical politics during the 20th century, found itself at a critical juncture. The nation was grappling with a convergence of economic, social, and political crises, all stemming from a series of misguided policies and flawed five-year plans. The detrimental impact of corruption and a concerning lack of attention to prevailing social issues became increasingly evident, prompting a pressing call for sweeping changes across all aspects of society. The situation demanded urgent and drastic reforms to steer the nation back on course.

Following Chernenko’s passing in March 1985, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev assumed the position of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. During the April plenum of the Central Committee, he unveiled a new political course for the USSR, with the primary objective of “accelerating the country’s socio-economic development and advancing Soviet society towards a more prosperous state.”

Two years later, Gorbachev further expanded the scope of this course, proposing to carry out reconstruction works not only in the economic and political spheres, but also in all spheres, including culture and art.

During the 27th Congress of the Communist Party on January 27, 1987, M.S. Gorbachev delivered a momentous speech in which he referred to the years of his predecessor L. Brezhnev’s rule as “the period of stagnation.” He boldly announced the dawning of a new era, which he termed “obviousness.” One of Gorbachev’s memorable aphorisms from that speech was, “we need democracy like air.” He emphasized the significance of openness, criticism, self-criticism, and mass control as essential pillars for the healthy development of Soviet society. He underscored “if the people needed these elements, they held paramount importance for all.” This marked the beginning of a transformative policy shift in the Soviet Union.

“Following Gorbachev’s declaration, a series of measures were promptly taken to loosen the societal restraints. Banned literature, including Solzhenitsyn’s “GULAG Archipelago,” Grossman’s “Life and Fate,” Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” and Platonov’s “Chevengur,” began to see the light of day through official publication. The Soviet film industry also responded swiftly, bringing back once-forgotten films like “Commissar” directed by Askoldov, “Brief encounters” directed by K. Muratova, and “Repentance” directed by T. Abuladze, out of the archives and into widespread release.” [1]

“Dreams… Dreams”

Certainly, the winds of “freedom” brought about by the new state policy extended to Azerbaijan, a constituent part of the Soviet Union. During those years, a profound transformation swept through Azerbaijani art, giving rise to a succession of films that delved into the country’s social fabric and explored the psyche of a people who had long been shackled under the yoke of fear and deception (notably, Rasim Ojagov’s “The Other Life” (1987), Ogtay Mirgasimov’s “Devil in Sight” (1987), Vagif Mustafayev’s “The Scoundrel” (1988), Nijat Feyzullayev’s “Live, Golden Fish” (1988), and others). Concurrently, writers summoned the courage to unveil their previously concealed works, fearing retribution for being accused of anti-government activities. (These developments led to the era of the “box literature period” in Azerbaijani literature during the 1980s.)

“Dreams… Dreams” and “Sewer” are two notable animated films created in the nostalgic atmosphere of the 80s and 90s, both directed by Vahid Talibov. These films stand out as examples of the two-dimensional animation technique, commonly known as cel animation.

In particular, the animated film “Dreams.. Dreams,” which was produced in 1988 at the “Azerbaijanfilm” studio, bears the signature of various talented artists. The screenwriter of the cartoon “Dreams.. Dreams” is Yefim Abramov, art director Nikolay Koshkin, cameraman Ramiz Agayev, composer Mobil Babayev, animation artists A. Panov and Vahid Talibov.

“Dreams… Dreams”

Consisting of three novellas, “Burden”, “Circle” and “Strange Man”, the cartoon was about lost dreams and a society that forbids people to dream and controls their minds.

The first novella, “Burden,” sets its poignant tone through a captivating photo-series-prologue, capturing the joyous moments of a loving family with their baby. This tale delves into the theme of unrealized dreams, portraying how they can weigh heavily on a person’s life. The protagonist remains nameless, yet he leads a seemingly prosperous existence with a stunning wife, a successful job, a car, and a devoted secretary. He doesn`t have a name. Throughout the film, the audience experiences an intriguing dynamic as the hero’s face remains elusive, hidden behind glasses or obscured, leaving only glimpses or incomplete views. One might catch a reflection in a mirror as he departs through a door or catches sight of his hand performing various actions. This hand becomes a symbol of his mechanical and routine life – adjusting his tie, embracing his secretary, closing car and office windows, shielding himself from the sunlight that symbolizes the vibrant essence of life itself.

A person’s appearance, face, is one of the main signs that differentiate and individualize him physically from others. The intentional choice of keeping the hero “faceless” effectively portrays the monotony and lack of individuality in the protagonist’s life, where he resides behind indistinguishable gray doors and windowless houses. It is during the film’s finale that the viewer finally sees the hero’s face when he successfully nails the star, signifying the realization of his dreams. However, the striking contrast lies between the brilliance of the star and the hero’s gray and weary appearance.

The director of the film, Vahid Talibov, explains the idea of the novella “Burden” as follows: “Every person has dreams and strives to achieve them. For example, he wants to be free, but he cannot get it. There is a line drawn for him and he has to follow it. The protagonist of the film “Burden” nails the star (dreams) because he cannot cross the boundaries set for him. Because he doesn’t need that star anymore”.[2]

“Dreams… Dreams”

In the novella “Circle,” a mass of people, all bearing a striking resemblance to each other, dutifully dress and perform their tasks with robotic precision, producing squares. Unexpectedly, stars appear between the neatly aligned rows of squares, cascading into the void. This spectacle emanates from the device of one of the employees, whose previously concealed helmet glasses are now opened wide. As the employee’s eyes are revealed the once robotic figure takes on the form of a human, distinct and unique. However, the ominous controlling apparatus, in the form of a threatening index finger, promptly enacts punishment, forcing the transformed individual back into the anonymous crowd once more. 

In the last novella “Strange Man” of the film “Dreams…Dreams”, the topic is kept up in the “Circle” too. Amidst a sea of indistinguishable individuals, one person stands out, shifting erratically between right and left, always under the watchful eye of the controller-apparatus with its ominous index finger. However, a mesmerizing sight captures his attention – the radiant light of a star shining in the night sky. He manages to grasp the star in his palm, and a profound

The novella “Circle” reflects the punishment of any kind of individuality in societies where the authoritarian regime and total control prevail.

In “Strange Man,” the theme is indeed taken to a deeper level of exploration. Despite the hero’s physical detachment from the crowd, lured by the guiding light, he remains bound by the limits ingrained within him by the controlling society. His consciousness, long accustomed to being under the influence of external authority, unintentionally shapes the next controller using the very essence of the radiant star.

Yefim Abramov, the screenwriter of “Dreams… Dreams,” shared how the idea for the animated film came to be, expressing a timeless theme that resonates with people throughout history. He believes that individuals have the freedom to choose whether to pursue their dreams actively or keep them distant, revisiting them in their thoughts over time. This decision is influenced by a combination of personal traits, efforts, and beliefs. Abramov emphasizes the significant role society plays in shaping an individual’s choices and aspirations. He cites a quote attributed to Marx, stating that life and society mold consciousness, a sentiment that is difficult to dispute. The fabric of society intertwines with the goals and desires of each person, ultimately influencing the path they take in life.

In the film “Dreams… Dreams” Vahid Talibov and I tried to talk about the influence of society on personality in three different miniatures. We wanted to show that a uniform, faceless, gray society can eliminate the uniqueness and unusualness of human consciousness and force it to be like everyone else,” he says. [3]

Artist and director Vahid Talibov
Scriptwriter Yefim Abramov

Y. Abramov states that making such a film during the Soviet era would have been impossible. “The story depicted in the movie was conceived during Gorbachev’s reconstruction period, when the filmmakers sought to convey the message of the arrival of a time for free self-expression. Crucially, the film serves as a warning, aiming to remind the audience to be resolute, focused on their goals, and unwaveringly loyal to their dreams, without allowing them to be swayed by fleeting public opinions.” [4]

The animated film “Dreams…Dreams” employs a color palette dominated by cold tones like blue, gray, white, and black. Coupled with rhythmic editing and monotonous music, this artistic choice intensifies the feeling of conviction and leaves no room for optimism for the viewers. In this regard, the film bears a striking resemblance to George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Director Vahid Talibov emphasizes that in the Soviet Union, animated films, like all other fields, were subject to central control from Moscow: “During that period, all forms of creative expression, including written works and films, were tightly controlled by Moscow. Films were categorized into three tiers based on the center’s approval. Films classified as third-category were allowed to be screened solely in their respective republics. However, films belonging to the first and second categories were permitted to be shown across the entire territory of the USSR. The animated film “Dreams… Dreams” received the prestigious first-category classification, enabling it to be screened throughout the Soviet Union. Presently, the film’s negatives are archived in the Russian State Film Fund.”  [5]

In the late 80s and early 90s, Azerbaijan, like many other Soviet republics, witnessed a fervent struggle for independence, as the people sought to break free from 70 years of perceived oppression. However, as Otto Bismarck aptly put it, “revolution is conceived by geniuses and carried out by fanatics,” and this period of transformation inevitably brought about initial chaos.

Azerbaijan faced a dual challenge during this time. On one hand, there was the Karabakh war, which resulted in the painful loss of occupied lands. On the other hand, the newly independent nation was grappling with internal power struggles, as various factions vied for control in a nascent political landscape. Additionally, the country faced escalating social problems that worsened with each passing day, contributing to a sense of lawlessness and disorder. In the wake of these upheavals, arbitrariness and chaos began to spread across the country.

Vahid Talibov’s animated film “Sewer” (1993) was also created due to the influence of the events that took place in those years. The screenwriter of the film is Aydin Dadashov, the cameraman is Antonina Korotnitskaya, the artist is Rafiz Ismayilov, and the composer is Mobil Babayev.

The scriptwriter of “Sewer”, Aydin Dadashov

In the animated film jointly produced by “Azanfilm” Studio and “Azerbaijantelefilm,” the storyline revolves around a group of prisoners who are determined to escape from their confinement by ingeniously digging a sewer using nothing but the spoons they once used for their meals. The stern warden receives a surprising telegram announcing a general amnesty for the inmates. The warden orders the guards to open the cell doors and set the prisoners free. Hearing the order, the guards open the doors of the cells and themselves strip off their uniforms and leave the prison before the prisoners.

The prisoners who were unaware of the amnesty found their escape route through the underground sewer. However, upon reaching the outside world, they were disheartened by the sight of the country’s ruins. Unhappy with what they saw, they decided to return to the prison, bringing their former guards along with them. The roles were now reversed, with the former prisoners taking charge as the new guards, and the previous guards becoming the prisoners. Now, it was the former warden’s turn, who was currently a prisoner, to undertake the task of digging the sewer once again.

In this captivating parable-film, the prison rising amidst the ruins with crows soaring overhead serves as a powerful symbol of the Soviet Union. This once mighty nation had become a confining cage for countless peoples, both large and small, toying with their destinies. All those trapped within its grasp yearned for escape, but when they finally attained their coveted freedom, their hopes were dashed by the disheartening sight before them.

Georgian director Rezo Gighineishvili spoke about the film “Hostages,” which delves into the reality of Soviet Georgia: “The Soviet Union has not yet been erased from our consciousness because, in a certain sense, we have not yet fully managed to break free from its grasp.” [6]

In the movie “Sewer,” the heroes are individuals who find it difficult to erase  the Soviet era from their minds. As a result, they unwittingly carry on living by the old rules and customs in the newly formed state. Throughout the film, an intriguing aspect is that all the characters, whether prisoners or guards, share the same face. Their appearances are only differentiated by their clothing and styles of facial hair, particularly their mustaches. The mass has no face.

The animated film “Sewer,” produced in 1993, can be seen as a prophetic reflection of independent Azerbaijan, which subsequently experienced a gradual return to totalitarianism after that period.

Regrettably, in the years that followed, particularly during the 2000s, Azerbaijani animation art severely restricted its creative endeavors, focusing primarily on producing propaganda-patriotic films. This shift in direction led to a noticeable reluctance to address the pressing issues of the social environment and real-life experiences within the country.

[1] УМРИХИН, Александр: Эра гласности”: последний вздох Советского Союза [“Aşkarlıq erası”: Sovet İttifaqının son nəfəsi”]. [online]. 27.02.2015. [Daxil olunan tarix 21.02.2017]. <>

[2] “Arzular… Arzular” filminin rejissoru Vahid Talıbovla müsahibə, 20.02.2017.

[3] Cizgi filminin ssenari müəllifi Yefim Abramovla müsahibə, 16.02.2017.

[4] Cizgi filminin ssenari müəllifi Yefim Abramovla müsahibə, 16.02.2017.

[5] Filmin rejissoru Vahid Talıbovla müsahibə, 20.02.2017.

[6] ГИГИНЕИШВИЛИ, Резо: В «Заложниках» правда жизни и поведение артистов для меня были важнее, чем законы драматургии [“Girovlar” filmində həyat həqiqətləri və aktyorların davranışı mənim üçün dramaturgiya qanunlarından daha vacib idi]. [online]. 15.02.2017. [Daxil olunan tarix 21.02.2017]. <>

Aygun Aslanli

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