Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

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.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic 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.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
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.

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Trys dienos (Three Days, 1991)

A filmmaker whose first films were made in the final dying days of the Soviet Union (I have a bonus review of one of them below), but who has since come to some prominence on the art film scene has been Šarūnas Bartas (often transcribed as Sharunas Bartas). I’ve so far only seen this, his debut feature film, but it has a beautiful slow cinema quality that definitely commends his work to me, and as a bonus comes in at a sprightly 75 minutes.


Strong echoes of Tarkovsky in this debut feature. It moves slowly, deliberately, without excessive talking. There are characters (two young men, and a young woman, primarily), who meet, then seem to be looking for a room, but for what reason (sex? shelter? some flicker of human connection?) is unclear. What is evident is that their town is bleak, apparently without comfort, filled with crumbling edifices, and that their lives have little future to commend them. Bartas, like Tarkovsky and Tarr, is great at capturing that feeling in landscapes, against which the characters seem suitably bowed. Fantastic stuff but I love this kind of thing.

Three Days French film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Starring Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Rimma Latypova Римма Латыпова, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Audrius Stonys; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.


Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory of the Day Passed By, 1990) [USSR, medium-length, black-and-white]

A beautiful quiet mid-length film which has a documentary way about capturing an unnamed city and its characters, its bleakness and its persistence, and the changing seasons.

In Memory of the Day Passed By film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.

Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

ჟუჟუნას მზითევი Jujunas mzitevi (Jujuna’s Dowry, 1934)

As my Soviet and former-Soviet republics themed week goes on, I find myself returning to the season of 1934 films which screened at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato archive film festival. It presented so many delightful and obscure gems from that country, and this particular one was from Georgia.


A late silent film from a Georgian director which should probably have more love than it currently does, as it is certainly strikingly photographed and expressively acted. Sadly the director died before it was even released, so perhaps if he’d had a chance to make more films, things might have been different. The film itself concerns a young man called Varden (Giorgi Gabelashvili) who is looking to be matched with a woman. One candidate is less than attractive but comes with a dowry of shiny material things, presented without words in a striking montage. However, marriage with her is not in his future, and he falls into horse thieving (for reasons that elude me due to the very warm weather and my very large lunch meaning I dozed off for a little while); he falls for another woman whose dowry is, rather, the land and its bounty as provided by collective farming, and this perhaps is where the Soviet mission comes in somewhat. It can sometimes be difficult to tell apart its young men with their moustaches and traditional clothing, so I didn’t always follow the story, but it’s made with skill and deserves a wider audience.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Siko Palavandishvili სიკო ფალავანდიშვილი; Cinematographer Vladimir Poznan; Starring Giorgi Gabelashvili, Aleksandra Toidze; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 30 June 2018.

Черёмушки Cheryomushki (Cherry Town, 1962)

Another Soviet film from Russia in my theme week, this time a jolly musical about a housing project in Moscow. It screened within the aegis of the BFI’s big musical retrospective, as part of a smaller series of Russian musical films.


There’s a glorious new building going up, and a group of young people (and a few older ones) want to get in on a new apartment. That’s basically the plot of this jaunty and colourful Soviet musical, which because this is near the beginning of the craze for prefabricated high-density housing — and because there was indeed a drastic shortage of it — is actually pretty keen on the idea of social housing. Still, it pokes deserved fun at the party apparatchiks leveraging their influence to get a new pad, the guy literally knocking through a wall at one point into someone’s else flat in order to enlarge his own domain. It’s the young people who are the film’s focus though, as several couples start to form amongst them, in this new town being built from the ground up by good workers — like Lyusya, a crane operator worthy of getting her portrait hung up in a civic space, and Lida (Olga Zabotkina), an architect who tries her best to rebuff the irrepressible advances of Boris (Vladimir Vasilyev). There’s some nice camera setups and rather liberal use of back projection, but it does give it a daffy, fun quality. You can almost see the steps that get from this kind of thing to, say, Cloud-Paradise (1990) a few decades later, where the housing is rather shabby and the bickering far more caustic. Right now, it’s about the optimism.

Cherry Town film posterCREDITS
Director Herbert Rappaport [as “Gerbert Rappaport”] Герберт Раппапорт; Writers Mikhail Chervinsky Михаил Червинский, Isaac Glikman Исаак Гликман, Vladimir Mass Владимир Масс; Cinematographer Anatoli Nazarov Анатолий Назаров; Starring Olga Zabotkina Ольга Заботкина, Vladimir Vasilyev Владимир Васильев; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 8 January 2020.

Наследный принц Республики Naslednyy prints respubliki (Crown Prince of the Republic, 1934)

I’m still on holiday this week, but Friday in the UK sees the release of one of my favourite films of last year, the Georgian dance-based drama And Then We Danced, which I exhort everyone to go see. Therefore this week, I’m doing a week devoted to the Soviet Union and its former republics, starting with the silent era.


Of all the films I saw at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in 2018, I had perhaps the fewest expectations about this one, and it ended up being thoroughly delightful. It’s a very late silent film made in the USSR about a wayward father (Pyotr Kirillov) who shirks responsibility for raising his son — in a particularly excellent scene, he avers strongly that he’ll leave if his partner (Yevgeniya Pyryalova) goes through with having a baby, grabbing an empty suitcase for show and leaving loudly (“I WILL LEAVE”, “I AM LEAVING!”, “I have left…”) while she looks on impassively and with very little interest in him sticking around. And that’s reasonable, for he is no good, and ends up in a bachelor apartment with a bunch of architects designing the glorious Soviet communal future. Moving forward in time, when (for reasons too silly to elaborate) his baby is separated from its mother and brought to the bachelor pad, they all take turns raising it while searching for its mother. It has a snappy sense of style, some beautiful photography, and a lithe central performance in the character of Andrey (Apsolon), who is first seen along the wharves of Leningrad, like a young Gene Kelly about to launch into a tap routine (though sadly there’s no dancing). It largely maintains its comic pace, and even if one hopes perhaps for an ending wherein the woman raises her kid with the four bachelors (minus the deadbeat dad), at the very least it has a happy outcome.

Crown Prince of the Republic film posterCREDITS
Director Eduard Ioganson Эдуард Иогансон; Writers Boris Chirskov Борис Чирсков, Ioganson, Rafail Muzykant Рафаил Музыкант; Cinematographer Georgi Filatov Георгий Филатов; Starring Pyotr Kirillov Пётр Кириллов, Yevgeniya Pyryalova Евгения Пырялова, Andrei Apsolon Андрей Апсолон; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1955)

Unlike some of my other choices during this themed week of war films, this one very much is in the classic war genre, as a group of soldiers band together to fight the enemy, in what has become a patriotic epic for Finland, remade many times over the years.


I gather this occupies quite a prominent place in the Finnish film pantheon, and I suppose that must largely be for the way it ties in a country’s idea of itself into a group of characters at a key and difficult moment in their history, via a novel and many subsequent adaptations. It tells the story of a group of soldiers in a machine gun unit during World War II, when Finland was allied with Germany against its old foe of Russia, and the key to pulling that off I suppose is to focus tightly on these men, with all their various issues with their commanding officers as well as, eventually, the whole idea of the fight itself. (Not because they don’t hate the Russians, but just because it all seems so futile.) The core of the film is in these interactions, whether in training camps at the start, trudging across the country to the front lines, and then in the trenches, and you get a sense of the different guys, even if at times the film is somewhat reliant on familiar tropes: the cynical one, the grumpy one, the anti-authoritarian and yet supremely talented one (who may be a hero but is also a bit of a d!ck). The chief feeling in these scenes is a gentle sort of comedy, even a hint of satire — it never feels fully mocking of the war itself, but there’s something reminiscent of a lot of wartime-set television sitcoms to these interactions, a gentle sort of self-deprecating humour. And then, periodically, one or more of the characters faces something really nasty that jars you out of that feeling, as these almost interminable battle scenes stretch out, replete with falling bombs, trees blowing up, bullets flying and people getting crushed, maimed or shot. Some of the humour has dated somewhat, and it does run rather long, but it feels like it defines the spirit of a certain era of a country, and for someone like me who has no connection to Finland, I can almost see the appeal.

The Unknown Soldier film posterCREDITS
Director Edvin Laine; Writer Juha Nevalainen (based on the novel by Väinö Linna); Cinematographers Osmo Harkimo, Antero Ruuhonen, Olavi Tuomi and Pentti Unho; Starring Kosti Klemelä, Heikki Savolainen, Reino Tolvanen; Length 169 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Tuesday 29 January 2019.

Карнавальная Ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956)

Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.


A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.

Carnival Night film posterCREDITS
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.