LGBTİQ+ in Azerbaijani cinema

The first ever homosexual character in Azerbaijani cinema, which is more than a hundred years old, appeared in 2014 as a main character of the film. She was Sioma, one of the leading actors in the film called “My name is Intigam.” The film, directed by Emin Abdullayev with independent financing, is a comedy. Not surprisingly, the LGBTIQ+ motif in Azerbaijani cinema can be found mainly in comedies only, but as a target of irony, laughter, mockery…

According to Togrul Abbasov, film and sociology researcher, the attitude to LGBTIQ+ in Azerbaijani cinema is only about neglect.

“In other words, it can be said that LGBTIQ+ has not been represented in Azerbaijani cinema. It was just used as a means of laughter in some comedy films. I particularly emphasize the “means”, because being “means” is not a representation, but rather the opposite,” he says.

The comedy “Wedding-2”, produced almost a year after “My name is Intigam”, also touches upon homosexual relationships. The film itself and the advertising materials contain expressions like “once blue was just a color”, “blue stain” and “honor and zeal are in doubt”.

The activists protested against the film’s offensive language and approach towards homosexuals by starting a Facebook campaign called “I condemn the movie Wedding-2”.

Javid Nabiyev, one of the campaign’s organizers and an LGBTIQ+ rights advocate, says their key goal was to initiate a public condemnation and public discussion about the harmful effects of the manner the LGBTIQ+ character has been portrayed in the film.

“LGBTIQ+ people have so far been made a laughing stock both in the film and advertising market. The person making a joke and the context in which the joke is made are important. In Azerbaijan, such films are just stupid jokes further fueling some stereotype. Of course, this is problematic. This [campaign] was a kind of message that enough is enough,” Nabiyev said.

In response to the criticism, Hasan Aliyev, director of the film, wrote in an open letter that “I am not the type of person who is “modern” enough to make a film about homosexuals. Yes, I am homophobic,” he said.

Violation of LGBTIQ+ rights, discrimination and hate crimes in Azerbaijan are often highlighted by both local and international reports. In addition to the increase in the number of hate speeches against LGBTIQ+ by state officials, Azerbaijan has ranked one of the lowest on the Rainbow map prepared by ILGA-Europe, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for many years already.

“LGBTIQ+ people are everywhere. In all business areas, social processes, etc. If these people are everywhere, why shouldn’t they be in every film series?” asks Vusala Hajiyeva, a student of Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts and also a film director.

“Most of the films in Azerbaijan are produced by the government. This was the case both in the Soviet era and in independent Azerbaijan. Films commissioned by the state are usually selected based on specific topic requirements: Karabakh, nation, homeland, etc.,” she said.

Even though there is no real portrayal and promotion of LGBTIQ+ people in national films that have been released to the masses and world-class films starring LGBTIQ+ characters are not screened in local cinemas and are not broadcast on TV channels, the representatives of the local the film industry already have some worries. They are worried that if the queer themes, images and creators that were once removed from the world cinema have already started to appear and raise their voices, the footsteps of this movement can be heard in Azerbaijan as well.

“There has been an overt propaganda of homosexuality and sexual minorities in world cinemas over the last couple of years, and I personally have been worried about this for long,” Ayaz Salayev, honored art worker, film director, said in an interview with local media last year emphasizing that if Azerbaijani cinema follows the Western path and comes up with films that meet the current requirements for the sake of winning awards, it can deal a big blow to the national cinema.

During the interview with Yeni Musavat online newspaper for the article titled “A homosexual film industry has been recently emerging all over the world. What is the goal?”, film critic Sevda Sultanova said that the West’s struggle for gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities came at the cost of limiting academic freedom, the culture of discussion and debate, and violating the freedom of expression of intellectuals.

“The organizers of the Berlin film festival removed the gender principle, that is, the nominations for the Best Actress and Best Actor. Instead, the awards for the Best Leading Performance and for the Best Supporting Performance were established. Thus, one of the three most influential festivals violated the rights of actresses and actors by embracing a gender neutral status under the pressure by sexual minorities and their supporters succumbing to the manipulation of an ugly liberalism,” said the film critic.

Gender researcher Leyla Hasanova says that the requirements to involve queer performers in films are a legitimate one. According to her, there would be no need for a special queer-inclusive policy if there were queers in all fields and they would be self-represented.

“Until now, queers have been represented by heterosexuals in all fields, including films. But thanks to the strong queer and transgender activism, transgender actors want to perform transgender roles and queer actors want to perform queer roles. Why should queers be represented by cisheteros? Aren’t there any talented queer artists?” Hasanova asks. She adds that if the society lived in a simulation of political-social and economic equality where LGBTIQ+phobics live, there would be no transgender and queer activism and no one would have to fight to get represented.

Having witnessed that LGBTIQ+ people are not represented in local cinema, 20-year-old Deniz Miray has decided to make her own film.

Deniz presented the film “Sunshine for my body”, which tells the story of a lesbian couple, a transgender woman longing for a family, and a gay boy who faces some troubles in a  relationship with is lover, this year on the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

“If a film is part of life, we (queers) also exist in it and the film directors should cover this, too,” she says, adding that it is a serious problem that people who has been watching TV for years have not seen any queer characters.

“How am I going to come out tomorrow? How do I declare myself? I’m afraid of the reactions that people will have when I put color on my eyes when I go out tomorrow. Television and art have a serious role in this respect,” she says.

Deniz, who became aware of her gender identity at the age of 16-17, grew up in the rural area and did not see anything related to transgender women in social life, media and television. But even if she didn’t see it, she felt it and found it, and it was Google where she made a search about it.

“The first thing I typed on Google was ‘I’m a boy, I like boys.’  Thus I began to search to find out who I am and how I feel. If I have only seen heterosexuals around me in life, in advertisements, in movies, in music, etc., then why should a child who sees a transgender woman be affected by it if it is not something that he feels?,” he asks and adds that watching any kind of identification in the film has a good effect on people in terms of questioning themselves.

Deniz Miray says that many queers don’t even like the movies made about LGBTIQ+ people, as those films portray them as suicidal characters with ruined lives.

“Because all those movies include a pity, romanticizing, derealization and pessimism. Either they are treated in a very ‘rosy’ manner here, they fell in love, but couldn’t get together, they left, or they were very comfortable, they don’t encounter a bad incident, or they are exaggerating a lot,” she says adding that generalizations in films are not good either.

“They introduce all gays and lesbians as the same. However, the characters should be developed in such a way that people cannot stereotype queers. Because we all have our own experience,” says Deniz.

Film director Vusala Hajiyeva believes that people should be trained to be able to shoot LGBTIQ+ focused films. For example, the process started in this way in world cinema.

“The release of LGBTIQ+ films on the big screens happened only after the painstaking struggle by queer directors,” says the filmmaker, adding that it is difficult even to study cinema for a queer person in Azerbaijan.

“Nowadays there are queers involved in cinema and I am one of those people. We have to start talking and making our own films ourselves. There is no other remedy.”

Note: Several quotes in the article contain incorrect terminology, which were not corrected to avoid distortion.

The article was developed as part of QueeRadar’s Mentoring Program