September 1993 (1.3)

Rasim Ojagov
Film Director

Rasim Ojagov is one of Azerbaijan's foremost con-temporary flm directors. He was one of the most productive directors in the former Soviet Union and has directed many of the screenplays of Rustam Ibrahimbekov, a well-known Azerbaijani flmwriter. In this interview, Mr. Ojagov describes how he got involved with flm, what the conditions were like working in the Soviet system and what the situation is like today for Azerbaijani cinema .

Mr. Ojagov has recently produced a flm called "Tahmina" with Ojag Studio, his own independent studio" in Baku. In the near future, Ojagov and Ibrahimbekov plan to work together on a flm about Azerbaijanis when they immigrate abroad to Turkey, Europe and the U.S.,a modern tragic-comedy.

Rasim Mualim, frst of all, how did you come to be a film director?
I was born in Shaki. I'm a "Shakian". Although Shaki is a small city, it's beautiful. It's truly an Azerbaijani city. Shakians usually exaggerate the beauty of their city, but Shaki is, indeed, a pretty town. In my school days in Shaki, I wanted to become a geologist. In those days, oil was the main issue in Azerbaijan. In all the papers, the cinemas, everywhere, it was petroleum...petroleum. Oil workers were like heroes. But then when I was in the 8th grade, a flm crew came to Shaki and I was mesmerized. I fell in love with flm-making, bought a camera, and from then on cinema became my only hobby.

When I graduated from high school in 1951, I went to the Film Institute in Moscow. Back home, they weren't very happy about it. "ACTING! That's not for you! You should have gone to the Petroleum Institute." But I had already made up my mind.

After graduating, I came back to Baku. Generally, when a young man frst graduates, he thinks he's going to change the world, and since I was from Shaki, I had an ego twice that size. I really used to think I was going to revolutionize Azerbaijani cinema.

But after working as a cameraman for a long time, I wanted more and more to become a director. I could not get on very well with the director. We always quarreled. He would said, "Hey, I'm the director and I want to flm it this way. You have to do it the way I want it."

This was not satisfying to me. That was why I went back to study flm directing in the Faculty of the Kino Theater (Cinema Theater) in Baku. In 1965 I graduated but at that time there were few flms being produced because of the immense costs involved - 400,000 to 500,000 rubles.

Then an opportunity came. Sayedzade was making a flm in Azerbaijan - "Qatir Mammad." For some reason he was not able to fnish it. But as the government had already spent a lot of money, they couldn't just leave it unfnished. They called me and said that there was only 100,000 rubles left and that it had to be fnished in two months. I had no option but to agree.

Anyway, I fnished the job within budget in a month and a half. The audience welcomed it. Moscow liked it and from then on, they gave me flms. Since then I've been working as a director in Azerbaijan flm studios and have made 10 major flms and four or fve short ones.

You know...Soviet cinema was a massive industry. There were 15 republics and each had its own cinema. Apart from that, Russia itself had many flm studios. Azerbaijani cinema was only a small part of the whole thing. Of course, Azerbaijani cinema never reached the level of Georgian cinema. Whenever anyone talks about Soviet cinema, they usually think of Georgian and Russian flms, not Azerbaijan flms.

How would you compare Azerbaijani films with other former Soviet films?
You know...Soviet cinema was a massive industry. There were 15 republics and each had its own cinema. Apart from that, Russia itself had many flm studios. Azerbaijani cinema was only a small part of the whole thing. Of course, Azerbaijani cinema never reached the level of Georgian cinema. Whenever anyone talks about Soviet cinema, they usually think of Georgian and Russian flms, not Azerbaijan flms.

I cannot say that Azerbaijani cinema was so highly developed in those days but when compared to other flm studios, it was by no means lagging behind.

Let me give you an example, Moscow - Most Studios - made 70 flms a year. In Azerbaijan, we made only four. So in one year, Moscow produced what Azerbaijan did in ten years. However, if we take the good flms out of those 60-70 flms, then and only then can you have realistic comparison.

Haji Ismayilov in Ojagov's "Alien Life"- 1987

Our films are not well-known abroad because it was up to Moscow to send them abroad and Moscow didn't know our cinema very well. Maybe we, ourselves, didn't publicize them well enough.

Why have so few classical works - other than "Mashadi Ibad" and "Arshin Malalan" been produced in Azerbaijan?
That's not exactly true. First of all, the frst "Arshir Malalan" was produced in 1945 right after the war. People had new hopes. From 1945 to 1955, only two or three flms were produced in Azerbaijan, but then again in the same period, only 10-15 were produced in the entire Soviet Union with a population of 200 million. This was because most of the people who had been involved in flm had left for the war.

But during the second half of the 50s, Azerbaijani flm slowly came to itself. Young people returned from the war and entered the Institute so that in 60s we witnessed a flm revival. You must not be familiar with the flms of the 60s; we had some really fne works then.

Alexander Kalagin and Irina Kupchenko in Ojagov's "Alien Life" - 1987

Which flms of the 60s do you consider the best?
For example, "Two Boys from the same Neighborhood", "On the Far Shores", "In a Southern Town", "A Telephone Operator Girls" and many others. In one word, the 1960s were the golden years of Azerbaijani cinema.

Many young energetic people were involved - screen writers like the Ibrahimbekov brothers, Anar, Yusif Samadoghlu; and directors like Eldar Quliyev, Arif Babayev and Hasan Sayidbeyli - all very progressive. Prior to that Tofq Tahizadeh, Azhdar Ibrahim-bekov and Seyedzadeh - they were all heavy weights in Azerbaijani cinema. We were all so hopeful about the future of Azerbaijani cinema back then.

To me, your own flms all seem to be quite critical of the Soviet bureaucracy. How diffcult was it to get those kinds of flms released?
It wasn't easy. I have always been interested in problematic themes - the analysis of people's psychology in their environment. Rustam Ibrahimbekov's screen writing is the same - you know, we worked together for such a long time.

Starting with "Interrogation", I have tried to show the system's corruption, prejudice and the hardships of life under it. This was all done, of course, within the limited possibilities. The government fnanced the flms but then said, "Make your flm but don't touch me." So we couldn't say a thing. Everything had to be pictured nicely; our policy, our communist party, our offcials. In other words, nothing negative. And that simply meant that making a realistic flm was very diffcult.

My flms faced a lot of diffculty in getting through Moscow. They only accepted them for one reason. They said, "Well he's just talking about Azerbaijan...let him be as long as he doesn't bother us." But one could not criticize Moscow's affairs - that would have meant the end of the project. I can say that I have always tried to tell the truth within the limits of the Soviet screen and this, of course, created diffculties. Now of, course, there are no political restrictions. But there's no money either.

What is the situation right now in Azerbaijani cinema?
Azerbaijani's flm industry is in a pathetic situation. It's so sad. You see, in the past, the government used to fnance us. We made flms and the government distributed them. Now the government has forgotten us. They say, "Now we have a market economy. Go and fnd sponsors for yourself. Make your own movie. Sell it yourself. Make the proft for yourself."

But this can only happen in big countries (I'm not referring to US cinema which has captured the world market) - but countries like France and Russia which have huge markets within their own borders. But in Azerbaijan, with a population of only 7 million, given the current cost of flm-making, it is impossible for us to make a proft. Therefore, if the government doesn't realize the importance of cinema, it will diminish. Of course, now we're at war; the government is busy with more serious matters and nothing else seems to be important for people. Nevertheless, cinema should not be forgotten as movie culture is one of the major aspects of contemporary culture.

It's been two years since a flm has been made in Azerbaijan. The government doesn't sponsor flm and, therefore, it's impossible to fnd private investors. Businessmen realize that they will not get a return; in fact, they won't even recover their costs so they don't come near flm.

So what is the future of flm-making in Azerbaijan? We have more than 1,000 flm specialists in our flm industry. It took time to train them and now they are all leaving. If our government doesn't start supporting us today, after 5 or 10 years, it's going to be too late. We'll have to re-build all these establishments from scratch. We have described our situation to the government and they have given some promises. We'll see.

Rasim Ojagov was interviewed in Azeri in Baku
by Pirouz Khanlou in February 1993.
The English translation is by Abulfazl Bahadori.

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