Issue 31 (2011)

Chingiz Rasulzade: The Dolls (Kuklalar, 2010)

reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2011


dollsChingiz Rasulzade’s The Dolls offers a look at the traumatic history of an inter-ethnic conflict, which, because it remains unresolved, has already defined an entire generation. The generation in question is the young Azeri director’s own—the generation of those who were teenagers at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and were witnesses to one of its most violent precipitating causes: the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over control of the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Populated predominantly by Armenians, the enclave was included in 1921 in the newly created Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic by one of the government agencies under the supervision of Joseph Stalin, then the People’s Commissar for Nationalities. As the policy of glasnost’ (openness) under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s created space for separatist national grievances to be expressed, the Karabakh issue flared up when Armenia sought the inclusion of the region into its jurisdiction while Azerbaijan rejected such claims on its territory. Massive demonstrations in Armenia were followed by violence against Azeris living in Karabakh and their expulsion from the area. The violence was reciprocated in Azerbaijan: a bloody pogrom against Armenians in Sumgait, near Baku, in February 1988, and the departure of Armenians from Baku and other Azeri cities shook up the region in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Among the darkest chapters of the conflict was the occupation of Baku by Soviet troops following another wave of anti-Armenian violence and large-scale pro-independence demonstrations in January 1990; more than one hundred people died during the events that became known in Azerbaijan as “Black January.” The territorial dispute, while significant in and of itself, was the catalyst for larger national, cultural, and symbolic disagreements, which, held in check during the years of Soviet rule, re-emerged during this moment of national self-determination as the USSR began disintegrating. The conflict thus escalated into an all-out war, which lasted until the cease-fire of 1994; Nagorno-Karabakh, while still de jure part of the newly independent Azerbaijan, is now de facto controlled by the newly independent Armenia. Efforts to resolve the conflict continue to this day.

The Dolls—a more accurate translation of the title would have been The Puppets—opens, as the subtitle states, somewhere in Europe today. A man passing through a town square hugs a street performer inside beaver costume (the costume is, in fact, a full body puppet). He then utters, in English, the words “I’m Mickey,” and experiences a flashback through which the narrative of the film unfolds. The film cuts to Baku in 1989, where six teenagers work in body puppet costumes for a photographer, Uncle Zhora, on the city’s Caspian seaside promenade. Their job is to lure children, out for a walk with their parents, to pose for a picture. The six teenagers, pictured for most of the film in their costumes, are only referred to by their characters’ names. Mickey is Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. His colleagues and newly-acquired friends are: Baloo, from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was adapted into an animated series in the Soviet Union; Monkey from The 38 Parrots (38 popugaev, dir. Ivan Ufimtsev, 1976), another popular Soviet animated series; Tom, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Tom and Jerry; Wolf, half of the wolf-rabbit duo from the Soviet animated series Just You Wait! (Nu pogodi!, dir. Viacheslav Kotenochkin, 1969-93), dressed in a tracksuit emblazoned with Moscow’s “Dinamo” soccer team logo; and Buratino, the Russian version of Pinocchio, also popularized in the Soviet Union through an animated film series.

dollsIn the beginning, the film feels almost like a children’s tale with its puppet protagonists spending their days on the nearly empty seaside promenade. However, an air of desperation is palpable as the boys develop a friendship with the promenade’s two other workers: the prostitutes Olga and Zarina, for whom the boys develop affection and empathy in part through a gradual realization that they have all taken to the streets to earn their living. Cinematography helps establish this increasingly desperate mood: repeated long shots of the promenade with the camera slowly tilting upward to open the perspective onto the sea create the feeling of claustrophobia as the sea emerges as a fantasy of escape rather than a symbol of unlimited possibilities and freedom. Everyone’s lives will, indeed, be changed by the impending events and some lives will be cut short. 

The film’s first half builds slowly, through a lengthy and somewhat uneventful introduction of each of the boys in the context of his family, his adolescent rebellions against his parents and neighbors (a suspicious stepfather, an exploitative neighbor, an alcoholic father, drug addict friends who extort money by force, and others). There is something childish in Mickey, who doesn’t know how to properly tie his shoelaces, but who also reads J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in the Russian translation and plays guitar in a rock band (a sequence with the band’s performance of The Doors’ “Take It as It Comes” during which Mickey violently breaks his electric guitar, adds details to the larger portrait of the America-obsessed and rebellious perestroika generation). Baloo is, indeed, bear-like: he is a tall, overweight boy whose physical strength and kindness of heart are exploited by everyone. Monkey is visibly younger than the other boys; Buratino develops affection for one of the prostitutes, Zarina, and pleads with her to quit her work. For the most part, the acting is not very convincing. By his own admission at the press conference of the Kinoshok film festival, Rasulzade limited his casting options by writing a script for protagonists between the ages of 14 and 17. Rasulzade was restricted to working with non-professionals who did not know how to act. This explains the somewhat monotonous body language of all the boys and the fact that the director, according to his own statements, conceals his actors’ lack of professional skills by resorting to long and medium shots rather than close-ups. However, the side effect of avoiding close-ups is the effacing of boys’ individuality and their evolution into a puppet collective, which becomes synonymous with a larger issue that the film ultimately raises: the relationship between the individual and the collective during historical moments when faithfulness to friends, nation, and larger political causes comes into conflict with an individual’s private desires. In the end, the somewhat better conceptualized Baloo and Mickey have fates different from those of the other four boys. Baloo, swept away from the collective of puppets into another collective of men building barricades in anticipation of the arrival of Soviet troops, becomes one of the martyrs killed during the events of Black January. A documentary segment of the funeral procession in the aftermath of these events in Baku is included at the end of the film, with Baloo’s portrait, in black frame, inserted into the sequence. Mickey, in turn, is drawn away from the collective of boys by his love for a young woman in a red hat (nicknamed Red Riding Hood by the boys, as if she were one of the puppets). He leaves his friends and emigrates with this girlfriend, agonizing about what he perceives as an act of betrayal, but ultimately surviving to tell the story.

dollsThere is an attempt in The Dolls to represent the multi-cultural make-up of Baku. The city—at least according to Soviet-era myth—was famous for its cosmopolitanism and its tolerance towards people of diverse ethnicities and religious confessions. The dominant language of the film—the dominant language spoken in Baku to this day—is Russian, with occasional sentences or parts of sentences in Azeri. Unfortunately, in portraying the multi-cultural Baku on the cusp of the Soviet Union’s fall, Rasulzade uses the worn-out Soviet-style “friendship of nations” theme, which relies aesthetically on easily recognizable cultural stereotypes about various ethnic groups. In the sequence that introduces Wolf—a Russian teenager—inside his apartment, the mise-en-scène includes an image of the preeminent Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. The instantly recognizable reproduction of a portrait by Orest Kiprenskii, it is hanging on the wall next to a reproduction of a Russian Orthodox icon. Established through these reproduced copies of recognizably Russian cultural and religious symbols, this representation of ethnic identity comes off as no more than token Russianness. In a similarly schematic fashion, a brief sequence introducing Tom and his family begins with the camera tilting downward past an elaborate candelabrum to shoot Tom’s bearded father in profile, his large black yarmulke clearly visible. The father wins the game of bingo and asks his children to pay up in candy, amassing a sizeable pile of sweets and commenting that he was sure to develop diabetes. Jewishness here is created through the display of the father’s recognizable religious symbol, which serves the role of a Jewish “national costume,” another key feature of the iconography of the “Friendship of the Peoples.” This allusion to costume is a more than trivial notion in a film so heavily based on costumed protagonists. Cultural stereotypes of the greedy and hypochondriac Jew are added to the mix as well. Curiously, it is suggested that both Wolf and Tom have the option of leaving “cosmopolitan” Baku: Wolf’s father has been offered a job in Moscow and the family thinks of leaving Baku, whereas Tom mentions that his father has been talking about emigrating to Israel while Tom himself would prefer moving to America. In the end, however, as the myth of cosmopolitan Baku is swept away by the departure of Armenians from the city and by the Karabakh war, the film’s token Russian and token Jew share the fate of their Azeri coevals as soldiers fighting on the side of the ethno-national state of Azerbaijan.

dollsNationality (in the Soviet understanding of nationality as ethnicity) comes to play a crucial role in defining the relationship between the boys and their employer, the photographer Uncle Zhora. Markers of Azeri nationalism abound: the word “Karabakh” is scrawled in Azeri on the side of the building where one of the boys lives and trainloads of wounded Azeri refugees are shown arriving in Baku from the disputed region. The issue of ethnic separatism is thus injected into the previously tolerant atmosphere of Baku. When, towards the end of the film, Uncle Zhora is suddenly discovered to be an Armenian, his studio is broken into and turned upside down and bearded men from an Azeri militia group come by to ask the boys about his whereabouts. The boys feign ignorance and pretend that they did not know that their employer is an Armenian; they agree amongst themselves to help the fearful Uncle Zhora emigrate. The boys help him pack up and accompany him to the ferry (several thousand Armenians left Baku by ferry for Turkmenistan on the other side of the Caspian at the time). It is a moving sequence. They nobly refuse to accept Uncle Zhora’s camera as a gift to them and, standing in their costumes, help him board. Despite the inter-ethnic tensions that characterized that historical moment, Rasulzade strives to show the mutually friendly relations between residents of Baku.

The message of inter-ethnic cooperation, however, is compromised by an earlier sequence similar in its conception to the sequences that introduced Wolf and Tom as a Russian and a Jew respectively. In the first half of the film, long before any trouble begins, Uncle Zhora asks Mickey to drop off a roll of film to be developed. The woman in the photo shop asks Mickey whether he had been sent by someone named Georgii Papazov. When Mickey replies that he had been sent by Uncle Zhora, the woman responds by saying that Uncle Zhora is Georgii Papazov. It appears that the only reason for the insertion of this sequence, which has no other importance for the plot of the film, is to “out” Uncle Zhora by his real name. Papazov is an identifiably Russified version of the Armenian surname Papazyan (Armenians living outside Armenia in places like Baku often Russified their surnames). Later, while rebelling against what they take to be insufficient pay, the boys physically intimidate Uncle Zhora and demand to be paid fairly. Given that an earlier sequence has “outed” Uncle Zhora as an Armenian, one can’t help but wonder whether the later confrontation is not motivated, at least in part, by the charged stereotype of Armenians as manipulative and exploitative of others. Rasulzade’s film, in its apparent intention to emphasize mutual respect over difference, nonetheless occasionally wades into ethnic stereotypes.

dollsStructured as a flashback experienced by Mickey, the film emphasizes the importance of memory through the insertion of documentary footage and the use of freeze frame shots. The latter are used throughout the film, inserted in quick succession. The images themselves often are variants of photos taken by Uncle Zhora. Photography and the cinematic devices associated with it, serve to facilitate Mickey’s remembrance of his teenage days in Baku by treating his experience as the subject of a photographer’s camera. Several documentary sequences further aim to tie Rasulzade’s fictional rumination on history to historical events. A panoramic shot of Baku appears early in the film to establish location. This cheerful image, most likely inserted from a tourist film, shows a familiar and welcoming city that would soon be changed. A sequence showing the invasion of Soviet troops cuts back and forth between Baloo guarding the barricades to black-and-white documentary footage of Soviet tanks and back to Baloo’s puppet costume trampled by a tank’s caterpillar tracks. In one of the most powerful sequences of the film, another documentary shot of Soviet tanks cuts to a chillingly beautiful staged shot of a tank caught up in clotheslines inside a courtyard between apartment buildings.

In another sequence, Buratino quickly passes through his apartment on the way to the attic, where he is bringing Red Riding Hood. As he does, we see a shot of his parents trying to make their broken television work. This brief detail identifies the date as the night of 19/20January 1989, when an explosion at Baku’s television station interrupted broadcasting, leaving residents of the city unaware of the State of Emergency that had been declared (de Waal 2003: 92-93). At another point, when Rasulzade uses a shot of the television set again, the documentary references are somewhat distorted. In a sequence of Buratino conversing with his grandfather, a television set on the grandfather’s desk switches between different images accompanied by what the viewers take to be a diegetic soundtrack of a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev. The speech itself, however, is Gorbachev’s New Years Eve address, made on 31 December 1989—a speech that had not yet occurred in the summer of 1989 when Buratino’s conversation with his grandfather supposedly takes place. Why Rasulzade needs this “documentary” soundtrack becomes clear through the snippets that are clearly audible in the film: in the speech ushering in the year 1990, Gorbachev noted the many challenges of perestroika, including what he called “the exacerbation [obostrenie] of inter-ethnic relations” (1989). This formulation was a clear reference to the then-ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Rasulzade could have moved forward this sequence by several months to better fit the historical trajectory of events. However, despite this shortcoming, the film’s references to historical events through documentary footage and soundtrack offer a meaningful personal meditation on the nature of history and memory.

rasulzadeThe Dolls, which opened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the summer of 2010 and was later screened at Kinoshok 2010 in Anapa, attracted controversy in Azerbaijan upon its completion. With Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism as the film’s only funder, the final sequence of the film was censored in Azerbaijan and the premiere was delayed by several months until mid-December 2010, well after the film's European and Russian festival screenings. In that sequence, with Baloo dead and Mickey gone, the four remaining boys join the Azeri army and go off fighting in Karabakh. As the boys’ unit charges in attack, one of the boys stays back in the trenches, effectively betraying his friends, the army, and the national cause, and is shown crying. The camera tilts upward, away from the crying soldier, to capture a shot of numerous puppets strewn about the battlefield. The boys have volunteered for a political cause; their shaven heads mark them as members of a new, decidedly non-childish collective. In the end, though, they turn back into puppets: this time, as the film appears to suggest, they are puppets in the manipulative hands of those eager to rev up nationalist feelings and settle a territorial dispute through war. The soldier who stays behind and cries is Buratino, who earlier enticed the boys to remain together and join the mass pro-independence demonstrations on the streets of Baku. According to Rasulzade himself:

In a larger sense, it doesn’t matter which one of the soldiers cries. But according to what I conceived, it’s the one who called on the others to stick together, who was agitating for the war’s cause, who in the end did not find the strength to go all the way. Such, in a sense, is our very nature. But again, this is not an accusation – here there is empathy for these boys who, without realizing it themselves, became cannon fodder for someone else’s cause. And we didn’t really have a choice then: either you remain who you are and stand aside or leave (betray), or you become cannon fodder. That’s the story I wanted to tell (Rasulzade).

Judging by the fact of its censorship, this ambivalent – and pacifist – concluding sequence is still too controversial for the national narrative of present-day Azerbaijan. This sequence and the film as a whole, however, begin to fill the lacunae of recent traumatic late Soviet and post-Soviet history, injecting much-needed doubt and ambivalence where national self-assuredness tends to dominate. Rasulzade deserves to be praised for making a film, which, despite some of its shortcomings, tells a compassionate and visually compelling story of a generation that came of age during one of the bloodiest inter-ethnic conflicts in recent history.

Sasha Senderovich
Tufts University

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Works Cited

de Waal, Thomas, 2003. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York and London: New York University Press.

Gorbachev, Mikhail, 1989, New Years Eve Address [video online].

Kuklalar (The Dolls) A film by Chingiz Rasulzade, 2010. Plachushchii soldat [the film’s Facebook page] 1 December 2010 (my translation from the Russian).

Rasulzade, Chingiz, 2010. Press conference, Kinoshok Film Festival, Anapa, Russia [video online].


The Dolls, Azerbaijan, 2010
Colour, 85 min
Director: Chingiz Rasulzade
Screenplay: Chingiz Rasulzade, Ramiz Fataliyev
DoP: Iurii Varnovskii
Music: Isa Melikov
Production Designer: Rovshan Mehdiyev
Editor: Elshad Rahimov
Producer: Tofig Musayev
Production: Sinag-film
Cast: Gorgud Jafarli, Evgeniy Gahramanov, Iskender Agagulov, Javid Guliyev, Vahid Aliyev, Jamina Agayeva, Elvira Jafarova

Chingiz Rasulzade: The Dolls (Kuklalar, 2010)

reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2011

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