Issue 49 (2015)

Ayaz Salayev: Black-and-White Nights (-qara gecələr, Azerbaijan, 2013)

reviewed by Erin Alpert© 2015

Ayaz Salayev’s Black-and-White Nights is about bringing the past and the present together in more ways than one.  In this film, Aya and her wealthy husband start a television station with the sole purpose of showing old, black-and-white, primarily silent films. Aya insists, despite initial protestations from nearly everyone, that these films will be interesting and worth seeing. In helping others rediscover these old films, Aya also brings her former lover, who has been teaching in a rural school, back into the picture to play the role of the announcer for the channel. As the channel launches, a strange thing begins to happen: snippets of contemporary life become interspliced with the old films as they air on television. No one knows who is doing this or how these scenes are being filmed. As Aya’s husband and the television executive attempt to figure out who is at the root of this nightmare that will likely cost them their jobs, Aya and her lover plot the murder of her husband so that they can be together and she will become a rich widow.

Black-and-White Nights is director Ayaz Salayev’s second feature film. His first, Yarasa, (1995) was also about the intersection of film and real life. It was shown at numerous film festivals and won several prizes, including the Grand Prix at the Angers European First Film Festival in 1996. Salayev’s personal history reflects an interest in the history of cinema and its continued relevance. He studied Film Criticism at VGIK, has been a scenarist and actor, worked in television and at Azerbaijan’s Gosfil'mofond, and currently teaches film history.

b-w nightsLove and treason are focal points of the film. They appear not only in the main plotline and the love triangle of Aya, her husband, and her lover, but also in the silent films shown and the stories of random people whose lives appear unscripted on the television channel. Some of the earliest episodes that are intercut with the black and white films are when a woman strangles her husband for beating her, a man beats his wife because she cheated on him, and a young woman sneaks out of the house to meet her lover in the park. Toward the end of the film, numerous couples—both human and animal—are shown having sex on-screen, attracting the attention of viewers who would normally not be interested in a television channel dedicated to silent films.

Black-and-White Nights is full of confusion and lies on multiple levels. It begins with the characters themselves. Only one, Aya, is called by name in the film. While viewers know that some political incident in Aya’s lover’s past caused him to be jailed and banished to teaching in a rural school, they never learn precisely what happened.  The characters lie to each other and lie to the television audience, claiming that a virus has been discovered to be the root of the strange episodes from real life appearing on television. There is a general sense of confusion about why this is happening—not only how the scenes are being transmitted to television audiences, but even how they are being filmed with seemingly no cameras around.  The cinematography mirrors the confusion the characters feel. Salyaev jumps back and forth among several different locations and scenes, where action happens more or less simultaneously, as evidenced by the fact that the characters are seeing the same images on their television screens. It is sometimes difficult to tell which actions are appearing on the television and therefore being viewed by the audience, and what is actually happening in people’s private lives without anyone knowing. One particularly tense moment happens when the film audience is led to believe that Aya is appearing on television while she waits at her lover’s apartment, only to later discover it is another woman wearing similar shoes.

b-w nightsIn his opening remarks on the premiere of this television channel, Aya’s lover says “our life is a follow-up of the stories present in these films.” The idea of continuity between the past and the present is a recurring motif. The film opens on a beach and returns to that location for a pivotal moment at the end of the film. There is also continuity between what is shown in the old black-and-white films and the intercut contemporary moments. Sometimes these reflect cycles, such as when we see the face of a beaten, and presumably dead, man from the present juxtaposed with a scene in a film where a woman is about to give birth.  A poor woman gorges herself on food given to her by the television station after she appeared ranting about how she had nothing to eat, and vomits it back up as the maggot scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is shown. Sometimes it is a visual match. A scene where a man who just ran a knife up and down a woman’s nearly naked body and then looks at himself in the mirror is immediately followed by one from Fritz Lang’s M, where the murderer Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) gazes at his own reflection. Aya creeps into the bedroom she shares with her husband late at night as Nosferatu (from F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film) creeps up a staircase on the television set in their room.

Black-and-White Nights was commissioned by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, but it had a long and difficult journey from concept to screen.  It was originally started in 2008 as a different film with a different title, Television Channel “Triangle” (Telekanal “Treugol'nik”), based on a plot that Salyaev had been thinking about since 2001.  The original film starred Rasim Balayev, who also features in Black-and-White Nights, Fuad Poladov, and the Iranian actor Hussein Shahab Tabrizi. This film, however, was never released, with different rumors about the reasoning, including that it had homosexual erotic moments. The official version of why this film was not released was simply that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism did not like it. The movie was rewritten, filmed again, and eventually released in 2013. It has since been screened at the Didor film festival, which is held biannually in Dushanbe, and has become the main film festival for Central Asian cinema.

Erin Alpert
University of Pittsburgh

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Black-and-White Nights (Azerbaijan, 2013)
80 minutes, color
Director: Ayaz Salayev 
Screenplay: Ayaz Salayev, Nadya Maguli 
Cinematography: Bayram Fazli 
Music: İlyas Mirzəyev 
Editing: Elmir Həsənov 
Sound: Mehman Nadirov 
Producer: Müşfiq Hətəmov 
Cast: Solmaz Süleymanlı, Fəkhrəddin Manafov, Levan Khurtsia, Rasim Balayev
Production: Azerbaycanfilmstudio

Ayaz Salayev: Black-and-White Nights (-qara gecələr, Azerbaijan, 2013)

reviewed by Erin Alpert© 2015

Updated: 02 Jul 15