Azerbaijani show business navigates state pressures, incentives
Members of Azerbaijan's film industry face consequences if they speak ill of the state, while those who stay in line are rewarded handsomely.
Kamal Yashar is an Azerbaijani voiceover actor, one of the few in the country's small industry. His voice is widely familiar from foreign films dubbed into Azerbaijani. But his face and name came into the spotlight only recently.
In February, the 39-year-old made a video appeal to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on his Facebook account about the problems his industry faces.
It is common for Azerbaijanis to make direct appeals to the president after their grievances go unaddressed by the state bureaucracy. What was different about Yashar's appeal was his theatrical use of voices representing a broad range of characters.
"I've voiced a lot of characters…Heroes…Villains…Kittens...Heroes!" he begins, pronouncing each word with its own distinct intonation. "These are all me. This isn't a montage, they all are my voices."
"There are only 25-30 people working in our industry," he goes on, addressing Aliyev. "We are little artists in this small country. We have a lot of issues, but nobody hears us out. We don't even have a minister. Even when we did have one, we couldn't reach him," he says in reference to the culture minister post, which has been vacant since December.
The next day, Yashar reported that Kinokitab (Filmbook), a program he created and was hosting on Azerbaijani state television (AzTV), had been canceled, and that he had been fired.
In a statement, AzTV noted that Yashar's program hadn't been aired since September. "It was also explained to the creative team that the program does not meet modern requirements in terms of quality. Although the team was given another chance this year, it was decided to stop broadcasting it because it did not attract ratings," statement read. "The idea of associating this with some appeals or social media posts is nothing more than a diversion and artificial agitation."
Yashar's appeal was a rare public airing of grievances about the Azerbaijani film industry, and his case highlighted its complicated relationship with the state.
Azerbaijani cinema is not known for political freedom, neither in terms of topics of films nor actors' and directors' ability to express personal views.
When veteran actor Ali Nur criticized the Culture Ministry in February at the funeral of another prominent actor, it took less than a day for him to retreat and praise the ministry in terms that many believe he was forced to utter: "Azerbaijan's Culture Ministry is helping Azerbaijani art with great attention and care. It is the crown on our head," he said.
To get state support for film projects, one needs to shun political activism, the secretary of the Azerbaijan Cinematographers Union, Ali Isa Jabbarov, indicated in a recent interview to local news outlet Toplum TV: "It seems that the unwritten rule of political realities is that you can criticize, but not violate the tonality of Azerbaijani political correctness."
Carrots for scorpions
The slickly produced "Scorpion Season," a 12-episode crime thriller series that aired in 2022-23 on public television (ITV), was one of the most successful Azerbaijani TV series in recent years.
It also provided an example of ostentatious state support for a show that glorified the work of a state body.
"Scorpion Season attracted huge attention, at least among some parts of society, which had long been disconnected from what Azerbaijani TV stations offer. Scorpion Season proved to the TV managers that there is an Azerbaijani audience that they had discounted, which were not abroad but right here – they had just ignored their TV signal and continued their lives via YouTube or Netflix," the series' co-creator and one of its main stars, Azer Aydemir, said on a discussion on public television.
Film critic Toghrul Abbasov attributes the attractiveness of the series to the already-earned popularity of the cast and crew. "Besides, the aesthetics of the filming is in line with global trends," he told Eurasianet. "The use of graphic design, the fast moving transitions between scenes, as opposed to the heavy and slow atmosphere of most Russian and Turkish series, made the series more attractive. Plus, the detective thriller genre is popular among audiences everywhere, and Azerbaijan is no exception."
But the crew behind Scorpion Season has the state's backing. Azerbaijan's General Prosecutor's Office supports the filming with logistics. Aydemir told Meydan TV that when the first episode was being filmed, the team had already "got the blessing" of the prosecutor's office. And in mid-February, the Prosecutor's Office presented an award to the cast and crew, hailing them for "showing the delicate moments of the difficult and honorable prosecutor's profession that caused great interest of the public."
Indeed, the series shows procuracy staff working hard and staying up late to crack tough murder cases.
"We don't know how much the prosecutor's office intervened with the series, whether it told the writing team to add some scenes to the storyline or not, but clearly it very much liked the series," Abbasov, the film critic, said. "We are observing the promotion of prosecutors, sometimes even at the level of propaganda. You can see messages to the effect of 'reforms are going on, good employees get promoted' or 'bribery has no place' in the prosecutor's office. Even if we put all these messages aside, it's still striking that you don't find a single bad prosecution employee – all are good characters. I recently wrote a post on Facebook joking that the crew should have added one not-so-good employee character so as to make the messaging less obvious."
In Azerbaijan, a filmmaker has to receive permission from the state to film in certain locations, even if one finds funding on their own. Thus, it's nearly impossible to produce a film with a politically critical storyline, Abbasov notes.
"And as everyone is aware of these challenges, no one even makes an effort," he said. "In this sense, censorship can happen in two different ways. Either you get state approval and state money beforehand, by which you give permission to the state to censor your content. Or, even if you produce the film on your own, you'll eventually face censorship when it comes to its screening in cinemas."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
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