Cinema of Commoning 2
Symposium, Screenings, Talks
On Caucasus Chronicles and Azerbaijani Cinema

As part of our collaborative Cinema of Commoning Film Program, Salaam Cinema in Baku has curated a selection of Short Films from the Caucasus. Below, filmmaker and Salaam Cinema team member Leyli Gafarova explains why she chose these films to present to audiences at SİNEMA TRANSTOPIAin Berlin and partner venues around the world.

Le jeu de Mariage (The Wedding Game), Adina Balatova.

Le jeu de Mariage (The Wedding Game), Adina Balatova.

With this program, we wanted to explore the Caucasus through a collection which could unravel the complexities of identity, tradition and resistance. From the intimate struggle of a transgender woman in Prisoner of Society (Rati Tsiteladze, Georgia, 2018), to the daring exploration of tradition in The Wedding Game (Adina Balatova, Belgium, Dagestan 2018), these films delve deep into the complexities of personal liberation and societal expectations. 

Holy God (Vladlena Sandu, Russia 2016) is a self-portrait that unveils the resilience of a family escaping conflict, shedding light on the ongoing effects of war on a generation of women. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Leyli Gafarova, Azerbaijan 2018) presents an intimate portrait of life in a Baku slum, juxtaposing the city’s oil-driven prosperity with the struggles of its residents and questioning the role of Western filmmakers in the region. Meanwhile, Shanghai (Teymur Hajiev, Azerbaijan 2017) delves into the same space in fiction through the chaotic yet poetic existence of a nosy boy capturing life’s intricacies amidst familial dynamics, weaving a tale of love, intrigue, and the haphazard rhythms of everyday life. Through these Caucasus chronicles, we invite viewers to witness the vibrant narratives and resilient spirits of a region shaped by complex history and the pursuit of personal and collective truths.

These are new, independent productions. Not all of them are local to Baku where we are based, but they are regional in the broader sense of the Caucasus. These are all films that we have screened also at our space, Salaam Cinema, over the past five years. It’s very difficult to find films from our region in the broadest sense and especially films that are representing what we want to talk about. Most filmmakers are male, and most of the films which are supported by the state are still some kind of patriotic propaganda. Even within independent cinema in the region, there is still patriarchal dominance. These films are unique because their approaches are different; they’re hybrid in their way, and they are critical. 

For example, Holy God is a documentary about the Chechen war in the 1990s. This is a subject that is not spoken about so much, but is part of our collective post-Soviet trauma, and we are interconnected across the region by this conflict. The film centers on Russian women who have been affected by the war, so this is not a mainstream topic; it’s very delicate. I think right now is an interesting moment to look back at that archive, and it is this rarely discussed history which Holy God represents.

Then we have a film, The Wedding Game, from a Dagestani filmmaker who is looking at performance and culture. Again, we don’t hear much or see a lot of work about Dagestan, and here we see this area through the perspective of performing identity within a cultural landscape, so this is a really unusual perspective on the region. Even though the central theme, about being unable to be yourself within your own culture, is tragic, the director has this almost humorous approach. I like this playfulness within the film, and it’s something that I think we can all relate to. 

Then there are three films from Azerbaijan, which I wanted to include because I felt like they were quite dramatic but again, also with humor to them. Something which I sense about Azerbaijani cinema is that we are very good at laughing about ourselves, approaching our own tragedy with humor. I think this trait is very specific to us, within the context of the censorship that we live in. The censorship in Azerbaijan is stronger than our neighbors, more intense than the restrictions experienced in Georgia or in Armenia for instance. 

Two of these films, one of them made by my colleague and one of them made by myself, take place in the same area, a neighborhood which used to be called Shanghai by its inhabitants. In Shanghai, Teymur Hajiev makes a kind of humorous fiction, drawing on this real place. In Once Upon a Time in Shanghai I follow a German filmmaker who was making a fiction film in the neighborhood. I was documenting his filmmaking process and at the same time my own portrait of the place came together too. These two films explore the same subject from two different points of views, one fiction and one documentary. In my film, I also touch upon the approaches of Western filmmakers coming to our countries, and how they handle this situation, so it is a critique and a reflection, or more of a mirror, of how you should not make a film in the Global South. I’ve always wanted to put these two films together; I’m very interested in how they will resonate with other audiences far away from here.

Leyli Gafarova is an independent filmmaker, researcher, educator, and co-creator of Salaam Cinema, a community-based cinema and art space. Based in Baku, she focuses on processes, research, and discoveries, through the lens of themes such as gender, national identity, (self)-censorship, and co-existence. Leyli employs participatory approaches and games to experiment with authorship and collectivity, while also reflecting on and questioning production processes. Additionally, she curates film programs, educational labs, and festivals to examine and deepen the understanding of suppressed voices, identities, and narratives.