In the land of wine and mountains

A Year of Portraiture in the South Caucasus

Movie-making, Azeri style

I was fortunate to have Elmir working for me as the camera operator. Certainly one of Azerbaijan's best.

First shot of the day. Three months of endless overcast, and on the day of the shoot we have clear skies. How did I not see this coming?

I recently shot a few scenes for an Azeri director who I have gotten to know quite well here over the past few months. The shoot was a great opportunity for me to meet local crew, develop a working relationship with Pyunhan (the director), and generally get a feel for how film production works in Azerbaijan.

What surprised me most about the experience was how similar it was to shooting a short film in the States. From the perspective of the cinematographer, the biggest challenges were identical: insufficient leadership on set (e.g., the lack of an experienced assistant director), inadequate prep (lack of storyboards), and an overambitious schedule. These have been the biggest challenges on every I short film I have ever worked on.

All in all the shoot was a very positive experience for me and I learned a ton. As the “big-time Hollywood cinematographer” (they all think I shot Titanic), expectations were very high among the crew members, and I hope that I was able to show them that, regardless of experience, we are all human. Some interesting notes on Azeri film production:

  1. The words for roll camera, camera speed, and action are all the same in the Soviet system of film production. So when you shoot, you hear the word motor repeated three times.
  2. We shot dialogue scenes all day without a slate or any other means of marking the footage so that sound can later be synchronized. There was nothing to tell the editor what scene or take he was working with, much less what the name of the movie is. Everyone said this was normal. Yikes.
  3. As is common in the States, Azeri DPs and lighting technicians love fill light. The idea of having a face modeled with shadow is out of the question. As someone who tries to embrace darkness and shadow in my photography, I found myself continually asking them to turn off lights. They were respectful, but I could tell there was a lot of head shaking happening behind the scenes.

Side note: two weeks ago my Azerbaijani language teacher taught be the phrase “beh beh beh,” which is something you say under your breath when you’re sitting at the table and the food is delicious. It’s analogous to the English “mmmmm.” At one point during the production we were shooting a close-up of an actress as she walked around the room. On one of the takes she traveled beyond the edge of the set and behind a forest of light stands. This was immediately apparent to all of us watching the monitor, and at that moment I heard Elchin, the gaffer, mutter under his breath, beh beh beh. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

State of the Caspian: cloudy, with high wind.

Piracy 101

The front side: your standard pirate copy, with requisite Chinese translation.

The reverse side. Not exactly the quote I would have chosen to market the film, but you've got to give the pirates points for trying.

It is difficult to fully grasp the scope of piracy in the entertainment industry until you have lived in the developing world. Entire chains of retail stores operate freely in downtown Baku with the express purpose of selling pirated movies, TV shows, CDs, and designer handbags, perfume and accessories. These are not dingy kiosks or some guy with DVDs spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk, but clean, shiny stores that could give any Beverley Hills retail outlet a run for its money.

As tempting as it is, I can’t bring myself to buy pirated DVDs anymore. I’ve seen firsthand how severely it effects the industry. Much of the work slowdown in Hollywood over the past three years has been the result of labor disputes, which have themselves been fueled by studios tightening the purse-strings. No one can argue that DVD piracy hasn’t been a tremendous loss for the studios.

It’s not surprising that there is no understanding of piracy among locals here, but it is a bit jarring to see how many Western foreigners shop at these places. Embassy workers, Peace Corps volunteers, legal reform experts . . . have we no shame?

State of the Caspian: murky, with a rising tide.

Day of the Cosmonauts

Yuri Gagarin: the man, the legend.


You can’t beat April 12th, the Soviet Union’s Day of the Cosmonauts, for its nostalgia value. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first man in space, remains the center of what is probably the most enchanting narrative of the Soviet Union: on this day in 1961 he spent 108 minutes in orbit, thereby scoring one of the USSR’s most enduring Cold War victories and sending NASA into sheer panic.

I spent the day with a group of my best film students at a beautiful dacha outside Baku, on the Absheron peninsula. We dined, I photographed, we explored black rocky shores on the Caspian Sea, and spent many inspiring hours working on the rough cut for their film. Manzar read a poem at dinner in Azerbaijani. I understood nothing, but still felt the sting of tears.

State of the Caspian: waters calm and clear. A rare day with no wind.

The Management Dilemma

My Fulbright experience has been an intensely productive one. All of my goals for the year, from photography to teaching to language study, are all part of an larger goal to develop more effective leadership skills. In this line, part of my work here has been to research models of leadership and in doing so I came across this excellent comparison between leadership and management, written by self-help guru Steven Covey:

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

I love the simplicity of this analogy. It’s so easy to get sucked into the details of management and lose sight of The Big Picture. Now to put it to work . . .

The Caspian

28 meters below sea level, with one third the salinity of an ocean.

Haute Couture à la Azerbaijan

Needless to say, Azerbaijanis don’t look like their mannequins. It is, however, an interesting glimpse of the post-Soviet commercial mindset. One wonders not about salesmanship, but about what it is that holds us back.

State of the Caspian: calm, with a blinding mid-day haze.

The Return of Kəndis Xanım

You really can't beat Stalin-era apartments for lighting and decor.

Candice, with a large mustache, in Baku's Old City

The mosque at "Martyr's Lane." Cemeteries are big here.

Novruz (the Persian new year celebration) is the biggest holiday of the year in Azerbaijan. Candice came into town for a visit. Most of our time was spent eating Pakhlava, watching Japanese werewolf movies dubbed into Russian (and then redubbed by me into English), and roaming the polished-stone surfaces of the Caucasus’ most populous city.

Candice left this morning, and seeing her made me suddenly feel like I’ve been gone for years.

State of the Caspian: bright fog with low visibility. Wind, and little time.