Valida Baba is an Azeri filmmaker who has called Prague her home for the past eight years. She uses photography, poetry and dance in her short experimental films to explore her ideas about human relationships and existence. I spoke to her about her work, her influences and her experiences so far in the Czech capital.
Hey, so thanks for making time to speak with me! First off, can you tell me about your first impressions of Prague?
Well, when I was first accepted at FAMU to study photography, I didn’t even know that it was so famous for film and photo! But when I first arrived at the airport I got the feeling of coming home. Of course, Azerbaijan is my home too, but even when I travel abroad now I get the sense of coming home when I return to Prague, and it is such a deep feeling for me, you know?
How does Azerbaijan compare to the Czech Republic culturally?
They are not too similar culturally, because Azeri culture is more like Turkish. However, because we were also part of the Soviet Union we have Russian as a second language, so there are some Slavic influences there.
Prague has become almost synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters over the last few decades, but how does the city treat an indie filmmaker working on smaller projects?
When I was studying at FAMU I could see that there are lots of opportunities to make films here. However, there was always some divide between the Czech community and the foreign community, and I was so introverted to begin with that I found it hard to communicate. I love making films but it felt like there was a border I needed to cross before I could start working with people, which is why I originally did it independently. Then I realised that it’s hard to make a film by yourself, and much easier when you have a team of like-minded people all working towards one goal.
Generally, Czech people are open and willing to collaborate if you are willing to open up to them, so it was my problem to solve, how to be more outgoing with them. Now there are many female film producers coming through who are looking to work with female directors, so it’s easier to start working on a project and take it in the direction to want…
Can you tell me some of your favourite films or directors that have influenced your work?
I grew up watching films on TV, and it got to a point where I realized that I could not live without the movies that I watched! So when I got more serious about film, I started out with the classics then started exploring the cinema of other countries. I really love Robert Bresson because he showed me that if you want to make films you need to go to yourself, it’s your approach that makes it special. I also loved the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, working on the scale of visible and invisible, and the beauty of aesthetics – Red Desert was wonderful, his first in colour and it’s like a painting.
I like the French director Louis Malle because of his aesthetic approach, most of his films I watch with the appreciation of an aesthete. I try to take something from every director, and when I watch films I follow my heart, you know? If I want to see simplicity in films I go to Iranian cinema, to see how simple and powerful it can be. If I want to see relationships between men and women I go to Bergman, or for a fresh attitude to life I go to Kurosawa or other Japanese directors.
Yes, how you can make such a simple life story, where we can be more observant to each changing moment. Ozu could show us these subtle changes in lives.
Ok great, so are there any films you really hate?
For me, I don’t say hate, but maybe there are films I don’t watch… horror for example, I don’t understand it and I just get scared. Also TV series and comedies. Comedy is more cultural and personal, and it doesn’t always translate. Some do, like Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Everyone can relate to this, it’s more universal.
I’m quite selective when it comes to cinema, although of course I sometimes watch movies I wouldn’t necessarily chose otherwise. I like to be intuitive about what films I watch. I never read reviews before I see a movie, it can ruin the experience. Afterwards, I like reading reviews, analysis, and digging much deeper into it.
What about Czech cinema?
I didn’t like it at first. I watched many New Wave films, Closely Watched Trains, Loves of a Blonde… Věra Chytilová’s films, Ester Krumbachová… she worked with Vera although she’s less well known. I saw Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and a lot of Czech films see to be fairytale stories, which made me ask why Czech people like them so much. Later I realized that Czech cinema went towards fairytales or surrealism to circumvent communism, to create a language to speak indirectly about their situation.
Yeah, I was curious about your relationship with Czech stuff because in Accuse le silence de ma fuite (Blame the Silence for My Vanishing) I noticed there was one shot that is almost identical to the famous shot in Loves of a Blonde…
…Yes! I know what you mean! In the bed! You know when I made this film, I wrote the script specifically for the actors, and how I imagined these people’s lives. So first it was the script, then the images started coming, how I would portray the spaces between the characters. I didn’t consciously recall any images from other movies I’d seen, but when I watched back the finished film I could see there were scenes and images that reminded me of other films. So it was all unconscious choices, not a direct quote!
The actors in your films are a nice mix of nationalities, and you’re from Azerbaijan. So do you consider your films to be Azeri, Czech, European…
Good question! I would say that Blame the Silence… is a completely European film, and I sent it along with another one of my shorts, Circulation, to an indie film screening in Azerbaijan for consideration. They came back saying that the experimental film – Circulation – is OK, but Blame the Silence is completely not Azeri, you know?
For me, what we are constantly questioning in the film is humanity and our place in the world, whether we are satisfied with our lives. I like to tell a little bit of the story from each character because we can never get to know someone fully. I used less music in the film, so language became the music… that’s why I used French because it has such musicality to me. I wrote the part for the French actress specifically. The guy is from Vietnam, and the other girl is from Kazakhstan. They all live in Prague, so for me, it is a European film, but it is a film about human beings.
You did a BA in Business Administration, then three years later you go to Prague to study photography. How do you go from that to that?
I have an artistic sensibility and I feel responsible for my talents, so after I completed the BA I thought I cannot work to a template. But I was young at 22, so decided that I didn’t want to continue with Business Admin and started working with a humanitarian organization. Some of my work was photography travelling out to the villages and trying to take pictures that would capture the people’s lifestyle. It was such a loving experience for me, and photography is such a great way to make connections with your subjects, to see a person’s life and go into their world. Even in the moment of taking the photo, you build some connection with that person, you know?
It was a deep experience, so I thought OK I should go study photography. I had to do it, so that’s why I applied to FAMU in Prague. They weren’t worried about language skills, they were just interested in my portfolio. But then when I arrived in Prague and started studying photography, I realised I’d outgrown it and moved onto filmmaking!
But I did take something from Business Admin, it taught me some discipline which I can use in filmmaking, so it was still a good education!
There was a five-year gap between most of your short features and Blame the Silence… what happened in those five years? Were you just building up to it?
No, I was just deciding what to do next. I was studying in English at FAMU photography but I couldn’t afford to study directing in English, so I decided to do things differently. I knew I had a vision, but I wanted to learn more of a content base, such as how to write scripts, and so on. I found a Humanities program at the Anglo-American university which gave me the course I was looking for: art, literature, psychology, female film directors, film studies, etc. And I decided that when I graduated I would make a graduation film. And that’s what I did! I studied a Master’s Degree which normally takes two years, but I took four or five years – people would like ask me, Valida, what are you still doing there? But it was my plan to learn, not just get a diploma. School gives you an introduction, but to actually study you have to go away and do it for yourself.
Photography, poetry, theatre and dance all seem like important elements in your films…
Yes, I definitely use them as tools for my filmmaking. Each has its own form of language. When words are not enough I use the body. Words are so important, which is also why I use poetry. It’s so heightened that you need to take time to understand it, and whenever you come back and read it again you have changed, and it offers a fresh point of view.
In Frogs, the character uses a similar dance to the end of Blame the Silence… what is the significance of that?
Dance for me is like when we can’t speak words, and it represents when a change has happened but we’re not able to verbalise it. In Blame the Silence she has got over her heartbreak and the atmosphere changes, we go from the red colour of her own bedroom to a white space, it’s like a new beginning, she has changed to her new self, and I can show the change through movement… the dance helps her move on.
The other female character seems far more introspective, looking for clues about her boyfriend in his photographs…
She is a woman who is present only physically Her character was inspired by a book by Marguerite Duras called The Ravishing of Lol Stein. This woman had something happen to her personally in the past, she’s not there, constantly looking for herself in mirrors, through touch… what you say is correct, she is looking for him in the photos, and also something of herself. She touches her reflection in the mirror to make some connection with herself.
You seem like quite a positive person, but your films seem to have quite a fatalistic attitude towards relationships. How does that balance out?
Well, I started making Blame the Silence in 2016 when I was a completely different person! I like to read, and so many books are dramas and tragedy, and like Kafka said about books being an axe to break the frozen sea within us, like all literature must make some huge change in us. I believe that this must apply to all art forms.
I grew up with this, and you end up thinking this is how life is, and when you go to art school they say the more miserable you are, the better your art is! You have to suffer for your beautiful art!
Then when you get older you realise that it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’d already changed as a person by the time I finished the film in 2018. I’d decided that my future films would be more positive, giving people hope.
Have you got a new project in the works?
Yes, I’m looking for a female producer to make a documentary about a therapeutic method, the Family Constellations and Systemic Constellations founded by Bert Hellinger, because I went through a healing process that changed my perspective on life. I still need permission from Hellinger’s Foundation, but I’d like to make a film about his life, work and contribution to humanity. It makes you realise that you are part of humanity, while at the same time deeply connected to your family lineage. Both parts are deeply condensed within your body.
Hellinger’s work is deep and complex, but the concept is also quite simple. So I want to show how once we understand his principles we can see things in a more profound way and act differently in our lives, while understanding that we are all connected, just walking on different paths.
What about your Facebook page, Cinema as an Experience?
Yes, I want to guide people use cinema to connect to their body and see things differently. The directors have already made such beautiful films, and now I would like to show people how to use them to heal their minds and bodies…
What words of encouragement would you give to young filmmakers just starting out, with no money, just wanting to get into the gig?
I like what Werner Herzog said, his advice was – don’t wait, someone will give you money, go do what you want, the money will eventually come! Sometimes film school scares you, telling you it’s hard to make films. I say it’s not hard, things are simple if your heart is in it. Things will come to you if you do what you love, people will come to you. You are responsible for your own soul and for your own art. Everything is possible, just trust Herzog!
OK, this is the last question because I somehow have to condense all this into an article! Poetry is very important to you – is there one line that sums up your whole ethos?
Sure, I would probably go with Rimbaud, he wrote… “Eternity. It is the sea mingled with the sun.” That’s every moment for me, everything is mingled together and beauty is there if you have the eyes for it. Rimbaud goes on… “Your own heart is the only duty.”
Did I ever tell you? 2020, quarantine film, mobile film, 2 min
(Director, writer, DoP, editor), Prague
Accuse le silence de ma fuite, 2018, Fiction, Drama, 35 min
(Director, Writer, Producer), Premier La Fabrika theatre, Prague (2018),
Circulation, 2013/2018, Experimental film, 8 min
(Co-director, Co-editor, Conceptualist), Prague
Whispers of Love, 2013, Experimental film, 4 min
(Actor, Storyteller, Co-director), Tbilisi
Simple Wish, 2013, Documentary film, 3 min
(Co-director, Co-writer), Baku
Frogs, 2012, Experimental film, 4 min
(Actor, Editor, Co-director), Baku