Summer 1995 (3.2)
The Scorching Sun
and the Nature of Totalitarian Systems
Film Wins 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Film
Interview with Screenwriter, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov
by Betty Blair
Editor's Note: This year's Oscar for "Best Foreign Language Film" went to "Burnt by the Sun" produced in Russia and directed by the well-known Russian director, Nikita Mikhalkov. However, one of Azerbaijan's foremost cinematographers, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, (pronounced roo-STAM ee-bra-him-BEY-ov) was profoundly involved with the creation of the film from its inception. The following interview took place April 2nd in Santa Monica, California, between Azerbaijan International's editor, Betty Blair, and novelist, playwright, screenwriter Mr. Ibrahimbeyov.
It must be thrilling to be acknowledged internationally with one of the highest accolades in the film industry. What does winning this Oscar mean to you?
When film director, Nikita Mikhalkov, went on stage to accept the trophy, if you recall, he took his eight-year-old daughter, Nadia, who had starred with him in the film. They asked what the Oscar meant to her and she replied, "Well, I hope, at last, that they'll buy me a bike!"
I don't know exactly what my "bike" will be, but this honor is extremely important. We've always grown up with the idea that the Oscar is something extraordinarily unique-something very honorable. As a professional cinematographer, I feel a deep respect for this prize. Somehow, it seems that among Europeans there's always a feeling that the Oscar is much more difficult to win than, say, the Cannes Festival. Perhaps, it's because Hollywood is geographically further away that this perception exists. However, "Burnt by the Sun" took both awards this year-the "Grand Prix" at 47th International Cannes Film Festival (May 22, 1994) and "Best Foreign Language Film" at the Oscars (March 27, 1995). That's an extremely rare combination. European cinema and American cinema are based on very different criteria. What is liked and understood in Europe may not be duly appreciated in the U.S. and vice versa. We're immensely pleased that the film won both prizes plus the "Prix du Jury Oecumenique" issued by the Prince of Monaco (May 19, 1994).
Photo: At the Cannes Festival (1994) after winning the "Grand Prix" for "Burnt by the Sun." Left to right: Mikhalkov's wife; Mikhalkov's daughter, Nadia, who starred in film; Nikita Mikhalkov, director and main actor; Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, screenwriter; and Meshikov (actor).
Did you expect to win?
Up even until the very last minute, I never expected it. Not at all. We didn't even bother to take our cameras along. So when we did win, we weren't able to take any personal photos. Last year we had also been nominated for an Oscar for "Close to Eden" which everybody had liked. Despite its popularity, it didn't win. So we didn't have high hopes this year because not many people had seen our film. Besides, there are always so many political reasons and nuances why any film wins an Oscar. Sometimes, it's merely respect for a specific actor, actress or director.
Photo: Oscar Night. Rustam Ibrahimbeyov and his wife with Mikhalkov's daughter, Nadia, and other actors in Prize-winning Best Foreign Film, "Burnt by the Sun" in Los Angeles, 1995.
And this year, there were very good films in the foreign category, especially Macedonia's "Before the Rain," and Taiwan's "Eat Drink Man Woman". So we were very surprised to win. Actually, this is the third time that one of Mikhalkov's films has been nominated for an Oscar. That's a rarity for a foreign director, though not so unusual for Americans.
What exactly was your role in the creation of this film?
I was involved from the inception of the idea, from the very first word right up to the very last moment. I was basically involved with writing and cinematography. Everything-all the dialog and all the scripted action-emerged from working together with Nikita. But the credit for transforming the written word from paper to action on the screen must be credited to the artistic ability of the director, Nikita Mikhalkov.
What were you trying to say in "Burnt with the Sun"?
The story line focuses on Stalinism and its devastating impact on the life of an individual Bolshevik colonel. It's about Stalinist purges. The main image-the "Sun"-is Stalin. Totalitarian systems are "governable" or manageable only up to a certain point. Afterwards, they take on a life of their own, destroying not only those whom they were originally intended to destroy but their creators as well. Specifically, we had in mind the immense system of the Soviet Union. But you'll see that we're not blaming anybody. We're merely trying to show that everyone became a victim.
Were you only addressing communism or did you have other systems in mind?
Specifically, we addressed the communist system. The scenes are concretely based on life in the former Soviet Union. But the nature of all totalitarian systems is the same. Any system created by force, artificially, will take on such characteristics.
Could you have made this film ten years ago during the Soviet period?
Photo: Azerbaijani screenwriter, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov with American actor, Robert deNiro.
Strange as it may sound, yes. It would have been possible. During a press conference at Cannes, I mentioned that I was proud that this film could have been produced ten years earlier. Of course, it wouldn't have been possible during Stalin's era. But after his death, yes. I'm happy to say that we haven't abused our newly acquired freedom.
What do you mean by that?
These days, there is a rush to destroy everything that relates to the past. But we must be careful not to discard and purge everything. So many people are cursing all the old idols-the exact idols that they used to worship. I've never been a communist. So I'm quite removed from all this. But I never try to blame or insult anyone who was, or may still be, a communist.
These days so many people are acting like slaves. During the Soviet period, they were afraid to say anything and now with independence, they explode with accusations and curses. However bad or evil the system might have been, there were some absolutely remarkable things about our lives during that period. We shouldn't eliminate everything from our past, or as you say, "Throw the baby out with the bath water!" We can't dump everything before acquiring new values to fill the void. To disregard and discount everything from the Soviet period would be Bolshevistic. Today, there are some "so-called" democrats who are trying to do just that. In my opinion, we have to deal objectively with the previous system. Though it may have been monstrous, it contributed many positive dimensions to our lives.
We don't say it directly in the film, but it's there. We've tried to create an aura of sympathy for our characters. Today, you can find many pieces of art or literature where communists are depicted as villains or fools. That was the same approach used to describe capitalists and landowners during socialism. Our film doesn't do that. We shouldn't forget everything and plunge blindly into the future. Reactionism and forgetfulness are the most disastrous flaws in human nature. Human behavior is much more complex.
What is the creative process like for you?
When it comes to films that Nikita and I have worked on together, the ideas and concepts emerge from the problems that we see occurring around us. We spend a lot of time together, discussing all these issues. We've worked together, on and off, since 1971. Eventually, we settle on a problem and develop it together.
Problems are eternal. It simply depends on what period you happen to live in. Some problems emerge to the forefront while others get shoved aside temporarily. But the major eternal issue, in my opinion, is the problem of how to remain a human being in the face of all the temptations which provoke evil within us. Human beings have survived thousands of years. However, they have survived primarily due to tricks, craftiness, deceitfulness and meanness-that's the way it seems we always try to subdue life's dragons, dinosaurs and monsters.
So then, what do feel are the most pressing problems these days?
Currently, we're living in a quiet period-more or less. It's time we got rid of these negative features and became human beings in the real sense of the word. Throughout the whole evolutionary period, mankind has been striving to find out how to become really human. This is where literature plays an immensely important role. Everyday of our lives is a struggle-a fight with our own nature. Everyday we have to suppress the evil within us. And yet, it seems, centuries will be required before mankind can achieve this ideal.
What problems concern you most about Azerbaijan?
I'm very much concerned about what is happening in Azerbaijan. The ultimate question is whether Azerbaijan can continue to exist as an independent state. There are tremendous influences at work, pulling from opposite ideologies and geo-political tensions. I'm absolutely convinced that there are outside forces that wish Azerbaijan's annihilation as an independent state. Fortunately, the standards of the international community are placing restraints on these tendencies; otherwise, we would have already been wiped out.
Armenians have always considered Karabakh their land. That's their point of view. We also consider it our land and are just as sincere about our point of view. I'm not blaming the Armenians for their point of view, but I do condemn their methods of trying to achieve their goals. Fighting is no way to achieve your aims in the 20th century. We have to sit down and discuss the problems and come to some solution. Any attempt to aggressively acquire land is a crime against both communities.
Remember, it was a single shot in Sarajevo that led to World War I. We still don't know what the consequences or resolution of the Karabakh conflict will be. I know that Armenians themselves have supplies and resources sufficient only to last for a single month. I can't say now who is concretely helping Armenia but I know that Armenians are much better known in the world than we are. Therefore, they get more assistance. Their influence is greater. That is why I'm giving this interview with such great pleasure since I believe that your magazine is one of the most effective sources of information about what is happening in Azerbaijan and that this is one of your main missions.
It has become very clear to us that we are not fighting with Armenians-but rather, the powerful forces behind them. If these forces had wanted, they could have occupied 100% of Azerbaijan's territory, not just 20% that they currently hold. But within the international community, such aggression would not have been condoned. That is why they assist forces that are trying to undermine us from within so that it will look like we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What specifically are you referring to?
There's a great latent struggle going on. However difficult it might be, we can resist outside influences. In reality, the only way to destroy us is through internal dissension and disunity. There are enemies trying to destroy us from within, and their success will depend on whether we are able to forget our ambitions, claims-despite how justified they may be. We must put them aside, at least temporarily. We need to forget these things for the present and concentrate on the one major problem-our mere survival as a single nation and a single people.
Consider, for example, the recent events in Azerbaijan relating to the coups. In 1993, on the southern borders among the Talysh, President Aliyev succeeded in squelching the problem without the loss of blood. On the northern border, there have been troubles with Lezghians who partially live in Azerbaijan as well as in Russia. By establishing a strict borderline, Russia is trying to separate these people and provoke them. You'll always find ambitious groups who want to seize control and who can be easily provoked from the outside.
There's another critical aspect about this transitional period. Baku is a unique city. Geographically, it's where East meets West, and as such, it has a phenomenal, exceptional destiny enabling us to successfully combine the elements of Eastern civilization with European elements. But the question is-can we remain this way? Can we continue to be Euro-Asian? If we can, then, I'm convinced, we'll survive. But if we become "super-ethnic Muslims", and religion is allowed to permeate our customs and social life, then we will regress 200 years.
Azerbaijan should not totally break with the West. It should maintain its ties where both East and West can meet. We, Azerbaijanis, pride ourselves that we were the first to compose opera and ballet in the East and later were responsible for the most serious symphonies and for jazz. I'm for preserving all our connections with the Western world-these connections which up to the present have basically been maintained through the Russian language. Not so much information used to be available to us through English and other foreign languages. I've often observed in the past that Azerbaijanis who didn't know English were three years behind in development but those who didn't know Russian, were behind eight.
Back to you personally, how did you get into writing in the first place?
By mere chance. It was purely accidental. By training, I'm an engineer. I had been involved with science for quite some time before I started writing. But in our family there is an incredible regard and respect for the written word. My older brother, Magsud, is known as a prose writer. I wrote my first story when I was 23 in 1962. My own work in professional writing began in 1966 when my first novel was published.
I'm fully aware that there are others who can write much better than I do. To write-you need a lot of self-confidence because you quickly become very conscious that there are a lot of extremely talented people out there. My strength comes from realizing that I know things that nobody else does and that I can tell some things that others can't-despite how talented they may be.
Do you write differently now than during the Soviet period?
I've always tackled subjects that were interesting for me and never forced myself. I abide by the same principles now as I did before. The very fact that the three previous parts of the novel that I have just finished were published ten years ago and the fourth part ("Solar Plexus") is coming out in Baku in two or three months proves that my writing remains the same.
Are any of your works in English?
No, not yet. Not that I know of. Nikita and I have plans to publish the collection of our joint screenplays in English-all four of them. From time to time my works have been translated in Russian by the Progress Publishing House and some have been translated into some of the European languages.
I've written about 20 plays. There have been times when they were being staged simultaneously in about 100 different theaters. As a theater director, I've staged five plays of my own at the Russian Theater in Baku. I plan to stage another one this year.
I've written about 40 screenplays during these past 25 years-most of them were developed into actual films, many by Azerbaijani Rasim Ojagov. Several have won awards such as "Guard Me, My Talisman" which took the Istanbul Film Festival in 1990. "Urga, Territory of Love" co-written and directed with Mikhalkov won the "Golden Lion" award in the Venice Film Festival in 1991 and was nominated by the American Film Academy for "Best Foreign Film" in 1992.
What's happening with Azerbaijan's filmmakers these days? A couple of months ago, I was inside Baku's huge Film Studio but the building was nearly vacant.
When it comes to cinematography, unlike writing, you can't do it alone. It takes a lot of resources. The industry is in a critical situation-primarily because of economic need. Cinematography is a field that, to some extent, depends on outside financing. We're trying the field in Azerbaijan. We've finally succeeded in getting some money from the government and plan to shoot two or three films in the near future. This is a significant step forward. Recently, there have been some commercial films shot by private studios which were not of the best quality. The situation is difficult because it's not always the most talented who succeed in getting financed.
I think this is part of the transition period that we're living in. Not only for us in Azerbaijan but also for filmmakers in all of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, we have not allowed the Confederation of the Cinematographers' Union in Moscow, of which I am Chairman, to dissolve. We have maintained our professional relationships with all 15 republics, including the Baltic states. Cinematography is a kind of art where you always have to have mutual support and assistance. Artists are always trying to develop relationships so we saw no use in breaking up the relationships that existed between us.
What about film in Azerbaijan? What do you see in the future?
We have great aspirations. The Union of Cinematographers, of which I am Chairman, hopes to get support to establish the Baku Annual International Film Festival which would be sponsored by the Consortium countries. If we succeed, it would be the first genuine international film festival as it would be organized and managed not by one country but several. We're in the process of organizing it right now and hope that after about a year to get started. Such a festival would do wonders to activate the cultural life of Azerbaijan.
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