Ireland On Sunday presents Amazing Azerbaijan!, a revealing portrait of an oil-rich state where all is not as it seems. Steven Galvin caught up with Irish producer Aisling Ahmed to find out more about this tale of two countries.
Amazing Azerbaijan! screens at 13.00 at the IFI on Sunday, 25th August 2013.
In 2012 Azerbaijan staged the Eurovision Song Contest. The capital city Baku played host to a glamorous spectacle that showed off the profits of a 40-year oil boom proudly around its neck like a gold chain. But behind the veneer of glitz and glamour lies tales of government corruption and abuse of power that have been quietly accepted by Europe in its hunger for oil.
The irony of the country’s evident wealth on offer for all to see at the Eurovision was the fact that it also drew attention to some of the means allegedly used to achieve it. In the build-up to the Eurovision a growing activist campaign claimed that the tens of millions spent were a smokescreen to deflect attention from the government’s dire human rights record.
Amazing Azerbaijan! investigates the abuse of human rights in Baku and explores the semblance of a thriving democratic republic and the reality of a repressive and corrupt country. The film portrays a country that denies freedom of expression and political assembly, forcing evictions upon its citizens, arresting bloggers on false charges, beating peaceful protesters, and imprisoning journalists (one has been killed), all in an effort to maintain the façade.
The film is produced by Aisling Ahmed for Crow Hill Films, which she founded in 2009. The origin of the project was its director Liz Mermin, an American based in London, who had worked previously with Aisling on the feature documentary Horses.
Aisling spoke to Film Ireland: “Liz had the idea of using the Eurovision as the hook to put together a documentary on the country. She knew things were tricky over there so we started to look into it and felt there was a strong story that needed to be told.” Aisling goes on, “Azerbaijan is seen as democratic but effectively it’s a dictatorship. The same family have been in power since it became independent.”
The country is led by the authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, who has maintained his family’s rule for two decades when he came to power in 2003, and was re-elected in 2008 with 87% of the vote – an election boycotted by the opposition and criticized by Western observers. Aliyev recently amended the constitution to end term limits and tighten his grip of control. Despite criticising every election The Council of Europe has refused to sanction the country in any way.
The Eurovision proved the perfect foil for Liz and Aisling to get into the country and investigate what was going on in this oil-rich state strategically located at the edge of Europe, between Russia and Iran, and allowed them the opportunity to pitch the film where they may not otherwise have been able to do so. Aisling describes how they first flew into Azerbaijan in January and put together a 52-minute version ready and out in time for Eurovision 2012. “At the time there was a lot of media coverage of what was happening in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the Eurovision and things moved on once the Eurovision was over and it disappeared from the media. Obviously we didn’t want to be a part of that. So we got a little bit more funding and got a grant to update the film and show what happened afterwards. We did a bit of an update and made it into a 60-minute film to show what happened in the months since the lights went out on Eurovision. This made it far more relevant for a 2013 audience and was picked up by human rights festivals like One World in Prague.”
Once in the country Liz and Aisling were able to assemble the subjects they felt would work best for the documentary. “We spoke to people on the ground in terms of the groups that are working to support human rights groups in Azerbaijan and through them we were able to tap into people that were very active.”
Among these are Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani radio reporter, who has uncovered several corruption scandals linked to Aliyev’s family; Jamal Ali,a rock musician who has performed at anti-government rallies; and Emin Milli, a writer and dissident from Azerbaijan, widely known as the “donkey blogger” for his role in a video lampooning Aliyev’s government.
According to Aisling, “We felt that especially with Khadija, Jamal and Emin that their stories really stood out from a journalistic point of view and that they were stories people would really hook onto.” All 3 claim to have suffered at the hands of Aliyev as a result of their campaigning – demonstrated to devastating effect in the film. The 2013 updated version of the film shows exactly what happened to Khadija, Emin and Jamal in the months post-Eurovision.
Dealing with such people in the film, Aisling sees something Irish audiences can relate to. “Khadija’s story would have a lot of echoes in Ireland with Veronica Guerin and what happened with her – in an Irish context I think a lot of people could relate to that unwillingness to give in under pressure and she’s prepared to sacrifice everything for it. Jamal and using music as a form of protest in Ireland has a lot of resonance as well.”
Also the updated film features an interview with Loreen, the winner of Eurovision 2012 and the only contestant to meet with the human rights groups in Baku.
Aisling expresses her hopes for democratic change in Azerbaijan, but is aware of the challenge that lies ahead. “There’s a presidential election coming up – will it even be monitored this time? The opposition is stifled. But it feels like something is building and a younger generation are bringing with it a level of momentum and a passion for change; but they’re really up against quite a machine.”
The documentary is part of that momentum and Liz is delighted that “the life of the film exists beyond its production. We received outreach support from an organisation in the UK called BRITDOC. They run something called the BRITDOC/Bertha Connect Fund and we got a small grant from them to help get the film out there, host screenings and panel discussions in a number of cities around Europe. Through that we realised there was a huge outreach potential for the film, to help activists and human rights groups engage the decision-makers in a direct way on the issue. We also learned that it has a lot of educational potential and we’ve been approached by a number of NGOs who have asked to use the film to train and inspire other activists in countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia.”
Liz is delighted that the IFI are presenting the film in Dublin, and, as well as the screening, “Rasul Jafarov, an activist from Azerbaijan, will be present at the screening and will participate in the panel discussion afterwards. Building on the successful outcome of the Sing for Democracy campaign around the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, Rasul and his organisation, Human Rights Club Azerbaijan, decided to build on the momentum and convert the campaign into Art for Democracy which was launched last year. The screening and discussion at the IFI will give an Irish audience an opportunity to engage with Azerbaijan beyond what they say through Eurovision and perhaps think about institutions like the Council of Europe and decisions our politicians make there and how they influence people on the ground in those countries.”
Amazing Azerbaijan! screens as part of Ireland on Sunday – the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.
The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 25th August 2013 and will be followed by a panel discussion with Liz Mermin (director), Aisling Ahmed (producer) and Rasul Jafarov (Chairman of Human Rights Club Azerbaijan and the ‘Art for Democracy campaign’ and member of the Civic Solidarity Platform).
Tickets for Amazing Azerbaijan! are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie