“Most Prophets Were Regular Guys”: Azerbaijani Film Makers About Their Approach to Modern Prophecy

 

I have never been to Azerbaijan, but I may very well be a minor celebrity there. Somehow I ended up as an extra in a comedy series created by a collective of Azeri artists, which was shot in Berlin a couple of years ago. I even had some lines – in the Azeri language. Meaning: I had no idea what I was saying. Playing the daughter of one of the main characters, in an attempt to get into my role, I asked my on-screen father about the character of our relationship. “I don’t know,” he responded, “I just made her up.”

Said collective of writers, actors, and directors has since been doing really well for itself. They successfully finished the European Film College in Denmark together, and even though the members are now scattered across the world, they are still engaged in individual creative endeavors and collaborations. Their last project to be released on YouTube is the short Sudan (From Water), which was selected to be premièred at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The film tells a modern version of the story of Ederlezi, or the prophet Elias, and was partially set in Cannes – where they were invited to join the film festival a couple of years ago.

We spoke to writer and actor Azad Heydarow and actor Orxan Ata about prophecy, imagination, and whatever happened to the Azeri guy in the joke..?

 

Your films often are inspired by stories about prophets. Why did you want to tell your modern interpretation of the legend of Ederlezi?

Azad: Some sources say that there have been 124.000 prophets. We only know some of their stories, which are very well-told with a universal structure and content for humankind. For hundreds of years, we no longer had prophets, but instead there are thousands of inventors, visionaries, scientists, artists, workers, entrepreneurs, etc. People don’t tend to be prophets anymore. They enjoy one, two, or sometimes more professions. We are more independent in nature, but still curious about prophecy. Another inspiration was that most of those 124.000 prophets mentioned were just regular guys. Elijah is also a regular guy, with good intentions.

Orxan: It doesn’t happen very often, but the short films you have seen: yes. We have two shorts that were inspired by historical mystics. First of all, you create what you are, and what is interesting to you. At that time, historical mystics were remarkable to me. And as an actor, it is entertaining to play prophets. We had a lot of fun on the set.

 

In your films you often leave a lot of room for interpretation to the viewer. Why is it important to you to challenge the imagination and creativity of your audience?

Azad: I take it as a compliment: to be able to involve the audience in making interpretations about a film is a good point for film makers. We love to share what we can and provide content for unknown spaces – sometimes unknown even to us.

Orxan: Because in my films I create my own picture and language, and it is exciting to see someone from the audience really being on the same page with you.

 

The team of people you work with are mostly from Azerbaijan, but are spread out across the world. Do you feel that your Azeri roots are more like an inspiration or a restriction when it comes to your creative work?

Azad: My imagination is influenced by the culture of Azerbaijan quite a lot, but at the same time thinking in other languages makes me part of those other cultures, too. We work with people from other countries as well, but we just began it all in Azerbaijan.

Orxan: Yes, I can definitely say that. But I wouldn’t call them my ‘Azeri roots’. Instead, I prefer to refer to them as my ‘Caucasus roots’. Sometimes when I am watching an Armenian or Georgian film, I feel an enormous connection between me and them. That’s why.

 

Your work has gotten some high-profile international attention. You were invited to the Cannes Film Festival, and Sudan (From Water) was shown at the Brooklyn Film Festival. What are your plans and goals for the future?

Azad: So far it has been wonderful to work together. Last year we graduated from the European Film College, which was a was very intense learning period with meaningful experiences. You know that famous phrase about life planning?

Orxan: The pre-eminent future plan is to make my first feature fiction film.

 

And last but not least… what happened to the Azeri guy in the trench after the Russian and the Armenian got shot?

Orxan: He passed away, like the others. But the point of this anecdote is to cut those kind of talks in the middle. Talking about wars or political incidents never ever took humanity somewhere.