Azerbaijan Begins to Focus Culture Efforts on Cinema

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Oil-rich former Soviet republic is starting to see results from spending on cinema and other cultural areas.

BAKU, Azerbaijan – The massive cultural support program launched in this oil-rich Central Asian country is starting to set its sites on cinema, the country’s deputy minister of culture said in an exclusive interview.

Since the fall of communism in Azerbaijan in 1991, the country has directed a growing portion of the revenue it derives from massive oil and natural gas reserves toward cultural projects, with astonishing results. In 20 years, it has rebuilt or constructed from scratch 27 theatres, 30 concert halls, 21 art galleries, 170 conservatories and music schools, more than 200 museums, and more than 4,000 libraries. And now, since the creation of its first film sector foundation in 2010, it is starting to turn its attention to cinema.

It’s already achieved some tangible results: two years ago, for the first time ever, an Azerbaijani film screened in the Cannes market, when Sahe (The Precinct), the story about a young Azerbaijani photographer forced to choose between a prestigious job abroad and his relationship with his girlfriend, was shown. Last year, the country opened its first pavilion in Cannes with plans to follow suit this year. Domestic productions have screened in international film festivals around 80 times, Adalat M. Veliyev, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of culture and tourism, said.

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Cinema-related infrastructure projects include the dramatic refurbishment of the Nizami Cinema, the giant 72-year-old neo-classical cinema in downtown Baku, the capital.

“Music, theatre, and cinema can open doors that politics cannot,” Veliyev said. “We want to prove what the mayor of Vienna once said, that Azerbaijan is not just a country of oil and caviar, but of a rich cultural traditions.”

The majority Muslim country certainly has deep cultural roots: before being absorbed by the Soviet Union 90 years ago, it was the first Muslim country to build a theatre for dramatic productions, and the first to have an opera company. Veliyev said the country’s first film was screened in 1898, a mere three years after France’s Lumiere brothers invented the medium.

Veliyev said it is difficult to estimate overall government cultural funding in Azerbaijan because it comes from so many sources, whether from the national government, state-owned companies, or the country’s 74 administrative regions. But he said it is safe to say spending is worth “many” tens of millions of dollars each year, with at least $8 million of that spent on cinema-related projects last year, a figure Veliyev said was likely to rise each year.

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