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Interview: Nazrin Aghamaliyeva & Rashid Aghamaliyev on Their Azerbaijan Short ‘Hadis’

// Interviews

In September 2022, you may have seen the news of Hadis Najafi, who died after being struck by gunfire during the Iranian protests. The death of the 22-year old Azerbaijani Turk woman was widely reported around the world, and following her death she has been “turned into a symbol and rallying point for the protests after her death”, and is seen as a symbol of Azerbaijani resistance and ethnic struggle.

This event in turn, led to the fledgling Azerbaijani animation studio, ANIMAFILM Studio, producing and dedicating their short film Hadis to the memory of Hadis Najafi, and all those fighting against gender, ethnic and cultural discrimination in Iran.

Hadis © ANIMAFILM Studio

The short film has already garnered early festival success, having been selected for competition at this year’s Annecy animation festival, which is not only an honour for the studio, but is seen as an important achievement for the Azerbaijani film industry as a whole.

At the helm of the film (and also of ANIMAFILM Studio) are Nazrin Aghamaliyeva (Director) and Rashid Aghamaliyev (Producer), who we spoke to about the film’s production and the landscape of Azerbaijani animation.

Rashid Aghamaliyev, Producer (left) and Nazrin Aghamaliyeva, Director (right). © ANIMAFILM Studio

Before we discuss the film, could you both tell us a little about how you met and came to work together, and what led you to set up your own studio?

Nazrin: We first met in Baku at the ANIMAFILM International Animation Festival. Over time, we became close friends and eventually got married. From the beginning, we shared a passion for filmmaking. However, working together as a filmmaker couple is both amazing and challenging at the same time.

Rashid: We started making animation organically when we needed animated trailers for our ANIMAFILM festival. Making the trailers was so satisfying that we decided to start an animation studio. Hadis is our debut animated film. However, even before that, I had extensive experience in the film industry. For example, I worked as a production assistant on a feature stop-motion animated film called Even Mice Belong in Heaven (2021) and as an assistant director for a feature documentary titled Saz: The Key of Trust (2018). In 2019, I directed my own short documentary, Dialogues with Zuleyha (2019). All this experience gave me enough confidence to launch our own studio.

The film describes itself as a dedication ‘to the memory of 22-year-old Azerbaijani Turk Hadis Najafi,’ but aside from Hadis’ heritage, what compelled you to tell this story, and who did the initial idea for this film come from?

Nazrin: The idea to make a film about Hadis Najafi belongs to the Azerbaijan Cultural Society of Northern California, the organization that funded the film and also offered me a scholarship to study animation in FAMU (Czech Republic). We were deeply moved by the story of Hadis Najafi and agreed to make this film. For research, I conducted interviews with Azerbaijani Turks who lived under the dictatorial regime in Iran. Their personal stories were invaluable in shaping our narrative.

Rashid: Nazrin co-wrote the screenplay with talented dramaturg Ismail Iman, who contributed great ideas to the story, such as Hadis’s brooch being stolen by a crow. Masud Panachi, a consultant for the film, who himself was born in Iran and has made more than 60 animated films in Azerbaijan and Germany, offered valuable advice on storyboarding and directing.

Hadis © ANIMAFILM Studio

Judging by the timeline of events, from Hadis’ death in September 2022 to your submission of the film to Annecy in February 2023, it is remarkable that you have assembled a team, gained support, and produced the film in a little over 4 months. Could you give us a breakdown of how you achieved this and any problems you encountered?

Nazrin: I still find it unbelievable that we were able to make this film in such a short timeframe. We were fortunate to have the financial support of ASCN, but also our team, who were passionate about the film’s theme and produced amazing results. However, we did encounter difficulties in finding voice actors. I wanted to find an Azerbaijani voice actress from Iran because I needed a specific accent. It was a miracle when we found Zohre, who had just arrived in Prague from Iran one month ago, where she had participated in the protests herself. She also had a powerful story of her own. Initially, I thought of keeping her name secret for her safety, as she could be arrested in Iran for participating in our film. But she wanted to be credited in the project. I am happy that we found her, as she represented Hadis’ soul perfectly. She is one of the strongest and most amazing Azerbaijani women I have ever met.

Rashid: We started in November 2022 and exported the DCP in April 2023. The trick is that, according to Annecy’s regulations, the festival can consider a work-in-progress version. So, we took advantage of this. But honestly, it was super hard to deliver a WIP version in time and make sure that it was advanced enough to be judged. I would love to give credit to our lead animator, Andrea Szelesová, and editor, Jorge Sánchez Calderón. I don’t think we could have made it in time without their hard work and dedication.

What are your hopes for the film, and what would you ultimately like the film to achieve?

Nazrin: In the film, the main character not only represents Hadis Najafi’s bravery but also symbolizes the struggles of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran. We want the whole world to know that the Azerbaijani minority in Iran faces systematic discrimination.

Rashid: I absolutely agree with Nazrin. While Iran is infamous for its authoritarian regime, death penalties, religious extremism, and unjust treatment of women, it is often overlooked that minorities in Iran also face discrimination. There are around 30 million Azerbaijani Turks living in Iran. Like many other minorities in Iran, such as Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmen, Azerbaijani Turks face severe racism. Our film is an attempt to spread awareness about the unjust treatment that face Azerbaijani Turks in Iran. Participating in the Annecy festival is already a big step towards spreading our message. The next goal is to offer our film to the international audience through festivals, television, and VOD platforms.

Hadis © ANIMAFILM Studio

Our readers at Skwigly may not have a deep knowledge of the Azerbaijan animation landscape, so could you give us your thoughts on its current shape and where it is heading? Also, could you tell us how the industry helped you access funding or support partners to complete Hadis?

Rashid: After the rich Soviet Azerbaijan period, the animation industry struggled with a lack of funding and talent. The presidential decree establishing ARKA (the Cinema Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan) on April 20, 2022, truly marks the beginning of a new era not only for Azerbaijani animation but also for Azerbaijani cinema in general. In 2022, we also established the NGO Azerbaijan Animation Association with the goal of contributing to the industry. We believe that very soon the world will hear more about Azerbaijan!

I should also mention that Hadis is a co-production of Azerbaijan, the USA, and the Czech Republic. I produced this film through a company in the Czech Republic. It makes me proud because this country has given me so much in terms of my personal and professional development.

Rashid, aside from producing this film and heading up ANIMAFILM Studio, you are a key figure within the Azerbaijan animation industry, and founder of ANIMAFILM animation festival. Can you tell our readers a little about the festival, and how you find the time for everything!

Rashid: We established the ANIMAFILM festival in 2018, and this year we will celebrate its 6th edition. We are a small festival with big ambitions to become an important player in the Caucasus region and Eastern Europe, but we do accept films from all around the world! This year’s theme will be dedicated to women’s rights, and we will organize a pitching competition for local animation artists. I guess the secret to our productivity is that we do all these projects together with Nazrin. 🙂

Hadis © ANIMAFILM Studio

Can you tell me what’s next for both of you and ANIMAFILM Studio? What projects do you currently have in development?

Nazrin: As a filmmaker, I am passionate about addressing topics that are relevant to women. We are currently working on a short animated documentary (anidoc) that explores women’s health issues called vaginismus.

Rashid: Together with Masud Panahi, we are also developing a short film for children called Nargis. After the recent Karabakh war, Azerbaijan’s territories are highly contaminated with landmines. We aim to address this issue in a creative manner and create a film that will be relevant not only for Azerbaijani children but also for all children affected by war.

Hadis will be screening as part of the Short Films in Competition – Perspectives 1  at Annecy on 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th June 2023. For more information about that film, visit:

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