Ilgar Najaf is an Azerbaijani screenwriter, film director and producer. His debut feature Buta premiered at Tallinn Black Nights and Palm Springs; his second feature Pomegranate Orchard premiered at Karlovy Vary, Cairo, and the Eurasian International Film Festival, where it won the Jury Award. Pomegranate Orchard was selected as the seventh Azerbaijani submission in history for the Foreign Language Oscar. It was not nominated..
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Najaf discusses Chekhov, vanishing ways of life in rural Azerbaijan and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Pomegranate Orchard takes place on a generational farm in contemporary Azerbaijan. It has been stated that you adapted this story from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. What resonances do you see between pre-revolution Russia and present-day Azerbaijan? Why did you want to adapt this particular story to our times?
ILGAR NAJAF: The essence of the story lies not where it goes narratively or geographically, but rather in the contradictions that occur in the human spirit. That is the important matter in the story— the target is human. Chekhov’s greatness is that his heroes are always relevant and interesting.
FLMTQ: Shamil, the owner of the orchard, shares his home with Sara, his daughter-in-law and her young son Jalal. When his son Gabil shows up one day after a twelve-year absence, his father is rightfully suspicious; it seems Sara is just happy to have her husband home. Gabil slowly reveals himself to be manipulative, impulsive, and violent, bringing with him the promise of a better life in Moscow we know will not materialize. Does Gabil embody a certain generation of Azerbaijan today, or is he simply a character?
IN: These heroes are not far from us. They are not some people in a region alienated from us, but rather living in and around us. And such a life is still going on.
FLMTQ: Upon Gabil’s return the previously idyllic life on the pomegranate orchard is disrupted, suspending its inhabitants between their past and the present, traditional rural life and modernity. Gabil’s cellphone, for example, is a constant distraction. Can you reflect briefly on the urban/rural divide in contemporary Azerbaijan, and how this film perhaps shows us glimmers of a vanishing way of life?
IN: I think this way of life is already history. Maybe when I’m talking about this issue, it is already too late to change anything. The previous idyllic life exists now only in movies. Times are changing so fast in our digitalized era— when we began shooting, the villagers around us very often noticed that this story was sadly about their neighbors or relatives.
FLMTQ: Critics have noted the lack of close-ups in the film, which keeps us at a certain distance from the characters. This impossibility of intimacy, however, underlies the relations between the characters onscreen, while the expansive camera also more aptly captures the bucolic beauty of the film’s landscapes. How did you and cinematographer Ayhan Salar collaborate to build the film’s visual language?
IN: Any director would approach this story differently in terms of visual, technical, and aesthetic images. I saw this story as one about whispering, joy, love and tears, and discussed with Ayhan Salar an aesthetic solution for the movie we would be making. For me, this film was about finding a visual image for the story. And it happened.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
IN: We are now working on the next movie. Roelof Jan Mineboo, Asif Rustamov and I are working on the new script. I do not want to say anything about the topic— maybe just that it is about a small man against the system. If everything goes well we will start shooting at the end of this year.
Interview by Ursula Grisham
Head Curator, Filmatique