The thing is that the notions of independent and auteur cinema, in fact, mean almost the same from any angle. To summarize the opinions of famous filmmakers, an independent, auteur film is an alternative to mainstream cinema, a film that does not cater to a wide audience, has its own style, idea, message, individual interpretation. In other words, the central figure here is the director, who controls the film process and does not allow interference from the outside (producer).
However, on another level, we have to ask ourselves: does or should an independent film based on the author’s idea always meet the criteria of art? Of course not. An obvious example is the works of American director Ed Wood (1950-60), who went down in history as “the worst director of all time.” Wood made his films on a small budget, simple and primitive. Primitive to the point that he stole a mechanical octopus from the warehouse of a film studio for one of his films, but not the motor that made it move and asked the actors to act as if the octopus strangled them. Wood was a fan of Orson Wells and thought that his films were on par with Welles’s. In American director Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood, a dejected Wood accidentally meets Orson Wells in a café. And Wells advises him to follow only his own vision and believe only in himself. This is the essence of independent cinema: the author makes a film believing in their own idea and vision.
Can an independent film become as popular as commercial films, collect box office and in this regard compete with the mainstream cinema? Of course. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a good example. Or one of Sidney Lumet’s masterpieces of world cinema, 12 Angry Men, was an independent film with a budget of a little over $300,000 and a box office of $2,000,000.
Let’s put the question this way: can a mainstream film meet the criteria of art? Do directors working with big studios reflect an independent position in their films? Films by Hitchcock and John Ford, who worked with the world’s biggest film factories, famous Hollywood studios that stick to the established cinematic patterns, are also serious works of art. In the Soviet Union, directors like Tarkovsky and German managed to retain their authorial position, although they made films funded from the state budget. This means that the director’s ability to maintain an independent position, regardless of the institution with which they work, has to do with a strong personality, unshakable convictions and professionalism. A known example of this is the 1960s collaboration of Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine, two great producers of the time, with Godard. The producers suggested that Godard adapt Alberto Moravia’s Contempt to screen. “New Wave” filmmakers’ response to the director’s consent to this proposal was ambivalent, and some even accused him of betraying his principles. True to his principles, however, Godard filmed Contempt as a critique, showing the pressure the producers exerted on the author.
After one of the prominent figures of Italian neorealism, Vittorio De Sica, made the neorealist film Umberto D, the country’s Ministry of Culture criticized him for making a pessimistic film. Italian film critics were also fiercely critical of the work, citing the same reason. Later, De Sica’s works included comedy and melodrama, and these films set the bar high.
Of course, not every director is able to withstand the pressure from the producer. For example, the German director von Donnersmarck, who made such a successful drama film as The Lives of Others, continued his career in Hollywood. His film The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and produced by Columbia Pictures, one of the six largest film studios in Hollywood, was a mainstream product.
Since we are talking about independent cinema, I have to mention the New Hollywood movement that emerged in the 1960-70s. Independent European, especially Italian and French, cinema played a major role in the collapse of the Hollywood studio system (under which actors, screenwriters, and directors entered into long-term contracts with the studios which ran Hollywood, to be used as their property, to be severely penalized in the event of violating these contracts, etc.). Hollywood products could not grip the attention of the young audience, and Americans found the new narrative, the treatment of non-conventional topics in European cinema closer to real life.
For this reason, the big studios decided to work with young directors without interfering in their work too much. It was on this wave that films by such talented directors as Coppola, Scorsese and Altman appeared. Suffice it to say that although Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was produced by a major studio, the director asserted his authorial position and the film was a box office hit.
However, directors like Coppola and Lynch have avoided working with Hollywood so far, preferring to seek independent funding. In America, small studios run by big ones provide about $10 million to independent authors.
Founded in 1981 by actor Robert Redford, the Sundance Institute provides special support to American independent cinema. The film festival of the same name, established by the organization, promotes talented authors from all over the world who want to make independent films.
There are also various foundations, ministries of culture, famous TV channels such as Rai and Canal+ in Europe that provide significant financial support to independent authors.
Independent cinema in Azerbaijan
The former officials of the former cinema department of the Ministry of Culture interfered in every film the agency funded. (Since a feature-length film has not yet been released since the new officials was appointed, I cannot say anything definite about censorship. 2022 will tell.)
Under the previous officials, films were mostly released in two ways. In the first case, individual directors shot scripts proposed by the ministry. In the second case, the ministry funded some directors’ projects. The work of the latter was difficult because protecting original projects from the ministry’s scissors took a lot of nerves and dealing with red tape. To be more specific, a film in which the director fights to preserve their vision and idea can be considered independent, even if the ministry funds it.
It is hard to call local mainstream cinema independent despite the fact that it is not funded from the state budget. After all, the sponsor, the producer, who provides funding for the film, sets specific conditions for it to collect a box office, order the script themselves, and so on. Be it as it may, the development of mainstream cinema is important, if only because an increase in film production will allow producers to finance independent cinema.
I can name three independent filmmakers (we are talking about the authors of feature-length films) who stay consistent in their principles: Elvin Adigozal, Hilal Baydarov and Emil Guliyev. Particularly noteworthy is the perseverance of Elvin Adigozel and Hilal Baydarov, whose films have been screened at major film festivals.
The key question is: what should we do to develop independent cinema in Azerbaijan today? The Ministry of Culture undoubtedly has a great responsibility in this regard. If the state allocates a budget for cinema, then most of this budget should be spent on the development of independent cinema. When talking in interviews about the development of film production, officials in charge of cinema, especially Rufat Hasanov, proudly mention the yet unreleased films of Vagif Mustafayev, Asif Rustamov, Elchin Musaoglu.
Do these officials really believe that the three films produced by Azerbaijanfilm will play an important role in the formation of the film industry? It is absurd for the new officials to hope for any success in cinema by following the policies of the previous officials and without changing the basic principles of the local film industry. First, the budget allocated for the three films is not disclosed, although according to the backstage talk, 1 million manat was allocated for Vagif Mustafayev’s film alone. 15 low- or medium-budget films could be produced and released with the funds allocated for all three films (Zəhər tuluğu (Poison) with a budget of 150,000 has just been released to public acclaim). I mean, three films do not make the film industry. I can also predict the fate of these films, which will either remain on the shelf, or will be screened at a festival to be forgotten, unsold, or will not be released in the country. The film industry cannot develop without a clear budget allocation mechanism. If only Azerbaijanfilm produces films, film production cannot be formed. The promotion of a film, attracting the audience requires a separate budget, a PR policy. What is the ministry’s plan and strategy in this regard?
First Deputy Minister of Culture, smiling, cheerful Elnur Aliyev said in a statement: “Cinema, one of the most important areas of culture, is a profitable field.”
I have to repeat my question: how can the film industry form and be profitable with three big-budget feature-length films and countless short films? And how much exactly did The Island Within and Fulya make at the box office? And just in general, what kind of revenues has cinema generated this year?
When I say basic principles, I mean revising the law on cinematography, abolishing taxes on cinema, building film theaters in the regions, allocating film budgets through a transparent, working mechanism. How can an effective result be achieved in film production without solving these problems?
In another statement, Elnur Aliyev said: “The best example of the development of human assets is the Azerbaijan Film Agency.” First, the Agency cannot be considered an example of anything yet, because it has yet to be created. It remains to be seen whether something that has not been created yet will be an example of something, or whether it will be of any use in the development of cinema. Secondly, it is not clear what the deputy minister meant by the development of human assets. If human assets in cinematography means creative authors and crews, there is no cause for serious concern. The concern is that the distribution of funding for films should be based on a transparent mechanism for authors not to be impeded by red tape, that the new Film Agency should pursue an open door policy, and that it should work hard so that important commercial projects are supported as well.
Finally, the 6.5 million allocated for cinema should be accounted for.
Meanwhile, the ministry has announced a competition—”Support for full-length feature film projects 2022″, with a prize fund of 300,000 manat. There are some obscure details in the terms of the competition, but I will not write about them now as I have no desire to kill the holiday mood either for Rufat Hasanov or myself. But we will follow the progress of the competition and touch upon the relevant issues in the next articles.