Issue 72 (2021)

Elvin Adigozel: Bilesuvar (Azerbaijan/France, 2020)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2021

Provincial Life

bilesuvarBilesuvar is a regional center in the southeast of Azerbaijan towards the Iranian border. The director Elvin Adigozel has taken the place name for his almanac film, consisting of five autonomous stories, whose action happens in the above-mentioned town and in neighboring settlements. Some plots are barely sketched, others are worked out more thoroughly. The provincial chic joins local poverty in the shots: the people are very poor.

Bilesuvar is a worthy little film: an album of sketches, of draft portraits of the inhabitants of the Azerbaijani province embedded in a natural setting. A work without overwhelming directorial ambitions, without didacticism and prophesizing, without claims to relay soul-lifting truths or current doctrines. The result is quite proportional to the initial plan.

The work with the image has a reporting style. The cameraman Oktay Namazov makes do without additional sources of lighting, without whimsical optical games. The dialogues are scarce: with a limited length of each film, idle talk is inappropriate. Laconic phrases transmit a measured meaning, short addressed messages create distinct characteristics of characters and situations. The narration is built on the basic incompleteness of the plots (draft character, unfinished sentences, sketchy finale), on an almost inaudible flow of moods. There is no distance between irony and grief. Among the main figures in the film are plain, common characters: only not too happy women and confused men. Remarkably, actor function as models and give the fictional characters not only their organic history, type, and character, but also their names. Each of the short stories is preceded by a title—a scrap of a remark by one of protagonists.

The character of the introductory story is a rural man called Niyameddin, who expects the army draft. The young man kills time as best as he can, waiting for changes in his life. He drinks vodka with his peers from the district center, plays cards in the company of his village friends. He quarrels over the phone with a girl he met. The name of this story, “Don’t look for me,” is one of angry remarks of the recruit addressed at his unreliable girlfriend.

bilesuvarThe first segment of the film is least detailed, but already here appear the key motifs. The theme of missed opportunities and unrealized hopes emerges gradually. The villagers envy the recruit: he has a slight chance to remake his destiny—to escape forever from the rural backwater, to become an officer instead of a shepherd. The ironic reference to patriotic mythology is noticeable, the symbolism of the soil: the soles of the heroes’ boots stick in the mud of the rural roads punched by tractors (this is accentuated by the sound).

The director checks out the adequacy of stereotypic ideas of masculinity and investigates the functional role of man in today’s Azerbaijani society. The young hero is not yet ready for responsible relationships with the other sex. Behind a bravado, the young man hides his confusion: Niyameddin tries to correspond to patriarchal (teenage) behavioral norms, common for the fellow villagers: men have to be severe. If you give in to feelings, it means you show a weak point.

The second story, “Come where I live,” is a story about a village teacher. Tofig is over fifty. He is turning grey and has gained weight; he teaches math and is married to a teacher of Azerbaijani language. Onlookers are struck by the sheer poverty of the rural elementary school, where both of them work. The lopsided building has earthen floors and a single classroom, poor facilities for recreation (lines and childish games). Indoors the children don’t take off their coats as there is no central heating. Lessons for different classes are conducted in parallel, teachers alternately approach the blackboard: letters are replaced by figures.

The action of this story happens takes place on New Year’s Eve, which allows a temporal link to the other stories. The dried-up grass, the muddy roads, the leaden sky seem to us northerners like signs of late fall, but for southern Azerbaijan they are a sign of winter. The teacher prepares for New Year’s holidays. In the district center he buys garlands for the decoration of the school walls (possibly from his own money). He inflates the balloons. In the deserted foyer he sets up a makeshift fir tree: branches cut off in the nearby grove, on which he hangs Christmas decorations.

bilesuvarTofig’s prosperity is non-existent, he is ashamed of his poor salary. But he loves his job. His youth friend, who has come to success in Russia, offers him significant help: but he has to leave his job as teacher and come to foreign lands—come where I live. An awkward pause hangs in the air… The modest rural teacher doesn’t pass the public test for compliance to standards of success. To live “like a man” means to have good money. Prosperity in the Azerbaijani backwaters is perceived as a marker of solidity, a significant attribute of masculinity.

In the third story, “You mean nothing to me,” the director in his own way interprets a loose plot about the rivalry of two men belonging to different generations, about their fight for a favor of the same attractive person. The characters of this love story are people of the theater, members of a provincial troupe that is based in the regional Cultural Center of Bilesuvar District. In view of the camera is Ilgar, a theater director about to retire; the forty-year-old lead actor Cahangir; and the object of desire of both: Gunel, a lonely woman of about 30 years (unmarried, or maybe divorced).

bilesuvarTo discuss their creative plans, the three meet in an inexpensive restaurant. The walls of the private cabins (booths set up in open air) are woven from vine, the tops covered with polyethylene intended for greenhouses. Pretentiousness sits side by side with poverty. This recognizable interior appears in Bilesuvar not for the first time: the characters of the previous stories drank vodka in this cafe.[1]

The feast begins with respectful glorifications: the actor thanks the director for the new role. The tone of the conversation changes when Ilgar reports that he decided to postpone the planned production. He intends to stage a performance for two: about a man and a woman. In the confessional roles he sees himself and Gunel. For Cahangir there is no place in his next project.

The older of the two men must briefly leave the location, the actor and the actress remain alone. The behavior of the pair becomes more and more expressive. With the ardency of a scenic hero-lover, the married man pronounces sublime speeches (borrowed probably from old, romantic plays). The interlocutrice is confused, but doesn’t take away her hand from the strong hand of the gallant lady’s man. When Ilgar comes back with a new bottle of vodka, the rather drunk Cahangir starts a quarrel with him (You mean nothing to me). The feast ends: the younger rival has got the best of the older man, and takes away with him the object of his passion.

The older man comes back to the empty apartment, not a living soul is waiting for him. The vaudeville plot turns suddenly into a sad drama: a story about an agism and loneliness. Neither experience nor status, nor the weight of former merits guarantee the older man a victory in the tournament of ambitions.[2] In this game, the woman acts as object of male desire, but the choice of partner is hers.

bilesuvarThe last two stories are connected through a common protagonist. The cameraman Kamran comes to Bilesuvar from Baku to shoot a music video for the wedding singer Gunel (the namesake of the heroine from the previous story). The “provincial diva” is a remarkable person: the unmarried woman of about 30 years is under the tutelage of her authoritative brother, who carries out the function of manager, accompanying her to wedding celebrations. There, the locally venerated star entertains the guests, singing songs of well-received content. For a person from another culture, it is hard to appreciate the level of talent and skill of the little-known singer from the Azerbaijani provinces. One should trust the opinion of the locals. The local people like everything about Gunel: her voice, the convivial make-up, her magnificent forms, her weight and body (signs of fertility). A reporting fragment is indicative: the singer leads a vigorous melody and engages young and old alike in the dance: men and boys, simple girls and grandmothers in traditional headscarves. She is at home in the country, she hopes that the professionally made clip will glorify her beyond Bilesuvar (and there will be a chance to escape from family guardianship).

In the story “Don’t worry, Ms Gunel” there is noticeable irony. During the shooting of the music video the digital camera fails. Kamran is ready to go to the capital for new equipment. But the singer’s brother refuses the services of the unlucky film-man, the customer doesn’t have to pay for unfinished work. The disappointed singer watches the conversation of the men without meddling: decisions in an Azerbaijani village are made not by women, but by husbands or brothers.

In translation from Persian Kamran means mighty or happy. A paradox: the hero with a happy name is the universal type of the intelligent loser. The man is forty plus, his pockets empty, and life clearly hasn’t worked out. The freelancer takes up any available order, even shooting in an unknown and remote place, if only to stay afloat. On arrival in Bilesuvar, Kamran takes an earring from his ear so as not to tempt the local Dzhigits (they could incorrectly interpret it as an un-male attribute). The fop from the capital tries to keep the appearance of stylishness: the fashionable cap is functional as it hides a bald spot, the leather jacket is solid and quite worn.

bilesuvarWithout having received the expected payment, Kamran is in trouble. He is alone in an unknown town: without money, without a roof over the head, away from his usual environment and from those who could come to his rescue. He calls a friend from Baku who had arranged the ill-fated order; the latter sends the friend to a distant relative, having promised that the Bilesuvar people will help the guest and lend him money. Kamran should go to a remote place (which can be reached only by tractor) to find in a certain Mammed in the unpopulated region, the foreman of a fish farm.

The existential story gradually gains phantasmagoric features. The foreman does not understand immediately who has sent him the applicant (he hasn’t spoken with his Baku relative for a long time). Yet he agrees to give the guest a certain sum of money, but he must wait a bit. Mammed goes hunting and doesn’t come back until midnight. The stranger continually grabs the phone: the subscriber is not available. “He sometimes disappears,” says one of the workers (this remark became the title for the final story). Worried, Kamran can’t sleep, he is exhausted from bad presentiments. Bilesuvar doesn’t let the man from Baku go. The area turns into a trap and a mystical space. Will the stranger manage to leave the ill-fated area or he is doomed to disappear in this rural nowhere, having got stuck in Bilesuvar’s “soil”? The story comes to the end with suspension points…

Elvin Adigozel is an independent auteur.[3] Azerbaijan’s government institutions have no part in the financing of his works. Although in Bilesuvar the director avoids any confrontation with official ideology, he doesn’t want to hide his rejection of officialese. At the most inappropriate moment, quotes from speeches of the late leader Heydar Aliyev appear in the frame. Sacred inscriptions are decoration of the park architecture, they mark public spaces: halls of educational institutions and culture centers. Ubiquitous banners have the effect of estrangement: the grandiloquent style of the testament of the father of the nation contrasts with the homespun truth of local use.

The visual naturalism of Bilesuvar is the result of the director’s trust in visible manifestations of the physical reality unembellished by studio filters. Still, in the images of provincial routine Adigozel manages to distinguish non-evident qualities, the silent “poetry of mediocrity.” The understated lyrics in this film appease the energy of denial.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


Notes

1] An exact detail: men from Muslim regions of the former USSR prefer vodka to other alcoholic beverages. Wine is taboo by the Qur'an, vodka is not mentioned in the holy scriptures (invented after the death of prophet Muhammad). What is not forbidden is then allowed!

2] From a feminist point of view, this plot can be interpreted as a story about corruption and harassment. In the “patriarchal context,” it is perceived differently: as a conflict between a man of best years and a mother male who, due to age transformations, loses his leadership position.

3] Bilesuvar is the third full-length film of the Azerbaijani director. He made his debut Chameleon (2013) together with Rufat Khasanov (in the credits as Ru Hasanov). The first independent work was Reporting from Darkness (2018). Adigozel’s films are low-budget projects that the author prefers to shoot in real locations in southern Azerbaijan. His simple stories about the fate of ordinary provincial people carry a tangible socio-critical connotation.

Sergei Anashkin
Russia

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Bilesuvar, Azerbaijan/France, 2020
Color, 86 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Elvin Adigozel
Editing: Elvin Adigozel
DoP: Oktay Namazov
Music: Farid Aqa
Cast: Kamran Agabalayev, Gunel Zulfugarli, Tofig Aslanov, Ilgar Dadash, Niyameddin Amanov, Cahangir Melik, Gunel Mirzeli
Producer: Irada Baghirzade, Etienne De Ricaud, Intigam Hajili
Production company: Adari Films, Caracteres Productions, Memuar Films

Elvin Adigozel: Bilesuvar (Azerbaijan/France, 2020)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2021

Updated: 2021