The film industry in Azerbaijan dates back to 1898. In fact, Azerbaijan was among the first countries involved in cinematography. When the Lumière brothers of France premiered their first motion picture footage in Paris on December 28, 1895, little did they know how rapidly it would ignite a new age of photographic documentation. These ingenuous brothers invented an apparatus, patented in February 1895, which they called the “Cinématographe” (from which the word “cinematography” is derived). It’s not surprising that this apparatus soon showed up in Baku. At the turn of the 19th century, the bay town of Baku on the Caspian was producing more than half of the world’s supply of oil. Just like today, the oil industry attracted foreigners eager to invest and to work.
Early 20th century
In 1915, the Pirone brothers of Belgium set up a film production laboratory in Baku. They invited film director Boris Svetlov from St. Petersburg, Russia, to workfor them and produce The Woman, An Hour before His Death, and An Old Story in a New Manner. It was Svetlov who also directed the film entitled In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions, which later received well-known success. The famous Azerbaijani actor Huseyn Arablinski (pictured, right) played Lutfali, the main role in this film.
In 1916 Svetlov directed the first version of the operetta “Arshin Mal Alan”. During this era of “silent” film, in-house musicians performed the musical selections. Men played two of the women’s roles in the film. Gulchohra was played by Ahmad Aghdamski and Aunt Jahan was played by Y. Narimanov. In 1919, during the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, a documentary called “The Celebration of the Anniversary of Azerbaijani Independence” was filmed on Azerbaijan’s independence day, May 28, and premiered in June 1919, at several theatres in Baku.
After Soviet power was established in 1920, Nariman Narimanov, Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan, signed a decree nationalizing Azerbaijan’s cinema. The People’s Education Commissariat, which functioned somewhat like a Ministry, created an art department comprised of a film section headed by Hanafi Teregulov and Muslim Magomayev, a notable composer and opera singer.
To the left: the first film studio in Baku. In 1922, the government of Azerbaijan created its first cinema factory that became the forerunner of today’s film studio Azerbaijanfilm. The location of the studio was behind the Government Building. Unfortunately, it no longer exists.
In 1923, the Azerbaijan Photo Film Institution (APFI) was established by a special decree of the Council of People’s Commissars. The Institution controlled all the movie houses and distribution bureaus. Thus, a new epoch in the history of Azerbaijani cinema began – a period when Soviet ideology, not individual entrepreneurship, dominated the film industry. APFI shot its first film in 1924. This film was the first Azerbaijani Soviet film and was based on legends about the Maiden Tower.
Cinema in Azerbaijan Republic
In 1991, after Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union, the first Baku International Film Festival East-West was held. In December 2000, the former President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, signed a decree proclaiming August 2 a professional holiday for filmmakers of Azerbaijan. Now that the USSR ceases to exist, Azerbaijani filmmakers are again experiencing issues similar to those faced by cinematographers prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Once again, both choice of content and sponsorship of films are largely left up to the initiative of the filmmaker. The proudest moment in Azerbaijan cinema history came in 1995 when the director Rustam Ibrahimbeyov won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Burnt by the Sun a film awarded as Best Foreign Film. You can watch the trailer for Burnt by the Sun below.