Winter 1996 (4.4)
The Filmmaker's Lens
Focus on Azerbaijani Children in Transition
by Elena Dontsova
In art, there's a school of thought which suggests that one's initial assessment of a situation is actually the right one. "Go with your first impression," they say. I hadn't given much thought to this idea until lately. But maybe it's true.
I'm a filmmaker by profession. Lately, I've been on assignment creating some short documentaries that reflect the plight of our children during this bitter transition-children who are caught in life's circumstances that are bigger than they are-because of the war, because of displacement, because of dire poverty.
If you drive south out of Baku about half an hour's distance, you'll come across a unique landscape. On your left side is the beautiful sea with all its colorful shades and nuances, reflecting the intensity and direction of the wind and sun. But on the right-hand side of the road, the view is stripped of nearly all color as if it were an old, faded, black-and-white print. From a distance, it conjures up images of fluffy, white, Oriental pilaf heaped upon black trays. But don't give a second thought to tasting it. As you approach more closely, the mirage becomes focused and you detect a third color-that of rust which outlines the perimeter of the chemically polluted ponds of oil.
I was out there recently with my camera crew. Our eyes scanned the sun-scorched horizon for movement. But the only things alive were a few colorful spots. These were the people who, with their children, work these salty mines all day, bending over their shovels under the blazing sun.
When we tried to approach them, they started to scatter, suspicious of us. It was only when I picked up a shovel and began to dig in the salt like I had seen them do, that the invisible wall between us broke. Gradually, they all came and gathered around, showering us with questions. Who were we? What were we doing here? A rumor had been floating around that someone had bought this land and they would soon lose the trifling pittance that they were making off of it. A large sack of salt brings only 3,000 manats, barely the equivalent of 60 cents. Were we the ones who had bought the land?
Photo above: Mining salts from a polluted pond-no job for children.
A strange scraping sound came from behind me, and I looked around for something that could have made such a grating noise. It was a little girl's bare feet as she walked across the caustic salt, dragging her shovel behind her. Everything perishes here. The child leaned down to pick up a little, dead bird. "It must have drunk the water from the lake," she says. Everything dies here, and only the hot, sticky, oily winds blow over the land.
Below: But is this really a normal home situation? Pre-schoolers at one of Azerbaijan's refugee tent camps. Photo: Oleg Litvin
A couple of years ago when Westerners first started arriving in our country, I heard a young woman being asked if she thought she would return to her profession once everything got better. But she was pessimistic. "My life is too short," she replied. "Changes in psychology take much too long a time for me to benefit."
It's true: changes require generations. But nothing will change if we don't try to make things change. And the only way to make things happen more quickly is to shape the psychology of children while they are still young and impressionable and while they still consider everything around them to be normal.
Children absorb things like sponges-looking, listening, perceiving, understanding-both the quality and quantity that surrounds them. What an enormous responsibility to give them our best and teach them our best. Because later on, all their mistakes will reflect back upon us. Their mistakes will bear witness to our negligence and lack of concern.
Another countryside scene. The refugee camp in Sabirabad. It's nearly four years that this camp has existed. The camp spreads in front of your eyes, a sea of adobe-like dwellings. Some are covered with plastic tarps, others with straw. It reminds you of a child's game where they pretend to be adults and try to make their houses as real as possible from anything they can scrounge. But these make-shift shelters are real, and they offer scanty protection from the driving winds and rains of winter and the scorching sun of summer.
But here and there, you can already see tiny patches of green-little gardens. And children. There are children everywhere. Children whose eyes are searching for knowledge of this world. How is the world made? What are the important things to know in life? Is the real world like this poor landscape that surrounds us? Where is a window to look outside?
Another setting. This time in the industrialized urban city of Sumgayit. And one of the works of the famous Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini, comes to mind. He once created a story about the life of people in one city. But actually, there was only one real building there, and the others were only props or façades.
But here in our land, in real life, there is an old, abandoned chemical factory in which people have built one- and two-room compartments. They're mostly in shambles. For many years, people have lived there. They've fallen in love, married, given birth and tried to rear their children here.
Every morning a bus comes to pick them up and take them to the city for work and brings them back in the pitch darkness of night. A young girl with a hearty smile greets us. For people like her, this place is home. Her parents moved here when she was little. Then she met her future husband and even had her wedding ceremony here. Now they live here together with her cow, a sheep and a chicken in the tiny two rooms that they have managed to construct. In the wintertime, the animals are tied up in the back room, separated from their living quarters by a makeshift curtain. Both of her children were born here. They've never seen any other life.
What will happen to all these people and to their babies who will grow up associating home with this theater of the absurd? What conception of life will they have?
During the process of filmmaking, everything possible has gone wrong with our equipment. We've struggled with our camera, the lights, the microphone, the editing equipment. We even had to go out and rent a camera because our old one didn't work anymore. But the professional camera we managed to find was so old, it quit on us every 10 minutes. It seemed that each time we managed to get these frightened people to relax and trust us, the camera would stop.
All these problems nearly drove us crazy. But what are these problems compared to the reality of life for all these children, our future generation? Maybe, we can somehow manage to fix our cameras and our equipment. But can they so easily repair their lives? In the context of such serious problems, ours seem so small and inconsequential, like mere grains of salt in that vast, salty reservoir of oil.
If we aren't committed to getting our message out about them, will life ever change for these children and so many like them-the disabled, the displaced, the orphaned, the imprisoned-each growing up in a microcosm of abnormal normalities. It seems we have little choice but to persist if we really want to make their world of abnormalities something of the past.
Elena Dontsova, a professional filmmaker, is working as a consultant on several projects documenting the plight of children in Azerbaijan during this transitional period.
From Azerbaijan International (4.4) Winter 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.