Cinematography in Azerbaijan - 114 years on

By Araz Said, Azernews Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago the film community in Azerbaijan celebrated the 114th anniversary of Azerbaijani cinematography. August 2, 1898 is considered to be the date when the history of Azerbaijani cinema begins. Notably, the film industry in Azerbaijan was established almost at the same time as the invention of moviemaking. However, the 114-year path was not so smooth: numerous factors affected and changed its natural way of progress.

The lack of talent was never a problem in Azerbaijan, and the future of Azerbaijani cinema is quite promising.

Pre-Soviet era (1898-1920)

Shortly after the Lumiere brothers from France invented and patented Cinematographe, a new apparatus for making motion pictures, in 1895, French entrepreneur, photographer and cameraman Alexandre Michon, who had been actively involved in documenting oil fields in Baku since 1879, started filming motion pictures portraying the city. He shot his first film in 1898 and intended to exhibit the footages, which have been preserved to our days, later in Paris.

The film industry in Azerbaijan significantly developed after the Belgian Pirone brothers came to Baku and founded a joint-stock company, Filma, in 1915. It was also the Pirone brothers who established film distribution offices in Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi and invited Russian director and film producer Boris Svetlov, who directed and produced several films, some of which later became famous.

In 1915 with the financial support from oil barons of Baku, Svetlov directed the first full-length feature film in Azerbaijani cinema - ``In the realm of oil and millions``, which was remade by Fikrat Aliyev in 1980 into ``Abyss of gold``.

A year later Svetlov directed the first musical comedy - ``Arshin mal alan`` by Uzeir Hajibeyov. It was a silent movie and the musical parts were performed by indoor musicians and female roles were played by men. Years later, in 1945, the movie was also remade as a sound film with actual women playing the parts.

In general, pre-Soviet movies in Azerbaijan mostly focused on the lives of laborers, oil fields and revolution. On May 28, 1919 the Festivities on the first anniversary of short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic were filmed and premiered in June.

Soviet era (1920-1991)

After Azerbaijan was annexed by the USSR in 1920, the government of Azerbaijan SSR decided to nationalize the cinema. In 1922, the first cinema factory was established in Azerbaijan, which later in 1923 was renamed to ``Azerbaijan Photo-Film Department`` (APFD) by a special decree of the People`s Education Commissariat. The Department controlled all of the film distribution offices and cinemas (Edison, Teyyare, Million, etc.) owned by the private businessmen. That is when the era of private entrepreneurship in film industry ended and cinematography came to be used mostly for propaganda of Soviet ideology.

In 1924, the APFD shot the first Soviet movie - ``The Maiden Tower`` directed by Vladimir Ballyuzek. The screenplay was based on the legend of the Maiden Tower and the only female role was played by Sofia Jozeffi, a Belarusian actress. According to some sources, 1,500 people were involved in the production of the movie.

The first Azerbaijani sound film was directed by B.V.Barnet in 1935. The movie was called ``On the shores of a blue sea`` and was produced by the collaboration of film studios in Baku and Moscow. 25 years later Huseyn Seyidzade would direct the first wide-screen color film in the history of Azerbaijani cinema, ``Koroglu``, depicting the folk legend about an Azerbaijani hero fighting against the foreign invaders.

The APFD is the forerunner of the current state film production company Azerbaijanfilm. It went through seven name changes over the years before receiving its current name in 1960.

Severe censorship during the Soviet period made it hard to make movies on political or other serious issues. Most of the famous and beloved movies in Azerbaijani cinema are musical comedies. Remaking Svetlov`s ``Arshin mal alan`` in 1945 (also in 1965) popularized this genre and over the years movies like ``Rendezvous`` (1955), ``Bakhtiyar`` (1955), ``If not this, then that`` (1965), ``Where is Ahmad?`` (1964), ``Mother-in-law`` (1978), etc. were made.

Post-Soviet era (since 1991)

After gaining independence in 1991 Azerbaijani cinema entered a new stage. Although the political and economic situation in Azerbaijan was not stable at the time, the local film industry kept producing new movies.

Despite the fact that comedy genre was still popular in Azerbaijan (``Lucky ring`` (1991), ``Hungry dupes`` (1993), etc.), more serious issues were also addressed in the movies. Patriotic films like ``Scream`` (1993) and ``The guy on a white horse`` (1995) depicted the tragic events of the early 1990s.

Approximately 1,150 movies have been made in Azerbaijan since 1990. In the last 5-6 years new movie theatres opened and the old ones were renovated in Baku, which encouraged public interest in cinema.

Azerbaijani cinema has a very bright history featuring talented actors and film directors, and with the necessary attention and financing Azerbaijani film industry will make progress further.