About becoming like our parents, the protagonists, having a story that mostly takes place in a graveyard, fake mullahs and other themes.
Asif Rustamov was born in 1975 in Baku, Azerbaijan. After graduating from the University of Economics and the State University of Culture and Arts of Azerbaijan, he earned a degree in Directing from the Faculty of Cinema. He makes documentaries and short films that have been presented and awarded at numerous international festivals. In 2014 he made his first feature film Down the River, which was selected in Karlovy Vary. He is also a screenwriter and producer.
On the occasion of the screening of “Cold as Marble” at FICA Vesoul, where it won the Grand Jury Award, the NETPAC Award and the Marc Haaz Award, we talk to him about becoming our parents, the final scene of the film, the protagonists , which have a story mostly set in a graveyard, fake mullahs and other themes.
Do you think it’s inevitable that we’ll end up just like our parents?
Yes, it happens very often, even if we try to escape from it, even if we try to reject it, it happens very often. In some ways you understand that you are a bit of a carbon copy of your father. The way that psychology affects the way we try to escape the same mistakes becomes part of the way we think.
Tell me about the very last scene. Did you want to leave it a bit open? I thought the last guy was the mother’s lover. Was that meant? Or am I reading too much into it?
No, no, that’s how it was for me. I mean, there was a clear line of how I planned this story. So for me it’s clear. However, you used the word lover, but we don’t know if he is a lover or not, it’s just our imagination. Because that’s a cliché, when you see the guy bringing the flowers to a woman who was killed by her husband, you think it’s her lover. But actually there are so many lines in life that he could be someone else. For me, the story is specific, but it’s always open to the audience. Well, I don’t want to explain my version, because much more interesting versions could get into the audience’s head, much more expressive. For example, if it was a jealous crime, why didn’t he kill the lover? Was it because he didn’t catch the lover? The audience will probably think a lot about it and his version might even be better than my version.
For me the protagonist, the artist, is a loser. He wanted to be an artist but didn’t make it, his father pushes him around, his girlfriend exploits him. Is that your opinion too, would you also call him a loser?
I don’t want to label him a loser, but I think he’s lying to himself. He’s lying to himself that as a person he’s not like his father, he’s just totally different. He listens to music, but doesn’t enjoy it, he draws pictures, but not so successfully. He has to find himself. In the scene where he finds his father naked and all the masks off, and it’s all very emotional for him, he ends up reacting the same way his father did. And after that he realizes that he is just a copy and his whole life is like a balloon about to burst. After that, however, he changes and becomes who he was meant to be from the start.
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A large part of the film takes place in the cemetery. Why did you make this choice?
In the beginning I wrote a little synopsis regarding the script, but I didn’t have a clear path. The main character was a painter, but I didn’t know what kind of painter he was, where he worked. One morning I was listening to a radio show and a guy, a painter who was working as a tomb painter in the cemetery, came into the studio for an interview. He told me about his life, how he became an engraver, how he is unhappy, how he introduced himself before etc. It was a very sad story and it was told in a very sensitive way and I felt his pain even through the radio. I thought it would be a suitable profession for my protagonist, so I rebuilt a bunch of things around the graveyard and rebuilt the script a bit, although the main story was the same.
Is this fake mullahs thing happening in reality?
Yes, that happens very often because the people who work in the cemeteries are not real mullahs. To be a real mullah you have to learn a lot, spend years abroad in Iran or other religious centers and after all that working in a cemetery is like having an MBA in Cambridge and working as a cashier. Real mullahs don’t go to the cemetery, so there are mostly ex-convicts who make some money. Almost all of them are actually fake mullahs. This is a big problem, even the Islamic rulers are trying to somehow control and change the situation, but it is very difficult. It’s a very typical story, so most Azerbaijanis have met someone like that at least once in their life, and of course I have too.
Can you tell me something about the casting? I read that at some point you had to change actors.
As for the father, with Gurban Ismailov I was sure from the start. He is a famous actor both in cinema and in the theater. For the rest I did auditions. I found the girl by accident because one of my friends another producer just came to say hello and see the reference photo of some short chapters and he told me that he knew an actress who matched what he was doing saw. We invited Natavan Abbasli and ended up casting her for the film. The hardest part was the son. We found an actor but about two weeks before we started shooting he started acting a little bit strange and we had some problems with him and we decided to end our collaboration with him. I didn’t know who else could play and suddenly one morning when I searched for young Azerbaijani actors on Google just to see who is nearby I found the photo of Elshan Asgarov in an interview and I realized, that I knew him and that he plays a lot of episodic roles and he’s very good. Then I invited him and a few days later we signed a contract.
Were the actors happy with the nude scenes?
I’ve shot nude scenes in my previous films as well. I love stories where eroticism is presented as something unusual, I don’t want to hide parts of life and only show what’s allowed. For me it’s just a part of life. I think when there’s passion in the story, like in Cold As Marble, it’s impossible to show it without having erotic scenes. It was fine with me and the actors are professional so they had no problems with it.
Were there problems with censorship?
No, this film was actually funded by the Ministry of Culture.
Was it shown in Azerbaijan?
There was only a small screening where we were invited to show the film. The film is owned by State Film Studios, so I can’t make it myself, and they haven’t shown any sign of wanting to promote it.
Now can you tell me about the situation in Azerbaijani cinema?
It was really tough after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s slowly increasing, but it’s very, very slowly. Last year our President signed a law opening a new film agency, which is very good news. I hope it will work normally and change the industry, but at the moment it is also very slow. In the past few months there has been no sign of life. That will also take a few more years. I am not hopeful for these few years but I think the future will be very good because there is a very nice young generation who are passionate about cinema and open to studying and making films abroad, and is independent in its way of thinking. So I think if the agency will work normally, there are enough human resources in Azerbaijan to improve cinema.
Are you working on new projects?
We’re working on another script with my friend Roelof Jan Minneboo. We already have a first draft, but it’s still early in production, we have to work on the script and then look at fundraising, so it’s going to take at least a couple of years.
Last question, if you had a drink, would you drink it with the father or with the son?
The father of course.