Rustam Ibragimbekov, an Azeri screenwriter, did not look to international negotiations or non-governmental organization reports for help in trying to show the impact of Azerbaijan and Armenia’s 23-year conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on ordinary lives. Rather, he delved into state records associated with the 1988 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgayit.
Ibragimbekov, a 72-year-old native of Baku, has a track record of crafting wrenchingly emotional screenplays that explore how the Soviet system manipulated, and often destroyed individual lives. Along with Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, Ibragimbekov co-wrote the script for the Oscar-winning “Burnt by the Sun,” a 1994 film about Stalin’s repressions. He explored a similar theme as a co-writer for Régis Wargnier’s Oscar-nominated “East/West” a work about the return of Russian émigrés to the Soviet Union.
With the February 27, 1988, massacre in Sumgayit, Ibragimbekov believes he has hit on a no less controversial topic.
According to official statistics, 32 people, including six Azerbaijanis and more than 20 Armenians, were killed during the massacre, which followed the mass deportation of ethnic Azeris from Armenia at the start of the two sides’ conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Armenian sources, by contrast, claim the number of victims ranged into the hundreds.
The story of “Ramiz and Julyetta” that Ibragimbekov has developed is based on court documents and eyewitness accounts published by a former Soviet state prosecutor who worked on the investigation into the Sumgayit massacre. It’s a tale that promises to shed light on an event whose memory has left lasting scars.
The book on which the film is based, “Sumgayit: The Start of the USSR’s Collapse,” is by Aslan Ismayilov, who drew on materials from the criminal investigation into the massacre and transcripts from Politburo hearings on the events. Ismayilov’s central argument is that the violence in Sumgayit was the result of an operation orchestrated by the KGB to justify the use of the army to crackdown on Azerbaijan’s independence movement. It was also used to justify the territorial claims of Armenians in Karabakh, according to Ismayilov. [Editor’s note: the book’s author is not a relative of the writer of this article].
Ismayilov, a former prosecutor who advocated for capital punishment for the massacre’s perpetrators, recounts that witnesses were pressured to change their court testimony “[w]hen the KGB’s role in the case was revealed.”
Against this backdrop, Ibragimbekov’s screenplay focuses on an ethnic Azeri man (Ramiz) from Baku and ethnic Armenian woman (Julyetta) from Sumgayit who fall in love. Ramiz is an apolitical hero -- a real Baku resident, as Ibragimbekov calls him -- who is largely indifferent to his ethnic identity. He goes to Sumgayit to see Julyetta, and ends up witnessing the February 27 atrocities. But when he goes to court to tell the truth about what he saw, he is arrested.
“I want to show the tragedy of two lovers, whose lives had been tragically changed by the conflict,” Ibragimbekov elaborated. He describes Ramiz and Julyetta as “far from politics, have nothing to do with either [side’s] liberation movement or territorial claims.”
That outlook, he believes, may allow the film to promote a deeper understanding of the conflict’s larger context. “The majority of people always get things right. When shooting stops, people-to-people contacts get back onto a peaceful path, as they understand that the conflicts are started by governments and radical groups, not by ordinary people,” said Ibragimbekov.
Seeking financing for the film’s estimated $2-million budget, Ibragimbekov has submitted the screenplay to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A council of film experts is still reviewing the work, according to Yusif Sheykhov, head of the ministry’s Cinematography Department, who declined to comment further.
Some observers believe that state sponsorship for the project is highly unlikely. Elmir Mirzoyev, editor-in-chief of the Kultura.az news portal, says the endeavor may create problems for its authors since the screenplay’s concept “is too different” from the government’s PR message.
“Azerbaijani and Armenian audiences have been brought up with pseudo-patriotic propaganda by their countries’ respective media outlets and they simply are not ready to digest this message,” Mirzoyev said. “I expect the authors will be bullied for a pro-Armenian stance in Azerbaijan and vice-versa in Armenia.”
The chances for “Ramiz and Julyetta” to receive state sponsorship may seem even slimmer to those who remember Ibragimbekov’s 1998 film “The Family,” about the pogroms of Armenian families in Azerbaijan prior to the Soviet Army’s 1990 crackdown in Baku. The movie, which was shown in a number of international film festivals, has not been broadcast on local channels.
In recent years, the government has responded cautiously to creative works that deal with the Karabakh conflict. In 2008, the government unofficially banned a novel that described the tragic fate of Armenian and Azerbaijani gays. In 2010, the Ministry of Culture censored part of Chingiz Rasulzade’s movie “The Dolls,” during which a soldier is shown crying during battle.
One Sumgayit resident, however, believes that Ibragimbekov’s film will show simply what used to be the reality of life in Azerbaijan.
“Love between an Armenian woman and an Azerbaijani man was a common thing back then. There were lots of mixed families,” recollected 61-year-old unemployed Dagbayi Farajov. “Some of them suffered a lot because of the conflict … Some people saved their neighbors, loved ones from what happened in those days. It is part of the city’s stories.”
Ibragimbekov maintains that he is not afraid of a harsh reaction to his film. He thinks the government should spend more effort trying to convince the ethnic Armenian residents of breakaway Karabakh, whom he sees as Azerbaijani citizens, that it is ready to embrace them.
The filmmaker, however, describes himself as no pacifist. “I blame the leadership of Armenia for the occupation, and I think Azerbaijan should fight to get its lands back,” he said. “I consider the Armenian leadership and radical, aggressive groups in Armenia as my enemies, but I know that the people of Armenia are not responsible for everything their leadership does.”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.