Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1997 (5.3)
Page 57-64

Revolution and Cinema in Azerbaijan

It wasn't by mere chance that the first motion picture in 1898 in Baku began with an episode about the "Fire at the Oil Gusher in Bibi-Heybat." This suburb of Baku was full of oil fields, and there were frequent fires. It was inevitable that the paths of cinema and oil would intersect. First of all, by the turn of last century, oil had already become a symbol of Azerbaijan and Baku. Oil was our main source of wealth and our main cause of problems. It's always been that way-oil, both blessing and curse. The struggle to harness this energy gushing forth has become our destiny. Therefore, it's only natural that Azerbaijani cinema would start with an episode about an oil gusher.

Of course, blazing oil gushers make marvelous cinematographic material. No one can deny that. As a medium, only cinema can capture the thick oil stream bursting forth like a fiery monster. Only cinema can display such an awesome inferno in its terrifying beauty and majesty.

Cinema in AzerbaijanLeft: "Conquerors of the Sea" (Danizi Fath Edanlar) 1959. This documentary, directed by Roman Karmen, glorified the workers' courage to extract oil from the open sea.

Cinematographers became very passionate, and indeed, recklessly intrepid with everything related to oil. Some filmmakers came and stayed in Baku, others were here only temporarily but helped form the basis for Azerbaijani cinematography.

For example, in 1908, a Russian cameramen filmed the oil fields in the "White City" and "Black City," the popular names for two large districts in Baku at that time. Back in those days, "white" referred to the more residential section of the city and "black" to the industrial part surrounded by derricks and pools of oil. You could see oil everywhere, feel it, breathe it and even taste it. In 1916, Svetlov produced the first oil-related movie, "In the Realm of Oil and Millions," based on a screenplay written by Panov-Potyomkin and based on a novel by Ibrahim Musabeyov.

Cinema in AzerbaijanLeft: "Golden Precipice" (Gizyl Uchurum) 1980. Directed by Fikrat Aliyev. A casino scene focusing on the pre-Soviet period.

In 1917, French cinematographers came and filmed the oil fields and the everyday life of oil workers. Whenever news broke about an oil gusher, cameramen dropped everything and rushed to film it. Documentary footage exists today, showing gushers at Surakhani, Balakhani and Bibi-Heybat, all outside of Baku. It happened in the 1920s-30s and again in the 1950s and 60s. These episodes attracted large audiences in movie theaters.

The filming of these flaming oil gushers and the struggle to tame them became one of the most dramatic and exciting pages in our cinematic documentaries.

Soviet Period

During the Soviet period, the struggle for oil provided fuel for the vast communist propaganda machine. In fact the conquest of nature was one of the most wide-spread Soviet myths. They tried to depict such victories as evidence of the great success of socialist reconstruction of the world. All films about oil workers were characterized as "Soviet heroic labor." Needless to say, the passion of the 1970s waned when compared to the enthusiastic response of the 1930s.

Cinema in AzerbaijanLeft: "Favorite Songs" (Sevimli Mahnilar) 1955. A filming scene from a documentary by Latif Safarov. The plot is about a young man who has an exception voice and talent to sing. The famous singer, Rashid Behbudov, played the main role.

The most consistent expression of this myth was in the film, "Symphony of Oil" (Pumpyanski, 1933). The scenes alternate between gushing oil and struggling oil workers. The more forceful the oil gusher became; the more dramatic the music. The physical labor of the workers was synchronized to the rhythm of the music. Finally, the gusher was conquered and the oil saved, and the workers began dancing ecstatically. The film was not very long. To tell the truth, it was more like a march or pathetic ode, rather than the symphony it was intended to be.

The film, "It Happened on the Peschany" (T. Akhundov, 1962), concerns a fire on an island that started on November 29, 1961. The blaze raged for three weeks and was finally extinguished only after a huge demolition charge was exploded inside it. Actually, the film could be called a documentary chronicle since the cameramen worked so close to the flames and captured every nuance of the struggle.

The legend surrounding Oil Rocks motivated the famous documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen to tackle two films-"A Novel about Caspian Oil Workers" and "Conquerors of the Sea."

Cinema in AzerbaijanLeft: Filming "26 Commissars" (26 Baki Komissari), 1932 version, directed by Nikolai Shingelaya (left).

"Conquerors" focused on the story of offshore oil extraction. The main plot of the film is the struggle with a fire which had threatened the life of the city which had been built up over the sea on trestles. The filmmakers tried to reduce the overly emotional tone which was typical of so many of these movies. They sought to participate in the problems and difficulties of oil workers by examining reasons why these people were happy, why they were smiling, what brought them pain and disappointment and what caused them to live so close to the edge of danger. The actual death of one of the heroes of the film-a famous oil-worker-during the process of filmmaking, established a tone of restraint throughout the film. But still, the Soviet myth about oil heroism is evident.

The films, "The Island of Wonders" (H. Seyidbeyli, 1965) and A. Babayev's two films, "Man Casts an Anchor" (1968) and "The First Day of Life" (1975), were also based on this same ideology, depicting the heroism of oil workers, who never became exhausted and who continued working in oil, generation after generation. It was the oil workers who were always invincible, unconquerable and unyielding, in contrast with other characters who were shown as weak and who preferred to earn a living via easier means.

"Golden Precipice" (F. Aliyev, 1980) was produced as a melodrama and has its hero enticed into the realm of big money, only to be battered into becoming a mere toy in the hands of fate. One sympathizes with the hero, overpowered by this world of "big oil."

The approach to dealing with oil in Azerbaijani cinema was very narrow. In reality, the truth lay somewhere in between the melodramas and the stories which praised the "oil heroes." Neither of these two genres broached the subject of pollution or poverty. Neither showed the districts in Baku where these oil workers lived nor its destitution. All such aspects were hidden.

Revolution: The Great Illusion
There used to be a period when the word "revolution" was talked about with great relish and enthusiasm. But now as we approach the end of the 20th century, the mere mention of the word brings menacing and threatening thoughts to mind. These days the word implies destruction and terror. But what happened in 1920 in Azerbaijan when the Bolsheviks descended on Baku? Whom did the Red Army come to rescue if there was already a legal government in place. Historians can mull over the details. Let me describe these aspects as they were presented on the screen.

The Azerbaijani movies of the 1920s and 30s resembled a puppet theater. Everything was predictable. Almost always the story line included a greedy "bey" or landowner, a cynical molla (religious cleric) and a severe tsarist officer. Always playing opposite these scoundrels was a peasant, who was naive and ignorant at the beginning of the film, but gradually "regained his sight" towards the end. Usually, too, there was a character depicted as a worker full of self-confidence and always ready to "engage in struggle." Note that the worker was usually a Russian proletariat for whom solidarity was the primary goal.

Identical Plots
The plots in these films were almost identical-khans, beys, mollas-always cheating people and taking advantage of their ignorance. Then the Bolsheviks arrive on the scene to redefine for the populace who their friends and enemies really were. The Revolution ended up being the savior for all those who were oppressed-at least, that's the way the movies depict it.

The film, "In the Name of God" (Bismillah) (A. Sharifzade, 1925) is a prime example. A greedy, conniving molla is always finding ways to cheat one of the peasants, who is so used to submission that he never imagines he can protest or resist. Only under the influence of the Revolution and Bolsheviks does the peasant realize how long he has been cheated. In the end, the people's court arrests the molla and justice wins out.

In the film "Peasants" (S. Mardanov, 1939), the landowner deprives the peasant of his last horse, leaving him with no means to plough his land and dooming him to starvation. Again, the workers (Russian proletariats) explain that he could reclaim his property and that the other workers will help him. The revolutionary movement overthrows "the bloody Musavat" (referring to the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic as it was called at that time) which was protecting beys and khans. The peasant then becomes a propagator of the new socialistic life.

We could go on and on listing movies with this identical plot. But let's not forget that above all, cinema is an illusion. Otherwise, we wouldn't become paralyzed with horror when we saw westerns or horror films, nor would we weep during melodramas or burst into laughter at comedies. In the history of that period, no doubt there was a lot of cruelty, but there were also grand illusions and naive beliefs which we must take into consideration.

"Bismillah" and "Peasants" are expressions of this illusion-that good and evil are polarized concepts and that the oppressed can be made happy. Today, we watch these films as chronicles of the traditions of the great Russian cinematographers such as S. Eisenstein and V. Pudovkin who tried to make their films chronicle events.

In the films made in the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet ideology didn't change much although the ideas were presented more artistically. Both the idealized picture of the establishment of justice in the world, the romanticizing of a fearless hero and the atmosphere of the tenseness was considered as a unique artistic game.

The film, "Seven Sons of Mine" (Tofig Taghizade, 1971), was based on Samad Vurgun's "Komsomol Poem." Seven sons, like seven samurais become the seven komsomols (communist leaders) who were sent to a village to establish Soviet power. Seven sons become the romanticized images of people's heroes ready to take revenge. In all their actions, they followed their own moral code which defined their behavior and manners. Eventually, they were unconquerable. They all had different personalities, but they were always together, united around a great idea.

"Seven Sons" is a folklore image embodying unity and eternity. From this point of view, there will always be seven. There were seven who entered the village, and there were seven who left despite the fact that six brothers actually died in the film, and the leader was obliged to gather six more followers around himself.

The film, "The Last Mountain Pass" (K. Rustambeyov, 1972), develops around a slightly different theme. Here two former "beys" (land owners) are opposing each other. One is loyal to the ideology of the past and can't reconcile himself to the new power, the second rejects the past and accepts the power of the Bolsheviks, believing that it will establish justice.

Another film is about the "26 Baku Commissars." In fact, two films were made about the Commissars. The first was directed by N. Shengelaya; the second was by A. Ibrahimov (1966). Both are interesting, not because they enable us to judge about the real lives of the Commissars, but because they develop the legends that had grown up around the Commissars.

In Shengelaya's film, the Democratic Government ("the bloody Musavat") signs an agreement with the Americans. But the British manage to sabotage this agreement and pursue their own interests. They close the pipeline causing the oil to flow out of the reservoirs into the sea. In the film, we see how oil gradually covers the whole screen. This was intended as a metaphor to emphasize how badly imperialists handle oil energy.

In both films, the leader of the Commissars Shaumyan says almost the same thing, "The Baku workers made a fatal mistake breaking off from revolutionary Russia and inviting the English. England has conquered half of the world and needs Baku's oil for its own interest." Hearing these words, the Baku proletariat begins supporting the Bolsheviks.

The Future
But let's think about the future. Finally, after 70 years of oppression, Azerbaijan has gained its independence once again. As in the past, Big Oil is influencing Big Politics (Policy) and the historical destiny of Azerbaijan. Again, our destiny depends on how well we handle the energy-the oil gushers, that is, whether we gain strength or succumb to weakness. We hope this time that Big Oil will not be the conduit of revolution.

Just recently, Baku Film Studio made a documentary entitled "The Contract of the Century"-the phrase that Azerbaijanis use to refer to the contract signed in 1994 with 11 oil companies from 7 countries for the gigantic fields of Azeri, Chirag and the deep-water section of Gunashli. Of course, the cinema couldn't ignore such an event. Maybe this contract will enable us to make a big film about the big Baku oil in the future. Such a film, no doubt, will be dramatic, it may even have a tragic ending, but let's hope, at least, it will be free from ideological stereotypes.

From Azerbaijan International (5.3) Autumn 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.

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