Mobbed by adoring crowds, Tahmina Rafaella the lead in ‘Inner City’ (2016), manages to make a crucial point that the film is also about the “inner city” of a person’s life. Rafaella, along with her parents, was present at the screening of the film, which she co-wrote and produced. The constant demands of selfies both inside and outside the IFFI multiplex did not stop Rafaella from opening up about Azherbhaijan, her country, and the films there. In a brief conversation with The Peacock, Rafaella gives a brief glimpse into the beautiful country of Azerbhaijan.
“It’s a very special film. I wanted to show the society how women can be different,” she asserts. The film uses the metaphor of a labyrinthine city (shot in the capital, Baku) to show the lives of women, against the backdrop of Azerbaijani society as well as the military conflict in the country. Rafaella, only 21 years old is leading her country’s film industry with her effort in ‘Inner City’. Besides ‘Inner City’, Rafaella has also worked in ‘The Blacklist’ (2013) and ‘Guilt’ (2016).
“It is a very European society,” she says of Azerbaijan, “in the sense that women can wear the clothes they like, even date guys. But underneath there are strong social pressures regarding expectations of marriage and profession.” For instance, the choice of getting into movies as a writer, director or actor – a choice that Rafaella herself made – is not very popular in Azerbaijan, she informs dejectedly.
Rafaella also gives a glimpse of the film industry in Azerbaijan. “They are trying to develop. We have no film with depth,” she states. Films in Azerbaijan are either “art house” films or made for the box office.
Cinema is not considered a “serious” business in Azerbaijan. It is not just women in cinema, but men too face social pressures, Rafaella emphasizes. Getting into professions such as medicine (which Arzu, the lead hopes to study), or working for an oil firm (also depicted in the film) are considered as conforming to the expectations of society. “Nobody makes money making films in Azerbhaijan,” she laughs.
The film as much as about inner struggles is also about “social pressures.” As a country Azerbaijan too faces certain pressures. Its bid to enter the European Union, and the challenges that it brings are reflected in the film. In an Orhan Pamuk-esque sense, Azerbaijan is trying to find a balance between European values and the country’s more traditional values. “They are trying to get into the European mold. They have the resources, such as money,” she informs. “But here is a long way to go,” she indicates hopefully. The film is also about negotiating the pulls of contrasting value systems. Indeed, the film switches between depicting Baku’s modern buildings and its old architecture.
What does this mean for the future of Azerbaijani cinema industry? “If the industry involves the right people and take risks, make more useful films, bring in a young point-of-view then there is a lot of potential,” she concludes on a hopeful note.
(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 25 November, 2016)