The Cinema of Azerbaijan

By Yusif Sheykhov

Azerbaijan is one of the few countries with a cinematic history dating back to the 19th century. The photographer and cinematographer Alexandre Michon shot documentary footage of several local scenes and a short humorous film, and showed these works to an audience in Baku on 2 August 1898. This date is regarded as the starting point of cinema in Azerbaijan and is celebrated every year by presidential decree as the Day of Cinema.

At the beginning of 20th century, when the oil boom was at its height, a number of well-known foreign film companies (Pathé, Pirone, Film, etc.) made feature films in Azerbaijan. Important in the history of national cinema is the feature film In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions (1916), made by Boris Svetlov and based on Ibrahim Bek Musabekov’s novel; it featured the outstanding Azerbaijani actor, Huseyn Arablinsky (1881-1919).

The Soviets regarded cinema as vital to the ideological education of the proletariat, and so all aspects of film-making were state-controlled. The new state had firm views on what the cinema should do and dictated the thematic and ideological content of all the films produced. 

The Azerbaijan Photo-Film Administration (APFA) was established in 1923 and implemented the nationalization of the film industry as well as the integration of photo agencies, movie theatres and film distribution offices that had been owned by individual businessmen. The APFA at that time also operated the cinemas in Baku and produced the serial The Maiden Tower Legend which was screened in 1924. The film highlighted the oriental exoticism in this ethnographically-driven film. In 1925 APFA initiated the establishment of a school for training filmmakers and actors in Azerbaijan, where Jafar Jabbarly (1899-1934), Mikayil Mikayilov (1903-1986), Asad Tahirov, Abbas Mirza Sharifzadeh (1893-1938) and others studied. APFA was later known as Azdovletkino, (1926-1930), Azerkino (1930-1933), Azfilm (1933), Azerdovletsenayesi (1934), Azerfilm (1935-1940) and Baku Film Studio (1941-1959); in 1961 Azerbaijanfilm was named after Jafar Jabbarly.

On a certain level, however, national cinema could assert itself, and there were some masters with their own creative style who managed to leave a distinctive mark on Azeri film history: for example, the film versions of the popular operettas The Cloth Peddler (Arshin mal alan, 1917 by Boris Svetlov; remake 1945 by Rza Tahmasib) or If not that one, this one (O olmasin, bu olsun, 1956, dir. Huseyn Seyidzadeh) became cult films.

The next generation of filmmakers carved out new trends for the 1960–1980s. New heroes appeared on the screen, who perceived the world in a new way. They were in a constant search for their proper place, sometimes succeeding in achieving this goal, sometimes failing. The metaphorical cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, which involved poetic expression and fable-like narration, was replaced by prosaic cinema due to the realistic nature of the issues on which the directors of the “new wave” tried to focus. Directors of various generations considered the moral and ethical state of society, the relationship between society and the individual, the impact of broken relationships, and issues of human choice and a society devoid of humanistic principles: Hasan Seyidbeyli (1920-1980), Tofig Tagizadeh (1919-1998), Shamil Mahmudbeyov (1924-1997), Huseyn Seyidzadeh (1911-1979), Rasim Ojagov (1933-2006), as well as Eldar Guliyev [Quliyev] (b. 1941) and Oktay Mir-Kasimov [Oqtay Mirqasimov ] (b.1943) with his film Death with Vengeance (Quisas almadan ölme, 2014).

Towards the end of the Soviet era, the state studio Azerbaijanfilm produced 7-8 films per year, which were commissioned by Goskino and Central Soviet Television. Its annual output also included 20-25 documentaries and 2-3 animated films. Overall, some 350 feature films, over 150 shorts, over 2,000 documentaries and some 100 animated films were made in Azerbaijan.

During the Soviet era the state had subsidized the purchase of foreign films for release in cinemas across the USSR. It also covered the cost of building, repairing and equipping cinemas, and maintained the regional cinema network. In 1991 the political and social life of Azerbaijan changed radically, and both filmmakers and cinemas had to cover their costs.

From 1990-1993 film production lost the backing from the state it had previously received, while the state remained the only customer for feature, documentary and animated films. Around the same time, various private structures with money to invest into film-making emerged. In the early 1990s, about 20 private studios—headed by directors who were setting out to make films with their own money—were established. The rapid inflation in the first half of the decade quickly made a number of private banks and investment companies very rich, and some of them decided to invest in film production. With the help of these funds, 4-5 films were produced annually in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1993 fifteen fiction feature films were made on private money; between 1994 and 1997, there were only eight. Since 1998, there have been none. Currently, the country experiences a revival of the private film market. In 2015 12-14 low-budget full-length fiction films were produced, and the number is on the rise.

New Azerbaijani cinema is focused on the search for national identity on many levels—national, historical and individual—raising fundamental questions about the modern world. Directly or indirectly, these questions are present in the majority of films: a reaction to the political and social cataclysms that Azerbaijan has experienced during recent years informs such filmmakers as Vagif Mustafayev (b. 1953) with The Check (Yoxlama, 2007); The National Bomb (Milli bomba, 2004), The Black Mark (Qara Nişanə, 2003); Huseyn Mehdiyev (b. 1945) with The Melody of Space (Makanin melodiyasi, 2004); Ayaz Salayev (b. 1960), whose film The Bat (Yarasa, 1995) created a stir at Berlin IFF; Yaver Rzayev (b. 1956) with Baku, I Love You (2015); Elchin Musaoglu (b. 1966) with Nabat (2014) and The 40th Door (2009); Asif Rustamov (b. 1975) with Down the River (Axinla ashagi, 2014); Elkhan Jafarov (b. 1967) with Broken Memories (Yarımçıq xatirələr, 2015), Hail (Dolu, 2012), or Additional Impact (Alava tasir, 2010); and others.

Practically the only source of funding in Azerbaijan today is the state, which commissions films from state-owned studios: features from Azerbaijanfilm, documentaries from Salname and Yaddash, animated films from Azanfilm and Debut. Between 2008 and 2016, the state spent approximately $45.3 billion per a year on 4-5 features, 20-22 documentaries, 2-3 animated film, and 7-10 shorts.

The Azerbaijani film industry may not have made many films in recent years, but it has made its mark internationally. In recent years, a number of Azerbaijani films have been screened and taken prizes at various international festivals. This is a tribute to the directors’ professional skills, and an acknowledgement that they—and their country—have something new to offer. The Azerbaijani film industry has the professionals it needs to succeed: specialists, who trained as directors or scriptwriters at the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow and at film schools in other countries.  

Specialist training is also available in Azerbaijan itself. Baku’s University of Culture and the Arts offers courses for directors, cameramen, scriptwriters, production designers, actors, and so on. Special attention is given to co-production, for example feature and documentary films have been made together with Russia, Turkey, Germany, Italy, France and others. There are plans for broadening this activity.

Having peaked in 1985 with a figure of 66.1 million admissions, cinema attendance in Azerbaijan has declined in the years after that. The first reason for this is that films and funds are no longer supplied by the centre, i.e. Moscow. The second reason is that state subsidies for the construction, maintenance, repair and modernisation of cinemas have dried up. Both stationary and mobile cinemas have been closed, and this affects mainly the provinces.

It is worth noting that attendance figures were not always accurate during the Soviet era. Usually, they were too high: for example, anyone who sat through two screenings was counted twice, and the same applied to double bills. Attendance figures for Western films were widely conflated with those for Soviet films (audience figures for home-produced or Soviet films were a vital ideological parameter and used both to justify rewards and to encourage cinema workers, all the way up from humble technicians to studio bosses). Once the need to “massage” the figures had gone, they obviously fell—another reason for the statistical “collapse.”

At the moment, audience numbers are rising again, as entrepreneurs are paying great attention to the film industry. There are more than 50 screens equipped with digital projection, most of which started to function during the last few years. The process of the increasing the number of cinemas continues.

Since 2006 Azerbaijan has been invited to submit a film in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards. So far, none of the submitted titles has been nominated: Farid Gumbatov’s Caucasia in 2007; Shamil Najafzadeh’s Fortress in 2008; Ilgar Safat’s The Precinct in 2010; Ilgar Najaf’s Buta in 2012; Shamil Aliyev’s Steppe Man in 2013; Elchin Musaoglu’s Nabat in 2014; and Najaf’s Pomegranate Orchard in 2017.

One aspect of cinema, which has no commercial potential but is important solely from the point of view of heritage, is the acquisition and storage of significant national and foreign films. In 1993 the Government set up the State Film Archive for this purpose, giving it premises and a budget. One of only two film archives in former Soviet countries, it joined the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 2000. A new building with the required technology for restoration and storage has been built for the State Film Fund. The cinema Nizami, one of the oldest of the country, opened its doors again for visitors in 2011 after substantial reconstruction within the framework of the State Program on Development of the Cinema of Azerbaijan in 2008-2018. It has been given the status of a Cinema Centre.

The Cinema Act was passed by parliament in 1998. It guarantees state support for the national film industry, protects the creative freedom and copyright of filmmakers, and regulates various other matters. The parliament ratified the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production in 1999. 

Yusif Sheykhov


Yusif Sheykhov © 2016

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Updated: 23 Jul 18