Azerbaijan_International_Film_Festival

It was one of those times I wished I had a documentary crew following me around. How could I capture my incredulity at having my own documentary premiere inAzerbaijan?....

From the first moment- when I was intrigued by an invitation by the Film Directors Guild of Azerbaijan to premiere my documentary "Dear Juliet" at their upcoming international film festival... to the moment when I realised that the award being called out for "Vendi Dent" was indeed meant for me.

Where to begin, where to begin? This film festival has left me speechless. Oh I wish I had my translator with me, so I could make more sense.

Like all good stories, I should start at the very beginning. No, its easier to start at the end. One fine autumn night in Azerbaijan, a little over a week ago, a mere young Australian film-maker (namely me) had the great honour to win the award for Best Producer at the International Audiovisual Festival of Azerbaijan. A golden angel statuette no less.

Sounds a little like a fairy tale... and it felt like I'd fallen down the looking glass and woken up as a film fest celebrity in a far flung city called Baku.

You see a little over a few weeks ago, I must confess, I had little idea at all where Azerbaijan even was. I'm not the only one.

Imagine my grandmother's surprise when I came to her late one night and announced I'd be flying off to Azerbaijan in a few days.

"To where, dear? You'd better get the map".

I didn't believe it would be on her old map. But my grandmother was persistent.

She'd passed on some advice to me on my first overseas trip, passed down to her from her own grandmother; "Don't talk to strangers. Or you'll find yourself with a needle in your arm on a boat to Shanghai".

Fortunately times have changed, and so has my grandmother. She's now used to my unheralded adventures, and refers to me as the "been there done that girl" in her words.

Fortunately she has no idea of the number of strangers I end up talking to making documentaries overseas. But far from Shanghai, I now found myself staring onto the map at a tiny little country on the Caspian sea. A former Soviet country - which sounded very exotic to me! It took just a few seconds to decide. With such an offer to good to refuse, it would be criminal not to go.

It took a few days longer to decide what to wear. I'd been warned (by others who also knew little of the new nation) that I'd need to cover my ankles, "its a very conservative country you know".

I was a little concerned about my ankles. But I doubted the film festival's conservatism. The only thing I knew of Azerbaijan was that they'd premiered my last documentary ('Girls From Ipanema') there one year before, a relatively 'racy' account of life on the beach for bikini-clad girls in Brazil.

Disappointingly, I hadn't of heard of any cinemas being burned down since.

So being the intrepid documentary maker I'm alleged to be, within the week I hopped on a plane Baku bound. 30 hours later I arrived. Yes it took a little time in transit from Australia, via Bangkok (avoiding Shanghai you see).

I arrived so jet lagged it took me two attempts through customs for a visa, while my ankles weighed heavily on my mind.

At 1 in the morning I pensively peered out of the Immigration/ arrivals area, wondering if I was about to be left stranded and speechless with not an Azerbaijani 'manat' to my name, nor a plan to fall back on. Well all the best adventures start that way.

I was met by three gushing gentlemen, greeting me like old friends and rushing me to their car and on my way to - well I didn't quite know where.

A dashing young translator named Javid assured me that he would be at my beck and call night and day, and would be translating my film from Azeri. I was told that if I needed anything at all, to just call for him to translate. "yes, good, so then your people can do lunch with my people..." I replied. Fortunately they got my silly sense of humour at way past the midnight hour. Or they were humouring me.

Javid assured me that of all the international guests expected, I was the favourite that everyone had been waiting for. Because for over a year now, since my "Girls From Ipanema" documentary debuted last year, the whole festival team had been hoping I'd come to Baku, "god willing". Apparently they'd all been looking at my website. A lot.

At 2am we arrived at our destination. All I could see was rubble. Engulfed in the darkness before me, was a wall of stone and marble, blocks fallen off through the decades. It was a crumbling old hotel.

I was ushered upstairs to the top floor of this grand old relic and shown to a grand old suite... decked out in Barbie doll pink ... with a plush old brown velour 70s couch.. and a bath tub bigger than a spa... and a balcony overlooking the Caspian Sea. The entire suite was a little larger than my entire studio back home inOz.

A few floors below were smaller hotel rooms, and a Swedish director was sharing a bed with a Hungarian producer (not by choice that is). Yes the festival team were definitely showing me favouritism in hosting me here. My suite echoed the opulence of a penthouse of countless Soviet leaders of the past - and was now my home for a week!

In the morning I peered over my balcony expecting to see a Mediterranean-like view. Instead I looked out to buildings drowning in a long forgotten sea, and a rusted old chair lift with ghostly iron chairs that had been hanging there for decades. My god. Whatever its past, the charisma of this unforgettably old palace was paradoxically charming.

One juror was complaining about the lack of Hyatt standard mod-cons, but I wondered if this place would get better with age.

The festival director had other things on his mind- even a week later he busy arguing passionately with his administrators about whether the wine was dry or sweet. Outside the cinema, other film-makers and jurors were describing the atmosphere, as if we were all extras on an extraordinary old studio back lot.

I watched on with bemusement. Film festival day 1 is often that awkward kind of day, like a first date, when you wonder whether you'll have the time of your life or it will go horribly wrong.

But this fest was different. The isolation of the 'International Tourism Centre' where we were housed for a week, dining together communally for each meal in one very big marble-clad hall, made the festival feel more like an ex-soviet summer camp for film-makers. Perhaps the lack of a public audience contributed to that. "But who will be watching the films?" I asked my trusty translator.

"An audience of specially invited guests. Film industry luminaries. Media. Diplomats. We've invited all the embassies."
" Oh, is the Australian embassy coming?!"
" There is no Australian embassy".
" Oh".

A few hours later, opening night erupted in full glory. It was then that I realised in Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) this festival was. A.Very.Big.Deal. There was everything but a red carpet up to the cinema (somewhat ironic, given the kilometres of red persian carpets lining every other floor).

The international jury looked suitably serious and officious.

Film-makers looked suitably serious too.

The glossy awards were described, and film-makers tried their best to look unexpectant. From the opening ceremony to the opening dinner, toasts and speeches were made, and made again. With TV cameras and glamourous hosts, it was the veritable Azerbaijan Academy awards unfolding right before my eyes.

And my translator got a full work out on his english - yes for the next week I felt like the toast of the town being interviewed on every TV channel, twice. A live in-studio morning show on Azerbaijan's newest TV channel, microphones reaching for me outside the cinema, outside the buses, during a city tour, before dinner, it seemed everyone wanted my every opinion on anything and everything. On the record. And the first question was always- "What do you think of Baku?".

Of course a gushing answer was required. And it was a welcome relief from the only other question more common- "are you married"? Or "Will you marry me?!".

I had to be careful of my every answer. My 'lack of marital status' and my strict vegetarianism dominated the conversation for the entire festival, and I found everything I said was translated and echoed down the hall from one food table to another, from one day to the next. The inordinate amount of attention made me hide away in my deluxe suite much more than I'd intended.

To put it in perspective, it was considered a great honour that I'd flown all the way from Australia to Azerbaijan. The festival staff reminded me that in the festival's history I was the first Australian international guest, and no-one before had flown even half as far. London was the previous record.

So from the start I was celebritised as the film-maker from the most far flung continent, and instead of Wendy I was soon quickly known instead as "Vendi", "Dear Juliet", or simply as "Australia". It made me feel like "Miss Australia" - What a way to steal a girl's heart!. Everywhere I went I heard of chorus of people calling me, "Australia, where are you?" "Australia, come here!".

It culminated in a wonderfully rousing toast by the Kyrgyzstan juror on the closing night, who simply called out "Australia, I love you!". I gave a toast in reply "I love you all!". And was promptly invited to Kyrgyzstan.

When the dignitaries left, and the festival officially finished, the 'after parties' continued. I thought I'd have some time off and time to myself. But no - therewere more celebrity tours and introductions to be made. And more invitations to midnight vodka binges on the balconies of the old Soviet hotel. The film-makers returned home one by one, and I begged to be let free to roam sightseeing.

But I seemed destined to be adored to death instead. A couple of self appointed festival "security" flanked me by each arm, and were adamant I needed an entourage. It became obvious I had no choice in the matter.

With a few other film-makers they proudly toured me through the University of Art, and once again I was showered with gifts from chocolates to plastic roses, and introduced to every dean in the faculty.

Soon I wondered was there anyone in Azerbaijan left to meet?

As for that other burning question on every one's lips... what did I think of Baku? I discovered the best answer - handsome men, beautiful women and good taste in films of course!

In truth, Baku was an enigma to me. The films presented from the entire region were so relentlessly serious and severe, so moody and malcontent. That saddened me in a way.

The audience and jury perplexed me - they talked through every film, took mobile calls, laughed or applauded tragedy, and hearing my own film being translated live into Azeri was an intensely strange but electric experience.

Especially at the point when the translators understandably found the language too fast or poetic or were just totally exhausted and stopped translating mid scene - a heart stopping moment. Though I'm sure the translation was excellent, I thought my dreams of winning any awards were dashed, and that I should leave for home pleased if the audience even understood the film at all.

But above all I loved the family feeling this festival had, the spirit and humour that graced every moment and every night...

The long and passionate songs in Azeri by the piano till late at night, followed by the improvised hip hop discos raging with a dozen festival lads (plus me!) downstairs each night... the endless cries of "more vodka, Vendi?!? more wine Wendy!!".

I will even miss the calls and knocks on the door at 3am, from dedicated festival volunteers waking me because they needed to "check my plane ticket", give me presents, or for seemingly any excuse to get me to join in their spontaneous late night parties with Azerbaijan cocktails of beer & vodka mixed.

One wonderfully friendly festival volunteer and translator (Jehyhun) even took me to his home to introduce me his mother and brother, who was an
artist. They asked me if I liked his art, hanging on the wall. "Oh yes, its beautiful" I obviously replied.

" Please, take it! Take it!". "No... thank you but no" I insisted, describing my bursting luggage, my honour at the suggestion but... often Azerbaijanis don't take no for an answer. They insisted, "No you must!" and quickly took the paintings down off the wall, despite my protests.

As I left I was given Jeyhun's brother's painting for my wall, and his mother addressed me in Azeri. The translation? "If you were more young, you could marry him". Oh my. Now what could be more sweet?

So I left Azerbaijan somewhat entranced. The city seemed sweet and innocent, though it was so recently scarred from its bloodshed past.

How can it be, Baku is a city of such fading glory, yet gloriously cheerful people. The kind of people that will welcome you into your home at any time day or night, drag out their grandmother to admire you, force-feed you home-baked cakes, colourful sweets and teas with jam and then adopt you as your son or daughter given half the chance. Perfect for starving indie film-makers.

Yes, I'll be Baku bound again as soon as I can.

Wendy Dent