As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.
Republic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az
A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.
The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.
У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)
The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.