The atmosphere of terror and violence in the darkest period of Soviet history was fully manifested in Russian cinema. Cinema began to promote new moral values that were extremely important to the Soviet dictatorship. The moral values that have been attributes of a good person for centuries—loyalty, compassion, faith in people—were replaced by opposite values in the environment of total awareness—betrayal, skepticism, cruelty. A person who betrayed a loved one and handed them over to the authorities for ideological reasons was portrayed as a hero in a number of Russian films. Partiynyy bilet (Party Membership Card), Kəndlilər (The Peasants), Velikiy grazhdanin (The Great Citizen)—the focus of all these films is on a female character. Realizing that her lover or husband is a class enemy, she reports him to the authorities.
In all fairness, this subject was addressed in Azerbaijani cinema years later—when it became shameful to show betrayal as a moral value in Russian cinema. In the 1967 film Dağlarda döyüş (Battle in the Mountains), the son of a border guard tries to arrest his father, an enemy of the state. In Doğma sahillər (The Native Shores), made in 1988, in the final years of the Soviet government, the most liberal period in the country’s history, a woman aims a rifle at her husband and hands him over to the authorities.
But these not-so-glorious pages of our cinema were still ahead. In the mid-1930s, our national cinema, strange as it may seem, produced its brightest works in terms of the atmosphere it expressed: Dəcəl dəstə (The Naughty Gang) and Mavi dənizin sahilində (On the Shores of the Blue Sea)…
Apparently, the center did not pay much attention to films made in the “backwater provinces” of the Soviet empire. They were intended for local distribution, and some of them were even silent (at the time when silent films were no longer made anywhere else). Perhaps the center thought that Oriental-looking people could not influence anyone in Russia. This stereotype was broken only in the mid-1940s with the film Arşın Mal Alan (The Cloth Peddler): the brilliant Rashid Behbudov, dazzling in his hat, won the hearts of all Soviet people.
The 1936 film Almaz, adapted by Jafar Jabbarly from his own play, occupies a special place not only among the 1930s Azerbaijani films, but also in the entire history of our national cinema. At the same time, Almaz is a film that has never enjoyed the spotlight of the cultural community.
The film Sevil, directed by Amo Bek-Nazarov and adapted from another one of Jabbarly’s plays during the latter’s lifetime, is much more famous. Don’t be surprised by the involvement of the classic of Armenian cinema A. Bek-Nazarov. That was the time when the Communist Party of Azerbaijan was led by Levon Mirzoyan, and the coat of arms of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was created by the artist Ruben Shkhiyan.
Jafar Jabbarly was to give screen life to his second play as a director this time, but his untimely death got in the way. A year later, directors Agarza Guliyev and Grigory Braginsky brought the playwright’s screenplay adapted from his play Almaz to the big screen. The strange thing here is that the playwright, who is associated with the art of theater, beautifully mastered the specifics of silent cinema. As a result, it was impossible to turn the script into sound, and a silent film was made at a time when sound films were already dominant.
Never having been in the spotlight, Almaz is one of the most curious films in our cinema, and it’s time to take a closer look at it—many things about it will surprise us…
A teacher named Almaz comes to a remote village. As a matter of fact, we never see Almaz when she teaches in the classroom: we only see her teaching the children physical education in the school yard. More than in the school, Almaz is interested in setting up a carpet-weaving cooperative in the village.
In the mid-1930s, during the period of collectivization, the subject of cooperatives was already in the past, in 1931, when Jafar Jabbarli wrote his play Almaz. Two years before this play, the film The General Line by the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was released—Jafar Jabbarly could have watched it. The General Line also dealt with the organization of a cooperative in a village, the main organizer of the cooperative also being woman. In the same year, Stalin ordered to change the film title to “Old and New”. Cooperatives were no longer the mainstay of rural life. In fact, cooperatives were financially profitable for the peasants, but they were soon replaced by collective farms, which tuned the peasants into slaves again. Perhaps, when Jafar Jabbarly wrote the play, he saw another film made in those years—Odna (Alone) directed by G. Kozintsev and L. Trauberg. In this film, a single woman goes to a remote village and faces a class struggle there. But unlike the female protagonists of Alone and many other similar films, Almaz does not see her enemies. She is too open-hearted and naïve. It is these traits that set Almaz apart from other female characters in Soviet cinema.
In the films Party Membership Card, The Peasants and The Great Citizen, it was the woman who exposed the man and never the other way around. According to the old Russian patriarchal mentality, the relationship between husband and wife in the family embodies the relationship between God and man, respectively. In a society with such a mindset, a woman who exposes her husband symbolically rejects “God” in her family. When she turns her husband in to the authorities, it is as if she submits herself to another, stronger man. At that time, the Orthodox consciousness was still very strong in Russian society. According to it, nuns who renounce family life are married to God. But who is this “God”?
The answer to this question can be found in the film Kolybelnaya (Lullaby) by the prominent documentary director Dziga Vertov made in 1937, during the most dreadful period, notable for its archetypal approach to the figure of a woman. The image of a mother singing a lullaby to her baby runs through the film. There are different mothers: Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Muslim… The absence of men in the film is striking. Only one man travels from frame to frame throughout the film: Comrade Stalin. Women from all over the Soviet Union embrace and kiss him. And it turns out that he is the father of babies of all nationalities. Like the ancient Greek god Zeus, he impregnates all these women… In a real dictatorship, there can be only one man.
Almaz is a film with a feminine nature. It is as if men are not particularly important to the film’s authors.
In Jafar Jabbarly’s plays, women’s names immediately catch the eye. Seriyye, Gulzar, Dilara, Dilbar, Sevil, Almaz—twice as many as men’s—Aydin, Ogtay, Yashar.
In Jafar Jabbarly’s world, woman as a socio-political, social and artistic being is not associated with the official Soviet ideology. The writer’s attitude to women is something he has in common with every Eastern intellectual who sees their country on the path of European progress. The importance of women’s freedom can be seen at least in the fact that while there are statues of the Motherland in Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, reminiscent of the statues of Nazi Germany, there is the statue of a Liberated Woman in Baku.
At the very beginning of the last century, attention to women and their inner world became a very important element in the formation of national consciousness. Mirza Alakbar Sabir wrote a poem that is unique in the world love poetry. In this poem, entitled “Qoyma, gəldi!” (“Don’t let him come!”), the poet speaks with the voice of a young girl about women’s hatred for men. A woman can be disgusted with a man—this artistic discovery took mentality to another level.
Revolution in the Eastern world, as a rule, is painted in the colors of femininity. The issue of women’s freedom in Azerbaijan brought the public consciousness closer to the spiritual space of the progressive Eastern countries of that time, first of all Turkey, rather than that of Russia. Perhaps this is why women’s names in Jafar Jabbarly’s works belong to the Soviet era, and he puts so many women’s names in his plays, as if with these names, he is trying to protect himself from something or somehow pave his way. The film Almaz somewhat helps us understand the reasons.
Almaz is a very sensual work. It was filmed by people who love women and know their power of attraction. The official ideology sets the goal for the authors to make a film on a social topic but the artistic nature resists this.
The authors seem to be uninterested in the male characters of Almaz. Neither the authors nor the audience find most of these men sympathetic. The spineless collective farm chairman, the ignoble carpet weaver, the lecherous secretary, the vile teacher…
The good men of the village are killed before the film begins. At the entrance to the village, Almaz sees the grave of a handsome young man killed by the class enemy, and the grave symbolizes the end of the male era. There is nothing left of men and masculinity. The era of women begins.
The world we see in Almaz is below and beneath a woman, and we see it from the very first episode of the film. Our heroine approaches the village and the view of the village opens for the first time in the gorge under her feet. Almaz doesn’t go up to the village, she goes down into it.
I do not believe that any of the male characters of the film could have a place in the hearts of female viewers of that time. But women are shown with great care and love. The attempt to create an Oriental beauty type on the screen is obvious in Almaz. The authors were able to see something impossible. The thing is that as historical periods change, so do the standards of beauty and the perception of feminine charm. But the female characters of Almaz are still attractive as women. However, the authors present us with two types of female beauty: for a demanding sophisticated taste—intelligent, delicate and elegant Izzet Orujova, for a more sensual one—passionate and sexually attractive Hokuma Gurbanova.
The authors’ focus is almost entirely on women. They are also trying to reveal the inner world of women through their faces, facial expressions, demeanor and gestures. The creators of the film cannot hide that they are not indifferent to the bodies of young female characters and show their clothes and the beauty of their bodies with as much love as possible.
Almaz’s fingers brush her own collar and the collar of her beloved’s jacket—one of the most erotic scenes in Azerbaijani cinema.
Interestingly, badness or goodness of the female characters in the film is directly related to their attractiveness. The old wives are antagonistic. Their dirty, ugly appearance is a reflection of their innermost essence.
However, unlike men, older women are courageous. It’s a woman who protects the entrance to the mosque, stops Almaz from setting up a carpet-weaving workshop there, and prevents the desecration of the mosque.
…Fatmanisa (Panfilia Tanailidi) standing bravely at the door of the mosque… You look at her and think: the actress has one year left to live—she will be executed a year later…
Yet, the women in the film, even the antagonists, are outspoken and straightforward. Most men are lowly and hypocritical. “If you want a fool to die, give him a sharp knife”—this is the tactic of the men in Almaz. It’s a man who writes a letter of denunciation in the film. (Just think: denunciation, so praised in the 1930s, is a sign of vile nature in Almaz).
It is men who wickedly try to starve a woman, denying her food. It is men who behave despicably at the end of the film, shifting the blame on each other. Almaz, by contrast, takes another woman’s “sin” upon herself.
One might say that men behave almost like women, while women behave like men in the film.
The motif of gender differences runs through the entire film. To catch one of the characters in a lie, Almaz shows the baby and asks, “Is this a girl or a boy?” The issue of gender differences in Almaz is closely linked to that of mentality differences. Almaz brings the doctor to the school to check the students’ health. The schoolgirls are still children, but an old hag accuses Almaz of forcing little girls to play naked in front of her lover.
The world pictured in Almaz is dual—it is both external and internal. Most of the events in the film take place in daylight. The sun illuminates the outward appearance of this world. There is another, secret, life going on inside, and crime and immorality reign supreme there. Almaz does not see in this secret life, and that is her strength. It does not seem to fit into the outward world, which shows in the actress’s point of view. Izzet Orujova’s performance makes it evident in many episodes: Almaz looks at people but seems to see a completely different, more ideal world. Almaz’s point of view perhaps expresses that of the author.
Forced to reflect on social issues, the playwright sees something completely different. The idea of a film with a social agenda is not working in Almaz. The shell cracks and a completely different work emerges—a film that, oddly enough for 1936, does not feature a single photograph of Stalin or a single conversation on politics.
Jafar Jabbarli was obviously thinking about something else entirely when writing the screenplay for Almaz. Using the social imperative, the writer sought to determine the ways of development of national cinematography. There are also elements of the detective genre in Almaz (who is the killer?), and elements of melodrama (whose is the child?). The ending—the public trial scenes that reveal everything—is years ahead of countless Bollywood melodramas.
The ending of the film is an impossible one for the 1930s: Almaz and her beloved against the backdrop of beautiful waterfalls, thinking only about their personal happiness. Personal happiness and nothing more—in a society of one for all and all for one…