EDN Member of the Month – Aysel Akhundova
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for January 2018 is Aysel Akhundova, filmmaker and organiser of DokuBaku International Documentary Film Festival, Baku, Azerbaijan.
EDN has talked to Aysel Akhundova about the new festival’s profile and programming. Aysel Akhundova is one of the organisers of DokuBaku with a main responsibility for PR and communication.
Aysel has directed multiple short films while pursuing an intensive filmmaking program at the Film and TV School of the Academy of performing arts (FAMU) in Prague. At DokuBaku she is responsible for communicating with the stakeholders and strengthening the visibility of the festival, as well as organizing promotional events prior to DokuBaku.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your own background as a film director?
AA: Last year I graduated from FAMU and returned to Baku. My documentary film Rendez-vous with a Soft Islamophobe premiered at Jihlava Documentary Film Festival. My major was directing fiction, but the school I was in had very old documentary traditions, which reflected on the education process. Eventually, I ended up being more interested in creating documentary films. Now my heart lies in documentary.
EDN: What was the motivation behind starting the DokuBaku festival?
AA: DokuBaku was an idea that came to Veronika Janatkova and Imam Hasanov while they were going from one festival to another with the Holy Cow documentary film. Veronika is one of the producers and Imam is the director of Holy Cow. On festivals everyone asked them about the possibility to participate in Azerbaijani festivals. But there was a gap in this field. There were no documentary festivals. That is how the idea and the name of the festival were created. Then Artoghrul Alishbayli and Subhan Manafzade joined the team followed by Nazaket Azimli. These people that met quite accidentally worked passionately for many months to make DokuBaku happen.
Motivation behind the festival was to revive the documentary genre and bring to Baku a showcase of high quality films to explore the genre with various social, political, artistic and scientific issues. DokuBaku also empowers emerging Azeri directors to shoot and participate in the festival.
The festival presents a rare opportunity for Azeri audiences to come together and discuss real-life issues that are covered in the films with the filmmaker or producers of the films and experts on the relevant topic, thereby creating an important platform for exchange in the society.
EDN: How did you get involved in the festival organisation?
AA: For me there was no way of escaping from DokuBaku. I was in Prague getting ready to return to Azerbaijan and I was quite nervous about what I was going to do there. My friend Nazaket told me not to worry as she had a surprise for me. Meanwhile, on one of the meetings with my mentor Radim Prochazka in Prague he told me about DokuBaku and introduced me to Veronika through an email. Very soon I discovered that this project was the surprise Nazakat was talking about. When I arrived to Baku we met with the team and started organizing pre-festival screenings.
EDN: What is the profile of the festival? How many titles do you programme and can you give examples of successful titles from the previous edition of the festival?
AA: DokuBaku is the first international documentary festival to be organized in Azerbaijan. The theme of the first edition of the festival was “Testing the Reality”. We were, in fact, also testing the reality with organizing this festival with a small team in five months.
Being an international independent documentary film festival, our festival aims to present films engaging the civil society, uncovering critical issues from different parts of the world. To make films accessible to Azerbaijani audiences, we have prepared Azerbaijani subtitles for each film in the programme and project it along with English subtitles, when necessary.
DokuBaku screened 16 feature documentaries and 15 short documentaries. Almost for all the films we had full house. The Swedish Theory of Love (dir. Erik Gandini), You Have No Idea How Much I Love You (dir. Pawel Lozinsky), I Want To See The Manager (dir. Hannes Lang) were among the films that drew the biggest attention at the festival.
EDN: How do you select the films to screen? Is there an open call for submissions?
AA: DokuBaku had two programs in its first edition: international program and competition program for local directors. In the international program we showed sixteen feature documentaries from different countries. These films were carefully chosen by Veronika. There was no open call for this program the first year, but we plan to change this in the second edition of DokuBaku. Also we hope that there will be films of Azerbaijani directors participating in this program in 2018.
There was an open call for the short documentary program for local directors. We were surprised to receive around forty short films. Among them we chose fifteen that suited DokuBaku the most. There were works from film students, young filmmakers, as well as amateurs, who shot something for the first time. The winner of this program in 2017 was Iqrar Gurban with his film Dəhliz (“The Corridor”). He won the prize, which was a fully covered trip to Berlinale.
EDN: How is the festival organised and funded?
AA: The first year the festival was organized by the core team with the help of the volunteers. We assigned the responsibilities among the team members.
The first thing that we needed to do was to put DokuBaku on the map. The festival website, social media accounts were created and pre-festival screenings were organized to promote the festival. The team negotiated the venues and created the program.
It was very important for us that all the films shown in the frame of the DokuBaku festival have both Azerbaijani and English subtitles. There was a moment when we thought that because of the financial situation we would not be able to pay for all the required translations. Artoghrul was very determined about the translations, and as a result we ended up translating the rest of the films ourselves. I am very grateful to him for not letting us give up on that.
DokuBaku had support from local cafes, bars and a hotel that allowed us to hold screenings there. The festival was mainly funded by the team and it was made possible thanks to the filmmakers, producers and distributors who waved their screening fees for us. We also had support of German Films and cooperation with DAfims and World Cinema Fund.
Certainly for the second edition of DokuBaku we already have started our fundraising activities to be able to implement all the ideas that we have.
EDN: Can you share some insights into the documentary environment in Azerbaijan? Is there funding available for documentaries and are documentaries screened in cinemas outside of the festival?
AA: The film industry in Azerbaijan has just started its revival. There are more films produced every year and more people who are willing to devote their lives to making films. Yet, more needs to be done.
As far as I know there are no local funds available for making documentaries. Documentaries are usually screened in frames of festivals. There are cultural festivals organized by the EU that feature documentaries. DokuBaku also continues to show documentary films, but we do it outside of the capital city. DokuBaku already had two screenings in Sumqayit and now our team negotiates a screening in Shamkir.
EDN: Last but not least - what lies next for you and the DokuBaku festival?
AA: I believe that DokuBaku will be the festival hold annually and become a major part of the cultural life of Azerbaijan. In the second edition of DokuBaku we plan to have an open call for both foreign and local directors for the international competition program. Apart from the screenings the DokuBaku team plans to feature more workshops and master-classes.
I am now writing a script for my documentary film about the identity of Azerbaijanis. Next step is to finish the pre-production and shoot. I miss being in the director’s shoes so I hope to start very soon.
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