18 Apr 2023
Conceiving Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations through the Lens of Cinema: From Perestroika until the Present Day
Cinema has had an indelible impact on the development of national consciousness in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The narratives and codes propagated in Armenian and Azerbaijani films have often gone hand in hand with the general political discourse adopted by their respective national governments, especially when it comes to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations since the first Karabakh war to the present day. Nevertheless, there have been instances of disruptions to mainstream political narratives in certain films produced in both countries. This article sets out to outline how Armenian and Azerbaijani films have the potential to go beyond mainstream narratives and to investigate how this potential can be harnessed to impact the conflict parties. Thus, it explores possible spaces and opportunities for cooperation in the field of cinema, taking into account the continued strain in political relations between both countries and the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
As much as cinema, as an art form, began to establish itself in earnest after the 1950s, its ideological power was discovered from its very inception. As an ideologue, Lenin stated that “of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema” (Lenin 1934). By this, he meant that cinema had the power to spread ideology to the masses. However, the capitalist West had reached this conclusion even earlier. Hollywood’s great studios made use of mass entertainment as an ideological tool. The ideological power of films does not come from directly dictating people’s thoughts; rather, it comes from the ability to “create the illusion” that it reflects reality objectively by means of the camera. This ideological power has been an important part of nation-states’ policies to create their desired type of citizen and nation (Williams 2002).
This article uses the term “national cinema” to refer to films used as a means of social communication to disseminate certain values, ideas, and discourses that feed into a constant process of national identity construction within the political framework of the nation-state. The cases in question are the Armenian and Azerbaijani film industries in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and questions regarding national identity construction arising from it. The main aim of this study is to explore how the Armenian and Azerbaijani film industries play their respective roles in national identity construction, especially in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and to explore any possible disruptions to the production of nationally exclusive rhetoric. The purpose of this research is to gauge any possible channels through which elements of the film industries of both countries could go beyond their “national cinemas” and together produce more nuanced content to challenge the politically antagonistic representation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
The formation of national cinemas in Armenia and Azerbaijan from the early Soviet period to the present day has provided ample ideological capital for the process of national identity construction in both countries. However, the period of perestroika in the late 1980s, the political break from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the declaration of independent nation-states represent a breaking point when it comes to the film industry as well as the process of national identity construction in both countries. This was the period in which the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted and a wave of so-called “national sentiments” spread across both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The outbreak of this conflict has had a deep impact on people’s national consciousness and, thus, on their respective culture industries, which have incorporated those experiences into their productions. It is for this reason that we focus on the period between perestroika and the present day.
Following this introduction, the second section of this paper provides the general theoretical approach to this study, focusing on the concept of “national cinema.” It will also provide the general context of the film industry’s transition in Armenia and Azerbaijan from the end of the Soviet Union to the post-independence period. The third section provides examples of Armenian and Azerbaijani films that touch on national identity and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including brief analyses of these films and observations from people working in the film industries in both countries. The fourth section situates the preceding sections within the framework of possible avenues for cooperation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani film industries in the hope of providing a more nuanced understanding of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations through the medium of film. The final section offers concrete recommendations geared towards the development of cooperation in this field.
Methodology and Theory
The research in this article employs a two-pronged approach of first-hand film analysis and interviews with Armenians and Azerbaijanis working in the film sector. Two Armenian and two Azerbaijani films were chosen for analysis. In keeping with the objective of this article to find “room for cooperation,” the chosen films included elements that shifted away from the strict contours of national cinema developed in both countries and towards a more nuanced understanding of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in the context of conflict. The analysis was conducted with an interpretivist approach, emphasising the (inter-)subjective presentation and the manifestation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in these films while shying away from essentialist tropes found in much of the national cinema of both countries.
Three interviews were conducted on the Armenian side (two interviewees are currently based in Armenia and one in the diaspora) and two on the Azerbaijani side (both of whom are the directors of the films chosen for analysis). The interviews were conducted in a semi-structured manner that opened up the discussion to a range of topics regarding the role of film not only in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict but also in relation to national identity construction and the institutional particularities of the film industry in both countries.
The theoretical framework of this article is based on the concept of “national cinema.” The concept is itself ambiguous and open to interpretation depending on the context in which it is deployed. National cinema can be viewed in various terms: economic (how films are funded and distributed), political (how films are used to propagate certain political viewpoints, especially when geared towards the nation-building process), and socio-cultural (the effect of films on the development or degradation of critical thought among the population and the formation of cultural references). Nevertheless, national cinema intrinsically denotes the manifestation of a “unique identity” that is involved in the “production and assignation of a particular set of meanings, and the attempt to contain, or prevent the potential proliferation of other meanings” (Higson 1989, 37). Indeed, the idea of national cinema is intimately linked to the modernist ideology of nationalism, the idea of self-determination, and the political unit of the nation-state. Following the printing press and telecommunications, the medium of visual representation has played a tremendous role in diffusing ideas, mores, aesthetics, stereotypes, tropes, and all sorts of social representations within the parameters of the nation-state. This would imply that the role of such forms of social communication within nation-states is to create a homogeneous citizenry by subjecting it to visual representations that carry subliminal or overt messages conducive to forging a unique national identity over which the citizenry can bond. This is, however, simply an assimilationist approach to national cinema that is at odds with integrationist approaches (Hjort and MacKenzie 2000).
The repertoire of a national cinema is innately steeped in a certain “historical specificity” that informs its productions (Vitali and Willemen 2006). Interpretations of this historical specificity will largely define the direction that national cinema takes—whether towards an assimilationist or integrationist path. Indeed, this will also impact representations on screen of elements introduced into films that are deemed to be ‘foreign’ or about ‘foreign’ things. This becomes an especially acute issue when such ‘foreign’ elements are represented by politically antagonistic entities, which is indeed the case when it comes to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. In such situations, the pathological elements of nationalism are represented to a relatively greater degree in national cinema. Such experiences across the globe of antagonistic nationalisms leading to political and military conflict, along with increasing globalisation, have encouraged the development of post-modern and transnational approaches to artistic forms, including film. Nevertheless, this has thus far not changed the contemporary political reality in which the nation and nation-state continue to be our primary frames of reference (Christie 2013). Despite the increasing interdependence between societies and the interexchange of goods, knowledge, and experiences, cultural productions are still largely funded nationally, thus they tend to tackle issues of national interest and relate to the historical and contemporary experiences of the nation. “National cinema” is thus a concept that continues to be relevant (Choi 2011) and helps guide our analysis of Armenian and Azerbaijani cinemas in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The national cinemas of both Armenia and Azerbaijan trace their roots to the Soviet Union, and they developed within the contours of the Soviet nativisation policy, leaving room for the development of so-called “national themes” in film. The funding and approval of films were dictated by the state and so the content of films often reflected the political stances adopted by the state regarding the intertwined process of modernisation and nation-building. One may argue that the so-called rupture that took place in 1991 when Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence has not eliminated the previous relations between the state and the culture industry. With nationalism at the ideological forefront of filmmaking over the past century, despite the internationalist rhetoric of the Soviet Union, there are certain motifs and values that are more readily accepted by the state and society within the framework of the nation-state, whatever political regime is in place. It is thus worth providing a short outline of the chronology of the development of the Armenian and Azerbaijani film industries in order to have a broad understanding of the current situation and environment.
The Armenian State Committee was established in 1923, when Armenian cinema was “officially” born. That same year, the film studio Armenkino was established, later renamed Armenfilm, also known as Hayfilm. Films in the 1920s and ’30s largely touched upon socio-cultural issues with elements of political satire, drama, and comedy as well. Such films were indeed part of the initial development of the aesthetic of Armenian national cinema; however, as our analysis of films belonging to that period shows, there was relatively little effort or space to directly develop themes related to a certain national consciousness during those decades. Perhaps one of, if not the first, film to touch upon so-called historical “national” topics was Davit Bek, shot in 1943, about the eponymous historical figure who led a rebellion in Syunik province against the Ottomans and Safavids in the early eighteenth century (Galstyan 2016).
The “Khrushchev Thaw” period in the 1950s and ’60s allowed for the development of films purposefully geared towards national consciousness narratives, including films such as We, directed by Artavazd Peleshyan in 1969 (Galstyan 2016). This period also saw a significant role played by an Azerbaijani in the development of Armenian cinema—Sabir Rizayev. He occupied the position of Head of Screenwriting at Hayfilm from the year 1954 and served as the screenwriter for several films, including as co-screenwriter for Called to Live (1960), which touches on the Armenian Genocide (Agos 2020). Rizayev is known to have been one of the founders, if not the founder, of film studies in Armenia and influenced a number of Armenian film critics of his time, such as Karen Kalantar, Suren Hasmikyan, Mikayel Stamboltsyan, and Evert Payazatyan. In 1963, Rizayev wrote a piece called “Armenian Artistic Cinematography”, which is said to still influence the study of Armenian film at an academic level, even if his name and personal contribution are not mentioned.
The film industry expanded in the 1970s and early ’80s during a somewhat stable political situation in the Soviet Union, and so film production in Armenia increased, with Hayfilm releasing around six or seven films per year (Galstyan 2016). The breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia in 1991, as well as the ensuing Nagorno-Karabakh war of that period, were watershed moments for the political, cultural, social, and economic life of the country. This, naturally, impacted the film industry enormously, as it was in a sense both empowered and disempowered simultaneously as it gained independence from Soviet control, on the one hand, but found itself in dire economic circumstances in which funding for films became hard to come by. Very few films were produced in the 1990s and mostly by the older generation of directors who had been trained in the Soviet period.
Armenian cinema began to stand on its own feet in the early 2000s when the Ministry of Culture re-developed its system of state support for the culture industry. Other important developments in this decade include the establishment of the international Golden Apricot film festival in 2004 (Harutyunyan 2016), which has played an important role in showcasing films from various cultures across the world to both Armenian and non-Armenian audiences. Another significant development was the founding of the National Cinema Centre of Armenia (NNCA) in 2006, whose role is to “set state cultural policy in the film sector and provide state support to national cinematography in the following four sectors: assistance in the production of domestic filmmaking; national project implementation; participation in international festivals; and promotion of the national cinema at international film markets” (Paytyan 2016).
The liberalisation of the economy and privatisation of state assets have also naturally impacted the film industry in Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union. The NNCA is actually a re-branding of the former Hayfilm, which was privatised in 2005 and sold to Armenia Studios, a subsidiary of CS Media City, a media company that owns several major Armenian media outlets. The building that houses NNCA, which was for decades the home of Hayfilm, was put up for auction in 2016 by the Council of Public TV and Radio. It was purchased in 2017 and then demolished, now replaced by a residential apartment block. This happened to the famous Hayfilm building despite a public campaign organised by film specialist Melik Karapetyan that tried to convert the building into a media museum (Galstyan 2019).
Armenian filmmaking is not restricted to the film industry of the Republic of Armenia. The Armenian diaspora began producing films even earlier than Soviet Armenia. The film industry in the diaspora has taken a different course, as it was established by survivors of the Armenian Genocide in the early twentieth century in comparatively different social and political environments to the Soviet Union, most notably in the USA. The majority of films produced in the diaspora touch upon the deportations and massacres in the Ottoman Empire. Those films have played an important role in developing a kind of national consciousness that bases its ontology on a lost homeland and the permanent yearning for it (Kouymjian 1984).
Until 1976, “National Cinema” in Azerbaijan was thought to have started at the same time as Soviet cinema. Then a decision was made by the local Azerbaijani government to mark the start date in 1916, i.e. before the revolution. This was the generally accepted date from then on until 2000, when the starting date was moved further back to 1898 (Kazımzadə 2016). These symbolic decisions and varying historiographies on national cinema in a way follow the process of national identity formation and the twentieth-century discussion about it, as well as the history of national identity and the failure to clearly define it.
The first feature-length film shot in 1916, In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions, showed how Azerbaijan’s modernisation process was based on the oil industry. This film was born out of this relationship between the oil industry and modernisation. Once Soviet authority was established in Azerbaijan in 1920, one of the first acts by the leader of the People’s Commissars’ Soviet, Neriman Nerimanov, was to sign the decree on the nationalisation of cinema on the July 4, proving the importance he attached to cinema in a similar vein to Lenin. That same year, we see a number of newsreels such as The Ceremony of the 11th Red Army Troops, The 1st Congress of the Eastern Peoples and The Funeral of 26 Baku Commissars. In accordance with the nationalisation programme under state control, a decision was made to transfer all cinema matters to the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1922, the Photo-Cinema Administration (FKİ) linked to the Commissariat, was established, as well as the Azerbaijan Photo-Cinema Corporation (AFKİ) in 1923, and the first film studio linked to the corporation (Sadıxov 1970, 19).
The first feature film to come out of Soviet Azerbaijan, Maiden’s Tower (dir. Ballyuzekin, 1923), told one of the tales connected to the Maiden’s Tower in Baku. This first film was criticised by the publications of the time on the grounds that it emphasised Eastern exoticism and espoused an orientalist perspective (Sadıxov 1970, 25-26). Following this first film, AFKİ began to shoot films that included themes such as the war against traditional structures and religion, criticism of backwardness and ignorance, and women’s freedom and rebellion. These were all themes that had already been referenced by the enlightenment movement of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia even before the Soviet period, albeit not through film (Smith 1997, 655).
Armenian filmmakers and staff in the cinema industry also played an active role in Soviet Azerbaijani cinema in the 1920-30s. For example, the film “Sevil,” which occupies a significant place in Azerbaijani national memory, was directed by Hamo Beknazarov who was invited from Armenia. In addition, the film The House on Top of the Volcano (1929), despite being financed by Azerkino, was produced in its entirety by Armenkino. Armenians played an active role in the leadership of the Azerbaijani film studio in the 1930s (Cabbarlı 1996; Kazımzadə 2016; Sadıxov 1970).
There was a related dilemma connected to people working in the film industry. On the one hand, local staff were seen as incompetent and so most films were produced by filmmakers from Russia. For instance, the first director of AFKİ was Aleksandr Litvinov and there were only three Azerbaijani members of staff at Azkino; most were Russians, Jews, and Georgians (Smith 1997, 653). On the other hand, there was an effort to produce local filmmakers. Training courses for local directors, writers, and actors were organised between 1924–25 in order to develop local filmmakers such as C. Cabbarlı, M. Mikayılov, A. Guliyev, R. Çobanzade, who started studying with teachers from Moscow (Sadıxov 1970, 27).
There was an interim period in cultural politics during World War II when epics, folk songs, and stories recounting local heroism and defenders against invaders of the homeland were encouraged. Films produced in this period supported a Soviet military victory in the conflict. This opened the way for national sentiments to manifest themselves during this period. However, the central authorities in Moscow sought to take back control of these sentiments after the war. The clearest response to this made by Soviet Azerbaijani cinema was attempts to incorporate the idea of “nationality” into the theme of “historical heroism” for the defence of the homeland, as was the film Fətəli Xan, the production of which started in 1941 and ended in 1947. The subject of the film was the dream of Fatali Khan, a leader of one of the Khanates of Azerbaijan in the eighteenth century, “uniting a disintegrating Azerbaijan against foreigners.” Thus, for the first time in the history of Soviet Azerbaijan cinema, a historical story was incorporated within the framework of the imagination of “Azerbaijani unity.” However, once the film was shot, it was banned from screening. Nevertheless, it was shown in 1959 in the post-Stalin period.
Towards the end of the 1950s, Azerbaijani cinema celebrated a new birth. A new generation of producers who were educated at the film school in Moscow contributed to the peak in Azerbaijani cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. This period saw an increase in the number of films and led to the expansion of the range of themes touched on by Azerbaijani cinema. The presence of workers, villagers, and ordinary people in daily life became more prominent. This period also saw an increase in the number of films related to the Second World War. According to our own observations, most of these depicted civil life at the time of war.
In the 1960s, Azerbaijani literature experienced a transformation and young writers were in frequent contact with the film industry, which had a major impact on the industry. These writers adapted stories and novels to film and wrote scripts, as they tried to enrich the themes and styles of Azerbaijani cinema. One of the best examples of this is the cooperation between film producer Hasan Seyidbeyli and writer Isa Huseynov on the film Nasimi (1973). In addition, films concerning the conflict between new and old, i.e. the tensions produced by modernisation, continued to be produced. Such films as Uşaqlığın Son Gecəsi [The Last Day of Childhood] (1969), Xoşbəxtlik Qayğıları [Happiness Concerns] (1976), Gün Keçdi [The Day Passed] (1971), and Bir Cənub Şəhərində [In A Southern City] (1969) are representative of this genre.
Post-Soviet Azerbaijani cinema saw a new style with new themes being introduced in the ’90s. Arthouse films such as Köpək [A dog] (1994), Yarasa [A Bat] (1995), and Özgə Vaxt [Another Time] (1996) were made independently of the state. However, this experience of independent production in the 1990s lasted only a short time. In the 2000s, two or three films were being made every year exclusively with the support of the state. Nevertheless, in the recent period, independent productions, such as Biləsuvar [a name of town in Azerbaijan] (2020) and Səpələnmiş ölümlər arasında [Among the Scattered Deaths] (2020) were presented alongside state-supported films at international film festivals. Whether or not this is a sign of things to come in Azerbaijani cinema will become clearer in the coming years.
Armenian Films on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations
As mentioned above, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and, in general, the issues of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations have had a more than significant impact on the national cinema of Armenia. Several fictional and documentary films were produced in the three decades preceding the 2020 Karabakh war that reflected aspects of the “Armenian story and experience” in the period between the two wars. This section will outline some of the films from Armenian national cinema connected to this topic, followed by a focus on two films that specifically include elements of humanisation of the “other side.”
The majority of films produced in Armenia during the interwar period were made with a one-sided perspective to evoke empathy for Armenian losses, victories, and justifications in line with the tenets of national cinema, especially at a time of conflict with a perceived and real external force. Due to the aforementioned difficulties experienced by Armenian cinema in the years following independence, the first popular films produced about the conflict began to be released over a decade after the first war had ended in 1994.
The first Armenian feature film about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is “Destiny” (Ճակատագիր), released in 2006. The film tells the “heroic” story of a man whose family participated in four different wars through four generations: the Second World War, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and Karabakh. This series of wars leading up to the war in Karabakh was meant to represent the “destiny” of the family and the Armenian nation as a whole. The film’s producer and leading actor, Gor Vardanyan, openly stated in an interview that the film was geared towards the promulgation of patriotism (Armenpress 2012). He stated that the other main objective of the film was to introduce Armenians, their history, and their experiences to an international audience (1in.am 2013).
The next feature film about the first Karabakh war was released a year later in 2007. “Do not be Afraid” (Մի վախեցիր), directed by Aram Shahbazyan, has a plot in some ways similar to “Destiny” in that it tells the story of a young man who participates in the Karabakh war. The film shows his journey from “ordinary man to hero.” The actor playing the lead role, Khoren Levonyan, gave an interview in 2021 after the second Karabakh war. In response to a question about whether it was already time to make films about the second war, Levonyan laments the fact that very few films were made about the first war: “We could have cultivated good citizens, good Armenians, good parents through culture, theatre and films. But we are continuing to do nothing” (Gevorgyan 2021). This statement embodies much of the motivation with which people in the film industry work in the framework of a national cinema that finds itself in an ethno-nationalist socio-political context at a time of conflict with a neighbouring ethno-nationalist state.
Perhaps the most watched Armenian feature films about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the duology “Life and Fight” and “Life and Fight 2: 25 Years Later,” both directed by Mher Mkrtchyan. As with the two aforementioned films, the main characters in the first film of the duology, released in 2016, included young men who, through the trials and tribulations of the first Karabakh war, as well as other side plots, become heroes in the eyes of the nation. The target audience of the first film was clear from the very outset at the film’s premiere when young conscripts from the army gathered at the theatre. Moreover, the film’s director stated at the premiere that the film was produced with support from the Ministry of Defence (Margaryan 2016). Just to add to the national symbolism, the first public screening of the film took place on September 21 (Meytarjyan 2020), the day marking Armenian independence from the Soviet Union.
The motivation for the shooting of the second film in the duology was also explicit. It was produced just a year after the first film, with the “four-day April war” in 2016 in mind, and it was openly dedicated to the Armenian army. In fact, the premiere of the film took place just a day before “Army Day” (January 23), which commemorated the 25th anniversary of the creation of the independent Armenian army (Yerkir Media 2017). These films demonstrate the inextricable link in Armenia between national cinema and the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the army, and, ultimately, national statehood in its ethno-nationalist form. Characteristics related to love, sacrifice, and heroism are ascribed to only Armenian characters as an ideological tool to humanise one side of the conflict. The other side is reduced to belligerent aggressors who have no story of their own.
Two other films discussed below represent diversions from the typical traits of national cinema demonstrated in the abovementioned films. Both films also directly concern the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; however, they include themes, characters, and symbolism that seem to humanise both sides of the conflict line, not just one. Characters on both sides of the conflict line are shown to have personal stories and not only broad national ones, thus allowing for humanisation of the characters.
Zemlyak (2010, Director: Edgar Baghdasaryan)
The first one of these two films is Zemlyak. The title of the film itself is already an indication of the film’s meaning and motive. Zemlyak is a Russian word meaning “compatriot,” or, more literally, “somebody who shares the same land.” The story, which is allegedly based on a true one, tells of an Armenian soldier, Harut, stranded in the desolate mountains of Karabakh in the blistering winter cold at the very height of the war, alone with the corpse of an Azerbaijani soldier who was shot dead. Harut takes off some of the Azerbaijani soldier’s clothes to warm himself up. Later, Harut begins speaking to himself and conversing with the dead body. He recalls an Azerbaijani boy from his neighbourhood called Tofiq and remembers him as a “good guy.” Harut then asks whether the dead soldier is Tofiq and whether he has any identification on him. He rummages through the Azerbaijani soldier’s pockets and finds an identification card on which his name “Samed” and the address “11 Japaridze Street, Kirovabad” are written. Upon reading the address he realises that they are from the same city, Kirovabad (Ganja), and so the dead man is his zemlyak. Harut tries to recall the exact location of the address, which he believes is situated in a churchyard. He then finds a photograph of Samed with his parents and says that Samed’s father resembles his old physics teacher.
Amidst the shelling, Harut uses Samed’s body as a cover. Once the dust settles, Harut expresses his wish to bury Samed but finds that the ground is too frozen for a burial. He conjures a plan to take off Samed’s Azerbaijani army uniform, which Harut then puts on, and to wait for his fellow soldiers to arrive and tell them that the dead body is that of an Armenian. Harut finds a Quran in Samed’s uniform and asks Samed whether he wants it read to him. Harut finds that it is written in Arabic and so cannot read it for him; instead, he reads out the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian, stating that there is no difference since God understands all languages.
Moments later, an Armenian sniper sees Harut donning the Azerbaijani army uniform from afar and shoots him dead, mistaking him for an Azerbaijani soldier. Armenian soldiers then find the two dead bodies lying side by side, and they take Samed’s body for burial, leaving behind Harut’s body, which they believe is the corpse of an Azerbaijani soldier because of the uniform.
The whole interaction between Harut and Samed humanises the two enemy soldiers, one of whom is dead (which points to a sense of irony in the film). Very early on in the interaction, Harut recalls a “good guy” from his neighbourhood, already attributing a common trait to an Azerbaijani from his childhood memories. Then when Harut finds the photograph of Samed with his parents, which shows their trip to Baku, in Harut’s (and so the audience’s) mind it represents the starting point of Samed’s personal life story.
The mix of childhood memories and the fact that both overlap temporally seem to compel Harut to pay his respects to Samed by burying him. The religious reference to the equal nature of the Muslim and Christian holy texts reinforces the universal humanistic value that the film seeks to convey. The final scene, which shows the Armenian soldiers mixing up the dead bodies and assigning national identities according to their military uniforms, demonstrates the near triviality of national identity in that moment. The two corpses seem to have transcended national identity while the soldiers who are alive continue to differentiate people based on national symbolism (the Azerbaijani flag and the Christian crucifix appear on the respective army uniforms).
An interview conducted by Aravot with the director Edgar Baghdasaryan in 2012 claims that the film Zemlyak was banned from public screenings in Armenia and Baghdasaryan was asked to confirm this. He did not deny the claim and stated that he would discuss it in the future, but, there seems to be no publicly available information about it (Danielyan 2012). If this claim is true, it draws a line beyond which national cinema in Armenia in the post-independence climate is able to accept the kind of humanisation of the “enemy” demonstrated in Zemlyak. In a 2018 interview with Irates, Baghdasaryan states that in the film he sought to tell a story of something beyond conflict between nations that focuses on the humanistic element. “The emphasis was on the fact that if you are able to find a common language with a dead person then you are obliged to do so with a living person,” he asserts (Rafayelyan 2018).
Broken Childhood (2013, Director: Jivan Avetisyan)
Broken Childhood tells the story, allegedly a true one, of a relationship that develops between an Armenian girl who was kidnapped during the 1992 Maragha massacre in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and an Azerbaijani woman who has lost her son in the war and looks after the Armenian girl in the hope that she will be exchanged one day for her son. The overall plot of the film is set against the background of the Maragha massacre against Armenians and so in that sense is the portrayal of loss and victimisation of one side. However, the story of the relationship between the Armenian girl, Lena, and the Azerbaijani woman, Fatima, humanises and emphasises loss on both sides of the conflict.
The initial part of the film where Lena and Fatima meet shows a certain level of mistrust between the two characters. Despite Lena’s young age, she has witnessed violence committed from the other side and so she has already made negative associations. Nevertheless, with time, Fatima begins to show what is depicted as “maternal” qualities and cares for Lena as if she were her own child. Scenes of the Maragha massacre are characterised by “Azerbaijani male aggression,” as soldiers are shown to mercilessly kill civilians and loot the village. This is juxtaposed by the wholesome “female” relationship between Lena and Fatima with the focus on the human aspects of children and mothers. At the end of the film, Lena rejoins her family and Fatima makes an emotional farewell, as if she were leaving behind her own daughter. The last line of the film is: “Fatima is still waiting for her son, like all the mothers who had lost their sons in all wars.” The figure of the mother in this conflict is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, from a nationalist perspective, mothers are often depicted as bearers of newly born “brave men” and future soldiers who will defend the nation; on the other hand, they are characterised as innocent victims of a war that is not of their doing.
In an interview with Hetq in 2013, just before the film’s premiere, the screenwriter, Karine Khodikyan, stated that “it’s important for me that the audience leaves the cinema hall hating war.” Moreover, responding to a question about why one of the two main characters was an Azerbaijani who was not shown in a negative light but even positively depicted, Khodikyan and the director Avetisyan responded saying that the film was first and foremost about human relationships. They also specified that it is a relationship between two females. Khodikyan admitted that while writing the script for the film she was concerned that the film would be interpreted in such a way that would “benefit the Azerbaijanis.” Her counterargument was that all wars end eventually and that if there is a lack of human, and particularly maternal, goodness then the world will come to an end (Aleksanyan 2013). There is a sense, according to these comments, that peace is linked primarily to the role of women, whereas men are depicted as the agents of war.
A key difference between the film Zemlyak and Broken Childhood is in the gender aspect. The former is a story solely between men and soldiers whereas the latter puts the focus on women. In a sense, Broken Childhood fits more neatly into the condoned aspects of national cinema in Armenia as the plot background relates to a one-sided massacre against Armenians and there is a gendered insinuation that women are natural peace lovers and holders of humanistic values, regardless of their national affiliation, whereas the men and soldiers in the film are devoid of humanistic qualities. Zemlyak, on the other hand, raises the stakes even further and, it can be argued, goes beyond the contours of national cinema. The humanisation of an enemy soldier is an added layer of empathy that breaks the rules of bilateral enmity. Representatives of the enemy’s army are viewed as the highest threat to “national security” and so the humanisation of such individuals can be considered contrary to the logic of national cinema, which generally seeks to encourage a sense of national security as an inner strength against the opposing side.
Azerbaijani Films on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations
The production of films about the conflict in Azerbaijani cinema did not start in the perestroika period but rather when the conflict was beginning. The most well-known of these is the documentary film Meydan (1989). The film shows events that took place in the former Lenin Square in Baku, now Freedom Square, where mass demonstrations against the developments in Karabakh took place. The film is important for providing insights into what took place at the square at that time. The film lacks any particular conceptual framework; it simply shows the demonstrations and speeches made by the protestors.
Azerbaijani cinema did not pay attention to the conflict until the Karabakh war started to intensify. Three films were released in 1993: Fəryad (“Bawl”), Haray (“The Whoop”), and Laçın Dəhlizi (“Lachin Corridor”). “The Whoop” and “Lachin Corridor” did not become very well known among public audiences, but “Bawl” was frequently shown on television immediately after its release during the war The themes of each film are different, but they share the common feature of focusing on Azerbaijanis as the victims of the war. “Lachin Corridor” was a non-governmental co-produced film with Azerbaijani and Turkish cooperation. The film tells the story of a military operation conducted by a group of Azerbaijani soldiers in the Lachin Corridor, which ultimately fails. The film “Bawl” is a story of an Azerbaijani soldier who falls captive to Armenians. It shows the conditions in which he lived and his observations and memories about those experiences. The film represents Armenians as oppressors and Azerbaijanis as humanists. It has occupied such a significant place in Azerbaijani society that it led to the production of its sequel, “Bawl 2”, after the 2020 war.
Several films were produced in the period after the ceasefire emphasising that the war had not yet ended and that Azerbaijan would later be victorious. In the film Ağ Atlı Oğlan (“Boy with the White Horse”, 1995), a 12-year-old boy, whose favourite fairy tale is called “Boy with the White Horse,” runs away from home to fight in Karabakh after seeing a war martyrs’ ceremony. He engages in “patriotic” acts on the frontline and paints his tank white at the end of the film to symbolise future victories. Biz Qayıdacağıq (“We Will Come Back”, 2007) tells the story of a refugee child from Khojaly who has lost his father in a massacre and lives with his mother and younger brother. He lives a hard but honest life to support his family and dreams about returning to their home in Khojaly. He has a pleasant voice and so one of his music school teachers helps him to join a mugham competition. Despite winning the competition, he decides to go to military school to train as a military officer with the aim of taking back his homeland from the adversary. Dolu (“Hail”, 2012) is about the “heroic” acts and deaths of a group of Azerbaijanis, mostly fighters. At the end of the film, the souls of the deceased return to Karabakh.
There are also drama films that touch on the lived experiences of Azerbaijanis during the war. For example, the events in the film Ümid (“Hope”, 1995) take place not in Karabakh but in a military hospital in Baku. An unknown wounded fighter is lying at the hospital and there are several people outside hoping that that person is their son or husband from whom they had not heard for some time. As they all wait outside the hospital, they recount their stories to one another.
Qırmızı Qar (“Red Snow”, 1998) presents the “ruthless killings” by Armenians against Azerbaijanis in Khojaly and the hopelessness experienced by the town’s inhabitants. Yalan (“Lie”, 2005) is a film inspired by the famous Soviet Georgian film “Father of a Soldier” (1965) with a similar story but taking place during the Second World War. A father who goes to visit his son on the frontline receives the news of his son’s death as he waits with other fighters in the camp for his son to return from a military operation. The father returns home and avoids telling the truth to the mother. Instead, he tells her that their son is doing fine and will come home soon. The film continues with the father suffering from his son’s loss.
Girov (“Captive”, 2005) tells the story of an Armenian captive held for exchange in the house of an Azerbaijani woman whose husband is a captive on the Armenian side. The Armenian side requests money instead of a prisoner exchange. Although her husband ends up being killed as the necessary money was not given, the woman does not let the villagers kill the Armenian captive and sets him free despite her anger and hate. Yaddaş (“Memory”, 2010) tells the story of a former fighter who loses his memory as a result of a trauma he received fighting in the Karabakh war and continues to believe that his comrades are alive. Along with these films, there are a number of other films that depict the “heroism” of Azerbaijanis and “cruelty” of Armenians, including Xoca (“Khodja”, 2012) Xüsusi Təyinatlı İbad 1-2 (“Special Forces Ibad” 1-2, 2017-2019), and Son Nəfəsədək (“Until the Last Breath”, 2018).
Nevertheless, there are also films that seek paths to dialogue and peace, such as Hər Şey Yaxşılığa Doğru (“All for the Best”, 1996), Sarı Gəlin (“Yellow Bride”, 1998), Ailə (“Family”, 1998), and Yol (“The Road”, 2011). It is worth looking at the films “Yellow Bride” and “The Road” since it is in these films that we observe some form of friendship between the main Armenian and Azerbaijani characters.
Yellow Bride (1998, Director: Yaver Rzayev)
“Yellow Bride” is a film produced by screenwriter and director Yaver Rzayev, financed by the state, and produced by “Azərbaycanfilm” studios. The film tells the story of the friendship that develops between an Azerbaijani and Armenian character. The Azerbaijani (Gadir), who, filled with patriotic feelings, goes as a volunteer to fight at the front in Karabakh but is himself an extremely soft-hearted person (so much so that he cannot kill a chicken) and so “naïve” that he finds the harshness of war to be strange, leading him to refuse to participate in the fighting. He is instructed to kill the Armenian captive Artavas by his commander, but he does not manage to do so and he himself then falls captive to the Armenian intelligence officers who save Artavas. Artavas is then ordered by his commander to kill Gadir, but instead of killing him, he escapes with Gadir from the war.
In our interview with him, director Yaver Rzayev mentioned that the idea to write the screenplay was born in 1994 with the aim of “present[ing] Azerbaijanis in the right way to the world” and his team began shooting in 1995: “I knew that the only way for us to tell the world about our pain was through such a film.” One of the Azerbaijani characters in the film notes that “we have been left alone.” This statement hints at the motivation behind the production of Rzayev’s film. However, the yellow bride -after which the film is titled and which frequently enters Gadir’s dreams- is also a character from a song shared by Azerbaijani, Armenian, and other cultures (e.g., Turkic, Kurdish, and Persian) and is related to the idea of death. In one of the scenes, Gadir and Artavas arrive at an Azerbaijani village where Artavas’ sister, who is married to an Azerbaijani, lives. There, they witness the dead bodies of its inhabitants. The camera shows the corpses scattered in the courtyard and the shot slowly moves upward to show “a scene of a carpet design decorated with the dead bodies” (Interview with Rzayev 2022). “‘The Yellow Bride’ is neither mine nor yours, it belongs to all of us, and it is the death that awaits all of us,” mentions Gadir close to the final scene. That is why Gadir and Artavas, who have fled the war together, sing the song “The Yellow Bride” at the end of the film.
Rzayev notes that he grew up in Baku, thought and spoke in Russian, learned to be a director in Moscow, and held cosmopolitan opinions. However, those opinions were taken over by his patriotic feelings following deep-seated changes that occurred after the “Black January” events of January 20, 1990. This contradiction between patriotic feelings and cosmopolitan opinions is made clear in the film. On the one hand, the film points to how the Azerbaijani position is justified; on the other hand, it makes calls against the cruelty of war and promotes the peaceful coexistence of peoples.
The film focuses not on the Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have been polarised against one another but rather on an Armenian-Azerbaijani duo who have escaped the war and are being chased by an antagonised group of Armenian and Azerbaijani military men. Interestingly, just as Gadir and Artavas form a cooperative relationship based on their friendship, the Azerbaijani commander (Rasim) and Armenian commander (Samvel), who agreed to search for the deserters together, also form a cooperative relationship despite being formally at war with one another. According to Rzayev, with this choice, he attempted to maintain a balance: “The Azerbaijani (Gadir) helps the Armenian (Artavas), and when the Azerbaijani harms his leg, the Armenian carries him on his shoulders and helps him escape.” He adds that “on the other hand, the Armenian commander is feeble and weak, whilst the Azerbaijani commander is not.” At the same time, the tanks used by the Azerbaijani commander are frail and old, while the one used by the Armenian commander is more powerful, which shows how the Armenians were better armed. It is not only this difference between the commanders that spoils the balance in favour of the Azerbaijanis but also the fact that the massacre occurs in an Azerbaijani village. The ‘moral balance’ is restored in favour of the Azerbaijanis when the Armenian soldiers listen to and are touched by the performance of Azerbaijani kamancha player Habil Aliyev. So, the Azerbaijanis are depicted in a more peace-loving light, as Gadir is shown to be an artist and a gentle character, and the kamancha player, representing Azerbaijani culture, is shown as enchanting the Armenians with his music. However, not all Azerbaijanis are presented in this light. For instance, the Azerbaijani soldiers who capture Armenians treat them in a less than humanistic manner by humiliating them.
As weak and cruel as Samvel is shown to be, he refuses to break the conditions of the agreement regarding the exchange of captives. He was meant to return Rasim’s captive brother to him in exchange for Samvel’s lover, but Rasim’s brother was killed and so he had nothing to exchange with for his partner. Consequently, when Samvel receives his partner back, he kills her, so that the conditions of the exchange are not broken. Rzayev claims that it is likely due to these dualities that some in Azerbaijan accused him of favouring Armenians in the film. On the other hand, those who showed this film in Stepanakert were punished by Armenians “because smart Armenians understood what I wanted to say with this film” (Interview with Rzayev 2022).
Another particularity of the film is its surreal scenes. These are, for instance, a scene when the “yellow bride” enters Gadir’s dreams, a scene with a dream-like presentation of the massacre of Azerbaijani civilians, and a scene where the “yellow bride” joins Gadir and Artavasa in their journey. These surreal scenes create the impression that the enmity and war take place in a frightening dream. Rzayev himself states that he in no way expected the events of Black January on January 20, 1990 and could not imagine that the ensuing war would ever take place: “I cannot understand war, in general. I find it difficult to understand and believe in it.” This inability to believe in war is reflected in one of the film’s scenes: “Whoever speaks of war cannot have participated in it. Those who participate in war don’t have the heart to talk about it.” Rzayev himself did not participate in the war and so he only has the capacity to “talk” about it in the form of a dream. It is in this regard that the film ends in a surreal scene. Gadir, Artavas, and the yellow bride ride on the roof of a steam train and travel in an indeterminate direction. The commanders Rasim and Samvel follow the train but do not manage to catch them. As Gadir and Artavas are saved and travel in an exhausted state to an unknown destination, they start singing the song “Yellow Bride.” Gadir, who then appears to come out of nowhere, says the following to the audience: “The Yellow Bride can come at any time. Don’t ask who she is.”
The Road (2011, Director: Fehruz Shamiyev)
The film “The Road” tells the story of an aged Azerbaijani doctor suffering from cancer who wishes to die in the village from which he was displaced. He purposefully crosses the line of contact and enters his village, where he is taken captive by Armenian troops. The Armenian officer supervising him at the military post speaks to him in a harsh and hateful tone. However, the officer then suddenly falls sick and is on the verge of death, but the captivated Azerbaijani doctor saves his life. The Armenian officer, who previously treated the doctor harshly, now changes his attitude. The officer informs the doctor that he will be taken to the other captives. But then the doctor’s condition worsens and the Armenian officer helps him to lie in the bed. The officer provides false information to his superiors that the captive has died. He accepts the doctor’s last wish to take him to the tree planted by his grandfather. The next morning, the Armenian officer breaks the formal rules and takes the doctor to the tree. So, in the film the Armenian and Azerbaijani characters each face their deaths, and in both situations they help each other to the best of their abilities despite the conditions of war. Thus, the film is based not on “the rules of war” that imply an insurmountable enmity but on “the rules of humanity” that provide room for compassion.
The film’s director, Shamiyev, was displaced from the Jabrayil district at the age of 15. He was then settled to the city of Ali Bayramli with his family as an IDP. After his graduation from the local high school, he decided to study at the Cinema Faculty of National Art University in Azerbaijan. Shamiyev remembers how he used to watch Bollywood films and, very rarely, European art films in his village in Jabrayil. He considers these films to be the first influences on his personality, leading him to become a filmmaker. He obtained his bachelor’s degree as a scriptwriter and then a masters’ degree as a producer at the same university. He now lives and works in Baku as a filmmaker and producer. The film thus has a special meaning for him personally. In our interview, Shamiyev noted that making a film about Karabakh and displacement became a kind of moral duty for him since his displaced family and relatives expected a film about the events of that time. After reading the story written by Elchin Huseynbeyli about a doctor nearing death and wanting to die on the land he was born, Shamiyev decided to slightly alter the story and write a script for the young film directors competition called “This arena, this screen” run by the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan. Out of three scripts, Shamiyev’s was selected to receive funding to produce the film.
A noteworthy element of the film is how the characters go beyond hard-line positions. For example, even though the Armenian officer sees the Azerbaijanis as enemies and is depicted as a harsh character, a stereotypical description of military men, his image as an Armenian character is not as negatively exaggerated as in many other films produced in Azerbaijan. In our interview Shamiyev emphasises this point: “I look at this issue through art. The job of the artist is to observe events and people and to present them in a believable manner. To present Armenians with exaggerated cruelty and hyperbolic characteristics is not something an artist should do.”
The main change in the image of the main characters takes place after the doctor saves the officer’s life. It is at this point that his human side begins to emerge. He, like the doctor, is sick. And the doctor notes that “war is not his thing.” On the other hand, the Azerbaijani character is not depicted in a special kind of heroic light. Although he does not submit to the officer and asserts that the village is his land, his image is one of a hopeless and decrepit man on the verge of death.
The characters agree on people’s right to die on the land they were born and grew up in, putting aside national animosity. At the end of the film, once the doctor reaches the tree, the camera shows the officer’s empathetic look and so humanises him. The officer moves in an indeterminate direction, and this is meant to be his way of going to die in the place he was born. Shamiyev asserted in our interview that this path should be a possibility for everybody: “For instance, I think that Armenians living in Hadrut and Khankendi (Stepanakert) should continue to live there. It has been their home for hundreds of years. Moreover, children born to parents living in Lachin and Kalbajar for the past 30 years should also have the right to live there.”
The importance of people’s birthplace and their connection to childhood memories are reflected in the film. The doctor wishes to be buried in the place where he believes his grandfather’s soul lives. The tree under which he sits and is going to die is the one he planted with his grandfather. This tree is not only part of a collective (familial) identity for the doctor, but also an important part of his individual memory. Homeland in this case is not depicted as a piece of land but as one’s childhood and memories of a place.
The doctor faces his death only by “returning” to his childhood. The return to childhood is not limited to this tree; when the doctor arrives at his village and walks among the ruins, we simultaneously hear the sounds of his childhood. It is for this reason that there is another possible reading of this film: the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan can only be resolved if both peoples face their fears by returning to that period when the “childhood trauma” was caused by the nation-state-building process of the early post-Soviet period.
The discussed films that promote humanistic values demonstrate the possibility of touching on sensitive topics in films about Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and opening up channels for dialogue. Nevertheless, even those films were one-sided productions with, to a certain extent, an objective of showing the humanistic approach of one’s respective “side.” There has yet not been any multilateral and local initiative that would bring together members of each society’s film industry with the aim of co-producing and presenting a joint fiction film. In this section, we will attempt to envisage possible cooperation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their respective film industries based on our interviews with Armenian and Azerbaijani filmmakers and critics.
The main platform in the region for both Armenian and foreign films is the Golden Apricot Festival. In the last few years, the festival has played a significant role in cultural exchange between Armenia and Turkey by showcasing films from Turkey, some of which directly touch upon Armenian-Turkish relations. This has somewhat contributed to the political process of normalisation between both states. After 2018, the festival has increased its focus on the South Caucasus. In 2019, there was even a showing of a Russian-Azerbaijani film called “The Molokans” about the Molokan community in Azerbaijan. However, according to Project Manager at the Golden Apricot Festival, Sona Karapoghosyan, the showing was met with plenty of public criticism, even though the film depicted a minority community in Azerbaijan not directly involved in the conflict (Interview with Karapoghosyan 2022).
Karapoghosyan stated that in general it is difficult or even impossible to envisage cooperation within the framework of the Golden Apricot Festival. She asserted that, for the time being, closed screenings are the only possible option. Film critics are open to being part of joint screenings and discussions abroad with Azerbaijani counterparts. Such sessions have already taken place in Georgia, although the results have been ambiguous, as certain participants have reacted both positively and negatively to proceedings. A variety of personal and social factors affect the nature of reactions to join initiatives, including education, personal and family history, one’s relationship with the state, and the politically constructed national identity, etc.
Filmmakers in Armenia currently seem to be reluctant to be part of joint projects with Azerbaijani colleagues. Since the 2020 war, Armenian filmmakers’ focus has shifted even more towards the preservation and perpetuation of Armenian culture and people in Karabakh. And in general, according to our interviewees, societal pressure in Armenia has increased against cooperative efforts with Azerbaijanis and this has had an impact on members of the film industry, who now approach the issue even more sensitively than before.
In this regard, the Armenian diaspora may have an interesting role to play as it finds itself outside of the restrictions created by the Armenian state and less exposed to the societal pressure emanating from people who have suffered directly or indirectly from the wars. In our interview, Nana Shahnazaryan, an independent researcher on late Soviet media, noted that the narrative of the conflict is not strictly controlled by any central force in the diaspora, and so there is more room for experimentation. This has also been the case for critical films about Armenians themselves (e.g. the film “Red Apples” about the issue of female virginity in Armenia, funded and produced by people outside of Armenia). Diaspora filmmakers, although they themselves inhabit nationalist spaces and discourses in their communities, may thus be better placed in a practical sense to produce nuanced films in cooperation with Azerbaijanis. One of the primary issues here, says Shahnazaryan, is the financing of such films as there is a lack of donors interested in supporting the production of multilateral films in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context.
Gary Gananian, a filmmaker from the Armenian community in Brazil now based in the United States, says he wishes to change the perceptions of the conflict among the Armenian diaspora, which, according to him, lacks in-depth and multi-perspective knowledge of the conflict. He states that people in the diaspora are more inclined to see Armenians only in a positive light and so have been sheltered from self-criticism over the years. Nevertheless, in his view, outright negative criticism will be counterproductive. Instead, also showing elements of Azerbaijani communities in a more positive light, such as well-meaning memories of former co-existence, can contribute to a more transformative response to the conflict. A balanced introspective form of criticism, which sees both flaws and positive traits in both the self and the other, is more likely to produce the desired effect as viewers react differently to visuals.
The interviewed Azerbaijani film directors had various thoughts about cooperation with Armenian colleagues. Both Yavez Rzayev and Fehruz Shamiyev noted that the Azerbaijani film industry is not completely ready for such cooperation. Shamiyev, a film director and producer, stated that it would require several years for the Azerbaijani film industry to be prepared for this: “Right now, there are discussions in the industry mostly related to the victory [in the last war]. So be it, I am not against it [this trend] and I understand it, but if 70% of films are going to be about that [victory] then 30% of films should be made about peace”.
It is for this reason that Shamiyev himself says that he is ready to work on a joint project. He even recalls that there was such an opportunity in the past. He planned to make a film about Azerbaijanis and Armenians who exchanged villages and protected each other’s graves: “I wanted to shoot a documentary film about this in 2013 in Shamakhi and it would be good if someone could get the relevant footage from the village in Armenia. I later found out that some filmmakers in Armenia had already started working on such a project and so it was pointless for me to get in touch with this initiative. My idea was left half-baked, but I still want to complete that project in Shamakhi as a producer and I am thinking of doing that”.
Shamiyev also has another idea for a film about an Azerbaijani family who return to Karabakh and live in their old house with the Armenian family who moved in there after the Azerbaijani owners had to leave: “It is true that that place would be the Azerbaijanis’ own house, but an Armenian family has already made it their home for the past 30 years. The purpose of the film would be an artistic pursuit of the truth by observing the lived experiences of these families in the same house. […] Because as Azerbaijanis have their truth, Armenians also have their own truth.”
Shamiyev believes that the implementation of such Armenian-Azerbaijani film projects is more possible if it is done by people under the age of 45–50 than by the older generation: “Because the younger generation has not seen the war directly and they have received less trauma from the conflict. Those who have received the most [direct] trauma from the war are aged 50 and above. Because all their youth and dreams were ruined as a result of the war, it would be difficult for them to forget it. I understand that.”
These words by Shamiyev reflect Yaver Rzayev’s differing position on Armenian-Azerbaijani cooperation for joint film production. Rzayev says that participation in cooperative projects would not be his own wish, but, on the other hand, he feels obliged to participate in this: “Honestly, it’s not something I wish for myself, but I know that I would be the best person to do this. So, if the need arises then I would be obliged to be part of it, because I have been with Armenians a lot and I know them well.”
Considering the abovementioned challenges regarding cooperation now, when memories of the wars are still fresh, it is necessary to be sensitive to recent traumas and the ensuing tense socio-political environment in order to have an effective approach to peacebuilding through film. A balance between public-facing and private initiatives must be achieved as a considerable part of society in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is not willing to participate in collaborative initiatives. And so, finding participants willing to join private initiatives is of utmost importance, as well as providing them with a shelter against public criticisms that may end up derailing their endeavours. Public-facing initiatives, naturally, entail a greater risk due to the unpredictability of reactions from the wider society. Such initiatives would be more conducive in reaching their aim if implemented in ‘small doses’ (e.g. public screenings of films that show characters from the “other side” in an ambiguous light rather than in a totally positive way).
The issue of financing and external support is a sensitive one that requires a careful approach. Allegations of working in the interests of foreign actors are rife in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and so initiatives that are openly supported or funded by external actors are often viewed with suspicion. There are, however, limited possibilities for local support or funding, and so foreign-provided assistance, whether desired or not, is often the only available option. This puts local filmmakers in a predicament.
Below we present three recommendations to address these issues.
Private film screenings
Following our interviews with members of the Armenian and Azerbaijani film industries, we realised that they have not seen each other’s films, including even those that touch on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Raising awareness among film critics and filmmakers of each other’s films will contribute to a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives and increase the possibility of producing films, perhaps even co-productions, in the future. Private film screenings can take place in a third-party country in person so that the follow-up discussions would also enable an effective exchange of ideas.
Diversified funding of co-productions
Most films produced in Armenia and Azerbaijan are supported by governmental ministries or local organisations with particular views on what national cinema should or should not be. Although the contours of national cinema in both countries are not monolithic, there are still limitations to the work of filmmakers, especially to those of them who wish to touch on highly politicised Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and generally for shedding light on a possibility for a cooperative filmmaking. This makes finding alternative ways to finance and support joint film production a highly important matter. Secure and sustainable funding without ideological preconditions would enable the freedom of producers to take films outside of the contours of national cinema. Bringing together Armenian and Azerbaijani filmmakers to discuss joint projects will see fruitful results if they receive funding and support from third parties (e.g. international donors or international film corporations) who have no vested interest in one side of the conflict and allow for full freedom to explore themes conducive to peace and mutual understanding.
Consideration of political developments through film
It is noteworthy that generally filmmakers in both countries are closely tied to the state as they are to a large extent dependent on it financially and subject to its laws. Those involved in the film industry of both countries need to reflect on political developments inside the state. Therefore, it is important to promote viable mutual understanding in crucial political periods (for instance, when peace negotiations are taking place). The state interests unavoidably affect the work of filmmakers and so keeping a close eye on those interests is of paramount importance. The film industry itself cannot bring about peace between states, but its role as a facilitator in the so-called process of “preparing populations for peace” can be significant, especially when its products are politically informed and released in a timely way to support the peace process.
National cinema in Armenia and Azerbaijan has utilised the medium of film to mould narratives that aim to represent each state’s respective view of the mutual conflict. Nevertheless, we have found that there are also films that disrupt those one-sided narratives and lead audiences to question the antagonistic views held against the other side. The fact that such films are produced and showcased, albeit to a rather limited degree, demonstrates that there is a possibility of exploring and widening the cracks of what is ostensibly a monolithic national cinema.
Our conversations with individuals working within the respective film industries somehow reflect the overall picture of a monolithic national cinema framework that nevertheless contains penetrable gaps that can be explored to disrupt dominant and, oftentimes, state-driven nationalistic narratives. In any case, a methodical strategy is required to take advantage of those gaps, considering the continuation of tense inter-state relations, state control of cultural products, and suspicion or outright opposition on the part of society vis-à-vis collaborative initiatives with the other side. We believe that our recommendations point to a path toward potential collaborative efforts between Armenian and Azerbaijani filmmakers in the future.
The list of interviewees
Sona Karapoghosyan, Project Manager at the Golden Apricot Festival.
Nana Shahnazarian, Independent researcher on late Soviet media.
Gary Gananian, Filmmaker.
Yaver Rzayev, Scriptwriter and Director.
Fehruz Shamiyev, Filmmaker and Producer.
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