Issue 29 (2010)
Ayaz Salayev: Anchorman (Aparici, Azerbaijan, 2009)
reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2010
In a sequence about halfway through Ayaz Salayev’s Anchorman, a face on a television screen yawns: and we watch a series of disparate spectators yawn in response. As Salayev observes, yawning is infectious: witnessing a yawn, we unthinkingly emulate it, our own action in turn spurring further imitation. Communicated empathetically rather than virally, a yawn transfers itself not just from entities with which we stand in spatialized physical relation, but through the visual or verbal images of persons with whom we need have no contact, and who as products of the imagination need not even exist. As a fit of yawning spreads from agent to agent, the pathogen is not the yawn or the yawner, but the image of the yawning person. Yawning is an image-borne infection.
With this bolero of yawning television viewers, Salayev offers a playful synecdoche for his film’s more general theme. Anchorman is about the epidemiology of images, and the relationship between what we perceive, what we do and what onlookers perceive and do in turn. As broadcast images go, the sight of somebody yawning may be pretty benign. But the Anchorman’s protagonist will learn to his cost that other, less licit images can be dangerous, particularly in an environment where all non-sanctioned forms of behavior are deemed a threat.
The protagonist in question is Sahib (Şəhab Hüseyini), the anchorman of the title. Not so much a Ron Burgundy as a Melvyn Bragg, Sahib is both live presenter and backstage programmer of a new Azeri-language television channel devoted to cinema and the arts. “Nice to see you again,” he purrs to the camera. After years of studying in the west Sahib is an elegant man of the world, but with his warm-up patter he scarcely emanates easy bonhomie. “The major topic,” he says, introducing what transpires to be a singularly bleak-looking Russian silent film, “is fear of death.” “Human beings are not free in their lives,” he continues, a groomed grim reaper warming to his theme. “Their lives unfold pursuant to the scenario called Destiny. […] So without further ado, enjoy the film.” Little here, then, for aficionados of bread or circuses: the anchorman’s presenting style is stern and unyielding. “Why won’t we reflect on our lives once again?”, he asks, by way of prelude to a broadcast of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959). “Why shouldn’t we ignore the things we always take seriously?” “Who should sacrifice his or her life,” he proceeds to ponder, while discussing Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), “in order to redeem the beastly nature of others?” Who indeed, we might wonder, had we time to consider the matter, but Salayev instead cuts immediately to men in expensive suits watching the broadcast in a shadowy boardroom, and we realize that some questions are better left unasked.
No less provocative than Sahib’s presenting style is his choice of films for broadcast. On a small television set in an under-furnished room, we watch a moustachioed Dirk Bogarde falter and fall, while in the foreground a naked young woman disports herself across the floorboards. It is a juxtaposition of images suggesting that the anchorman’s decision to screen Luchino Visconti’s headily overripe Death in Venice (1971) is not wholly conducive to sober patrician morality. “The protagonists of the film to be presented to you pass away from overeating,” says the anchorman, meanwhile, introducing Marco Ferreri’s Rabelaisian La grande bouffe (1973): “A problem which may be quite unfamiliar to a country such as ours.” Footage of Marcello Mastroianni and Michel Piccoli gorging themselves to death beams out into a tattered yurt on the Mughan steppe, where an abandoned wife is struggling to make gruel. In finessing this grotesque contrast between the film being screened and the straightened circumstances endured by his audience, our anchorman insidiously reminds his viewers that their lives are not as they might be.
More incendiary than the films themselves, however, are stray stowaway images tucked into their interstices. There is, it seems, a sort of ghost at play in the machine: individual film sequences periodically blur and fuzz on people’s television sets and stray pulses of locally-shot video footage flare across the screen. A young woman steals away from her older husband to meet a young man in the field outside; a man comes home to find a strange youth hurriedly leaving his apartment, and his wife washing herself down in the shower; under the glare of headlights by the walls of Baku’s Old City, a young woman in high heels waves at passers-by. A series of misbehaviors, then: a sequence of those tacit human actions which dare not speak their name. This is what people do, the footage reminds us. It is what we do when the cameras are turned the other way. More even than the films selected for broadcast, these video fragments are uncomfortable testaments to our consensually hidden aspects of self.
Shades of Stephen King’s “Needful Things,” then, or of Brian Singer’s Public Access (1993): our protagonist qua outsider conduit for a community’s inconvenient truths. But one soon begins to wonder to what extent the anchorman is responsible for what is being screened: these bursts of video footage defy attribution. Among the television viewers watching the young woman’s rendez-vous in the field, for instance, is the husband whom she has just left, through whose window we watch the meeting concurrently taking place. With no sight anywhere of a video camera, we are at a loss to conceive how the scene is being broadcast. Sitting in an empty room, a viewer switches on the television and finds to his bemusement that his own image is being broadcast live on screen; buying drinks at a bar for a girl whom he has just met, a prospective customer sees that the big-screen television is showing not sports or music, but his new acquaintance amusing herself with another admirer while he is gone.
Were Anchorman set in North America or Western Europe, of course, such sequences would serve to foster a sense of surveillance paranoia, as essayed in the likes of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). Salayev by contrast adopts an absurdist tone. His cast of spectators may be agape at the video footage which they see, but the means of its dissemination they blithely take in their stride. “Odd as this may seem at first glance, I think this is all quite natural”, says the anchorman at one point, claiming to his own apparent satisfaction that these digital flares are no different from the imprint of Jesus Christ’s face upon the Turin Shroud. In this deadpan acceptance of the uncanny, Salayev’s protagonists resemble characters from out of Buñuel: and indeed there is a Buñuellian note of glee as Salayev depicts a community coming to terms with the fact that nothing is any longer a secret. An unprepossessing middle-aged man watches as his wife continues to gambol naked to the strains of Death in Venice. “You hope that everyone will watch you”, he says, ruefully aware that his own marital humiliations may even now be being broadcast to the nation and that the best he can hope for is the consolation prize of being seen acting decently. “Is that all?” asks the stilettoed prostitute’s mother, meanwhile, as the young woman hands over her night’s earnings. “Never go there again. We saw you on TV today.” The mother seems oddly un-scandalized by the revelation of her daughter’s career, but from what else she has seen on television, she at least has the comfort of knowing that other people’s children have little better to boast of than her own.
Tout savoir, then, c’est tout permettre: confronted with images depicting what people do, rather than simply say they do, Salayev’s spectators find themselves publicly acknowledging their own part in forms of behavior whose existence they would previously have preferred to deny; and in doing so, giving license for others to act likewise. But not everybody opts to indulge in bacchanalia. The besuited men in their shadowy boardroom ponder a situation veering out of control. “It goes without saying that democracy is the future”, says one such mandarin early on in the film: but with the anchorman’s every broadcast a further assault on the compliant status quo, members of this murky disposition of power move to protect their vested interests. “You know what needs to be done”, says the mandarin to one of his minions, and the anchorman begins to come under pressure. “Do you think we are unaware of your unpatriotic remarks?,” asks a slick-haired Udo Kier-lookalike. “Do you think we are bumpkins or ‘grey wolves’?” For a moment, we wonder whether the corpse briefly glimpsed while being wheeled out from a sanatorium by medical orderlies is Sahib’s. As the film approaches its climax it transpires that Sahib’s grimmer fate still awaits him inside his blood-red broadcasting booth.
A crusading broadcaster brought low by spineless and venal figures of authority: from a filmmaker based in Ilham Aliev’s Azerbaijan, this is daringly close to the bone. Repeated references by the besuited mandarin to an upcoming deal with neighboring Gyshlagystan sensibly emphasize, of course, that we are technically in the realms of fantasy. But with his depiction of a society secretly indulging in promiscuity, corruption and vice Salayev seems every bit as determined as his fictional protagonist to harry and provoke. Such wanton ruffling of feathers is exhilarating to watch. Unfortunately, though, taboo-breaking does not necessarily make a successful film.
The problem, I think, is that Salayev’s directorial focus tends towards the general, rather than the specific. As is the case with all too many directors presently working in the Caucasus and Central Asia, his film functions symbolically, as a comment upon the environment in which he is working. Symbolism may help diffuse a message, but it makes for inert drama. In his concern to plot out a community riven by socially-accepted hypocrisies, Salayev offers no sharp depiction of any of the individual community members whose lives will be affected by the broadcast revelation of secrets. In the absence of specificity and detail, we find that we care little for what happens before us. The situation is not helped by Salayev’s constantly recalibrating the status of what we see on screen, misdirecting us as we try to determine what material is being broadcast forth from Sahib’s television station and what we alone can see as privileged cinematic spectators. Unlike the artful play between reality and image in the similarly themed Silence (Sukunat, 2008), where director Yolqin To’ychiyev’s repeatedly wrong-footing us brilliantly conveys his lead character’s fraying sense of self, such games in Anchorman lack dramatic motivation, and alienate us from what is happening on screen. The problem is compounded by a recurrent uncertainty of tone, with occasional gestures towards farce sitting uncomfortably alongside a grimmer theatre of the absurd. Without the assurance of a firm directorial hand, the viewer worries that these constant shifts and dislocations simply reflect an indecisiveness on the part of the filmmakers as to what they are trying to achieve.
Anchorman, then, is not a success. But there is nothing wrong with a man’s reach exceeding his grasp: and the sheer proliferation of ideas on display here suggests that Salayev will be a filmmaker to watch in the future. Next time round, though, he might do well to remember that individuals also yawn: because they are on their own, because they are tired, perhaps, or because they are bored.
Martin-Luther Universität, Halle (Germany) and All Souls College, Oxford
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Anchorman, [Telekanal "Treugol'nik"]Azerbaijan, 2009
Color, 90 minutes
Screenwriter and director: Ayaz Salayev
Editor: İqrar Əşrəfzadə
Director of Photography: Əziz Məmmədov
Cast: Şəhab Hüseyini, Rasim Balayev, Fuad Poladov, Gülzar Qurbanova Elxan Cəfərov, Təzəgül Məmmədova and others
Producer: Xamis Muradov
Ayaz Salayev: Anchorman (Aparici, Azerbaijan, 2009)
reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2010