Cat&Docs Boards ‘Cinema Paradiso’ Style Doc ‘The Return of the Projectionist’ Ahead of Visions du Réel Premiere (EXCLUSIVE)

“The Return of the Projectionist,” which is running in the main competition at Swiss doc fest Visions du Réel, where it will have its world premiere, has been picked up by Paris-based doc specialist Cat&Docs.

The feature debut of Orkhan Aghazadeh, it tells the story of Samid, a former projectionist in Azerbaijan’s remote Talysh mountains, who is determined to bring cinema back to life in his village using his old Soviet film projector.

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He encounters a number of hurdles along the way but he also finds an unexpected ally in 16-year-old Ayaz, a film fan who experiments with animation clips on his smartphone and is eager to learn from Samid.

Aghazadeh chanced upon the story when shooting his graduation short film “The Chairs.” Samid was to be the film’s main character but the relationship with Ayaz emerged as shooting started.

“It came as a surprise for us. We didn’t know him when we did the research for the film. When I did the first shoot, Samid told us ‘You’ve got to meet this young guy who’s doing animation. He’s come to me [for advice] and I am helping him.’ And when we saw them together, we realized their interaction could be the core of the story,” Aghazadeh tells Variety.

The film chronicles their growing friendship, reminiscent in some ways of the tender relationship between Toto and Alfredo in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 classic “Cinema Paradiso,” as the pair strive to get the project off the ground, roping in local women to sew together a large white sheet that will be used as a screen.

Beautifully shot in and around the remote village, the film is laced with delicate moments of self-deprecating humor, illustrated by the opening scene where Samid and a friend climb the misty mountain on horse-back with a laptop in search of an internet connection to make an online order for a light bulb without which the projector won’t work.

The Return of the Projectionist
Samid and a friend climb the mountain in search of an internet connection.

Aghazadeh, who was born in 1988 in Azerbaijan, fluidly combines past and present, tradition and modernity. He says he was keen to show the main character’s nostalgia for a time when cinema “was everywhere,” even in mosques.

“In Soviet times, it was the only form of entertainment, and it was also used for propaganda, so every village had a projectionist – or there was one for two or three villages because he could travel around with his equipment. Where I was born, for example, a local mosque was turned into a cinema because there was no place for religion in those times.”

Faced with the question of which film to show the villagers, Samid, whose choice of analog films is limited, opts for an Indian classic from the Eighties, “Satyamev Jayate.”

Indian films were very popular across the Soviet Union, offering an alternative to Western movies, and a form of entertainment influenced by a post-colonial ideology depicting ordinary people dealing with issues of class justice, which the regime approved of.

Samid manages to get his hands on a vintage film reel but, first, he must run it by the village elders for their approval. They request certain love scenes be cut, which he agrees to do by covering the lens with his hand.

“That film was shown in the village back in the Soviet times,” explains Aghazadeh. “[Censorship] was done in the same way: the projectionist would either cover the lens with his hand, or some people would close their eyes, or parents would close their children’s eyes.

“The Return of the Projectionist”
The film centers on Samid, a former projectionist in Azerbaijan’s Talysh mountains.

“It was important to get permission from the elders. I wanted to show that their voice matters,” he adds.

A gentle inter-generational tale of friendship and resilience, “The Return of the Projectionist” will have its world premiere at Visions du Réel on April 14. It is a Franco-German co-production between Kidam and Lichtblick Film.

Aghazadeh is currently resuming work on his feature-length project “The Prisoner,” which was selected by the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefondation Residency for emerging filmmakers in 2021.

Visions du Réel runs in Nyon from April 12 through April 21.

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