Oleg Safaraliev: Goodbye, Southern City (Әlvida, cәnub şәhәri, Azerbaijan and Russia, 2006)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford© 2007

As W.H. Auden famously observes, one man's suffering usually “takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Oleg Safaraliev's Goodbye, Southern City illustrates this point beautifully, situating the everyday dramas of a community in 1988 Baku against the distant backdrop of inter-ethnic war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Frequently imperfect, occasionally even clumsy, Safaraliev's film is nevertheless one of the most exciting surprises to have appeared in the last year or so and it suggests that some day soon the Azeri film industry may be capable of producing some truly great cinema.

In Goodbye, Southern City, Alik is our protagonist. Played by shaven-headed Tim Roth look-alike and Moscow-based Azeri actor Timur Badalbeoly, Alik is a—well, that's the point. A what? Job descriptions mean little here. Alik has a truck and he shuttles people off to work the oilfields; but he also has a gun and is the one who comes knocking on the door when workers fail to turn up for duty. You might call Alik an enforcer, perhaps, were it not for the term's implication of some recognizable chain of authority, something that is signally absent here. Perhaps fixer is better. Alik fixes things. When he is not tracking down his disaffected colleague Rza, Alik is busily wheeling and dealing back in the leaf-dappled courtyard complex where he lives with his mother, sister, and nephew amidst a community of friendly grotesques. In these circles, Alik is a man of honor. When a neighbor confesses the fear that he will die too overweight to be carried down the stairs for burial, it is Alik who promises to hire a crane for the occasion; when his nephew expresses readiness to undergo circumcision, it is Alik who assumes paternal responsibility and sets about finding a barber with a sharp knife.

The one person to challenge Alik's privileged social function here is Fariz (Fuad Polotov). Sour-faced Fariz has only recently arrived at the apartment complex after fleeing to Baku from the conflict out west. He has evidently seen things, and he has little time for the petty social niceties that ordinarily bind a group together. Fariz is a figure of unimpeachable virtue, his very presence in a room sufficient to upbraid the room's other occupants. “It's not for me to be telling you,” he says to a group of local musicians whom he has caught playing Glenn Miller songs over a boozy dinner, “but don't you see what's going on? The city is full of refugees with nowhere to live, while you sit here eating, and drinking, and playing jazz.” Most people in the room timidly submit to this harangue. Alik does not. Alik does not like the tone of Fariz's voice. He does not like what Fariz says next: “And get out of the basement where you rehearse. We don't need that jazz-shmazz now. Got me?”

Much of the rest of the film hinges on the fate of this basement. Alik is determined that the property continue to serve as a local congregation point, while Fariz insists that it be repossessed for housing fellow refugees streaming into town from Karabakh. Not only does Fariz seem to enjoy the moral high ground, but the authorities quickly prove sympathetic to his demands. “There was nothing I could do, Alik,” says the basement owner, admitting that he has handed the property over to refugees after being dragged off to the police station. Willful Alik, however, remains defiant. When a crowd of men comes to take possession of the basement during a musical practice session, Alik pulls his gun on them and forces them to withdraw; a short-term victory but a long-term miscalculation it transpires, as Alik thereby precipitates a showdown with his rival that culminates in Fariz having him arrested and convicted on trumped-up drug offences. The film's opening and closing sections relate what happens when Alik comes back to Baku after twelve years in jail to find the apartment complex fallen into disrepair and Fariz, now a successful businessman, still livid at Alik's behavior a decade earlier. As Alik will learn to his cost, in 21 st -century Baku it is a dangerous business being enemies with men in suits.

The success of Goodbye, Southern City lies in the acuity with which it depicts a community in crisis. At one point in the film, Alik tracks down the persistently work-shy Rza, who is drinking in a late-night beer shack. It is late, Alik tells him. Late for what, asks Rza's drinking companion. Late for the night shift, Rza replies. “Oh,” says the companion, as though surprised. “Do you work?” There is a pause before the two drinkers burst into laughter, as though at the absurdity of such a suggestion. As Rza staggers into Alik's truck, he taunts Alik for the pettiness of his endeavors. “Do you think,” he asks, “that if I carry one or two barrels anything will actually change in this world?” Rza is not the only person adrift and aimless in this stagnating environment—hot and dusty and thousands of miles from Moscow. In Alik's communal courtyard, a uniformed policeman sits endlessly around cooling his feet in a basin, reading the newspaper, and occasionally polishing his ever-stationary squad car, while out in the oil fields a site manager is more concerned to sunbathe than to clock employees in for work.

Thus the war of 1988-1994, one might think; thus the disenchantment and myriad petty resentments that might lead people to seek a cause, to assume a rallying-cry, and to march into battle. If that were to make for a bleak picture of human motivation, however, Goodbye, Southern City makes for an even bleaker one. Most of the characters in Goodbye, Southern City regard the prospect of war as an opportunity not for redemption but for self-enrichment. Informed that a curfew will prevent people across Baku from buying alcohol after 8pm, the local policeman quickly sees an opportunity for peddling late-night moonshine on the side; other unscrupulous types, meanwhile, start leaning on property-owners, demanding that they sell their homes at knockdown prices on the supposed grounds that these properties will otherwise be forcibly requisitioned for refugees. The rot runs deep here. It emerges that even thin-lipped Fariz is given to some sharp practices of his own. Far from reflecting any kind of humanitarian concern, Fariz's eagerness to evict the musicians from the basement stems from the fact that he has business plans, first of which is to establish his own restaurant there. War, and the suffering caused by war, provides the opportunities and the pretexts with which these characters set about the grubby business of making a living.

This is bold. To this day, most Azeris regard the events and outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war as a national tragedy: a litany of suffering with the only glimmer of light coming from the solidarity displayed by fellow countrymen in the face of common danger. Safaraliev and Ibragimbekov shoot this tragic narrative to pieces. They depict a world where the war actually suited various people's darker purposes and where success today may have been founded on the sufferings of other people yesterday. Is there a political allegory at work, perhaps? Might we see in Fariz, the Karabakhi in-comer, glimpses of Armenia's current leader, Robert Kocharian, who in the late 1990s capitalized on his experiences in war-torn Karabakhi Stepanakert as a means of building a hard-line consensus in Erevan against the accommodationist incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian? Or even of Azerbaijan's apotheosized late president Heydar Aliev, the Nakhichevani native who built his Baku political fortune from the events of the war?

Of course, one might complain that any such resonances are glib, and that Safaraliev and Ibragimbekov are merely being cute. A drama about people exploiting a distant conflict is all very good and well, but Baku in 1988 had its own fair share of inter-ethnic violence, and many Azeris in the city would already have had blood on their hands. One of the first confrontations in the course of the war took place not in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but in Sumgait, a small town near Baku on the Apsheron peninsula, where hundreds of Armenians were massacred in a semi-organized pogrom that February. To anyone objecting that it is myopic to have a drama revolving around the fate of Azeri refugees without a single glimpse of the conflict's myriad Armenian victims, however, one might reply that this is missing the point. Goodbye, Southern City is not a record of the war. It is not even an account of the war such as it occurred in Baku. It is a story about how people in Baku made sense of the war such as they chose to perceive it . Dreadful things are happening around us, but the only person to acknowledge this is Liusia, a middle-aged woman who finds herself under pressure from heavies to move out of her apartment. “What am I going to do to you?” threatens one of the thugs. “What can you possibly do to me?'” replies Liusia haughtily. “ I'm not Armenian. I'm Russian .” Many others, we realize, would not have been so fortunate.

There is much that is wrong with Goodbye, Southern City. Elements of the narrative are unclear—who exactly is doing what to whom, we occasionally wonder—and the tendency of individual characters to fade in and out of view suggests that the film may have been pruned a bit too rigorously in the editing room. A romantic relationship between Alik and a nightclub chanteuse weighs down the film to little effect, and when an assassin turns up at the end, his identity sits uneasily with what has hitherto transpired. But the compensations here are ample. There is a real sense of sweaty listlessness throughout the film as the camera endlessly idles its way around the apartment courtyard. As people fan off the heat while sitting on the stoop, the filmmakers evoke shades of a Spike Lee long, hot Brooklyn afternoon in August. Indeed, one wonders whether Safaraliev and Ibragimbekov may have profited from Spike Lee's example more generally, for the jazzy ease with which they depict communal ennui turning nasty. There are echoes of Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and more particularly of Summer of Sam (1999), as a coterie of elderly musicians—Azeri versions of Danny Aiello or Ben Gazzara, perhaps—shoot the breeze over zakuski while ugly off-screen headlines begin to intrude on local lives. Elsewhere, too, there are elements that resonate for the Western viewer: one would hardly have guessed that, seen in the yellow morning light, Baku's salty, derrick-strewn landscape might so strongly resemble the toxic New Jersey marshes, replete with their associations of low-rent criminal thuggishness. The location work in the film is superb, evoking Baku as a dreamy combination of Atlantic City, an Islamic kasbah, and a stuccoed Rothschild-era ghost town. Watching Goodbye, Southern City , one realizes what an opportunity Michael Apted wasted in opting to abjure proper location work for The World Is Not Enough (1999) and what a pallid account of this strange place Gary Shteyngart offers in his recent novel Absurdistan.

This inspired locale and camerawork should not overshadow the film's other merits. The hitherto little-known Safaraliev proves himself an intelligent director, possessing an impressive visual economy: as a synecdoche for Alik's hours and years of judicial torture and abuse, he uses little more than a single overturned chair in a police interview room. And the actors are superb, with the dead-eyed Fakhratdin Manafov (playing Rza) in particular giving the single best performance you are likely to see in any film this year. Taken together with the sheer forensic sharpness of Ibragimbekov's screenplay, these contributions render Goodbye, Southern City a triumphant evocation of a community waiting for the barbarians.

Thomas Welsford
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University

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Images courtesy of Oleg Safaraliev.

Goodbye, Southern City, Azerbaijan and Russia, 2006
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Oleg Safaraliev
Scriptwriter: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Cinematography: Murat Aliev
Art Director: Mais Agabekov and Aziz Mamedov
Cast: El'mira Shabanova, Fuad Popadov, Fakhraddin Manafov, Timur Badalbeili, Tofik Mirzoev, Gadzhi Ismailo, Mekhriban Zeki
Producers: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Production: Azerbaijanfilm and IBRUS (Russian Federation)

Oleg Safaraliev: Goodbye, Southern City (Әlvida, cәnub şәhәri,, Azerbaijan and Russia, 2006)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07