Image: Screen grab from Leila's Violin Screener Video
September 14 saw the UK premiere of Leila’s Violin, an Azerbaijani-US movie short that won ‘Best Newcomer’ award at the 2021 Monaco Film Festival’s Angel Film Awards. The film’s director, Ella Leya, is already widely known as a musician and was the author of the magical novel The Orphan Sky, a haunting evocation of life in Soviet-era Baku.
In Leila’s Violin, too, vivid images of Azerbaijan are certainly a big part of the mix. Opening shots show a typical Lada Zhiguli rustic taxi puttering along the dramatic canyon road that leads from Quba towards the timeless upland hamlet of Qriz (though not so-named in the film). The colours are vivid. And the eponymous heroine emerges wide-eyed from the battered old car into an archetypal scene of goats, haystacks and Azerbaijani village life, complete with copper seheng water jugs.
Then the narrator starts. “Once upon a time, there was a sad little girl,” so it’s clear that we’re heading towards fairy tale territory. The story is ostensibly that of an American-born child returning to the native land of her now-dead Azerbaijani mother by seeking her essence through musical inspiration. The village where she finds herself is initially far greener and more bucolic than the ‘land of fire’ she had been expecting, and she throws her violin case into the water in frustration. But the film rapidly heads into a dreamscape. A gently whirling dervish spins between arcs of flame, conjuring up a violin out of flailing skirts. Then a pomegranate tree brings forth a bow as a strange fruit. By now, the film’s stylized approach is giving distinct echoes of Sergei Parajanov.
The film culminates with the ghost of Leila’s mother mystically imparting her musical skills to her daughter with the parting message: “Simple beauty was all [she] needed to stitch her soul back together.”
The UK Premiere was held at The Regent Street Cinema in central London. The screening was combined with a speech from the Azerbaijani Ambassador, Elin Suleymanov and a musical performance by Julliard School violinist Sabina Rakcheyeva, who plays Leila’s talented mother in the film. There was also an interesting ‘making-of’ video, introduced by filmmaker Alexis Rosinsky, sister of Sofia Rosinsky, the American actress who plays Leila.