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29 March 2024

Nazrin Aghamaliyeva on Hadis, AnimaFilm Festival, & Vaginismus

The animation artist behind a successful short animation film, Hadis, talks about the struggles of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran and the censorship of taboo topics in Azerbaijan.

Nazrin Aghamaliyeva

Image: courtesy photo

In May 2023, a short animation film, Hadis, was screened at the largest animation festival in the world, Annecy International Film Festival, becoming a significant event for Nazrin Aghamaliyeva for two reasons. First of all, the film was an homage to Hadis Najafi, a young Azerbaijani Turk in Iran killed during the women-led protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. Secondly, it was Nazrin’s debut as a young animation artist and director“It was like an Oscar for me,” she says.

Nazrin, similarly to many Azerbaijanis from the Republic, wasn't well aware of the struggles and oppression that Azerbaijanis in Iran are subject to before she started working on Hadis. To better represent them, the artist interviewed Azerbaijani Turks from Iran and did her research. “I learned a lot from my research because we don’t talk a lot about Azerbaijani Turks here,” she says. “I am really glad to know these people and Hadis Najafi. I touched this topic through them.”

One of the shocking revelations was a memory of an Azerbaijani Turk from “ten or fifteen years ago” who shared that “in their school, if they wanted to speak Azerbaijani, their teachers had boxes” in which, as a punishment for not speaking Farsi students had to put down money.

Lastly, to make the animated film more authentic, they needed an Azerbaijani Turk voice actress for Hadis’ part, which could be challenging as the production took place in the Czech Republic. Miraculously, Zohre Karimi, who moved to Prague just a month before that, came to the casting and was chosen for the part. Despite Nazrin being worried about revealing the actress’ identity and putting her in danger back in Iran, Zohre decided to keep her name in the titles. “She still visits Iran, it’s really dangerous for her,” Nazrin adds. 

Finally, in November 2022, Nazrin and a team of fifty people started working on the short animation film. In March 2023, the film was finished. In less than a year it was screened at dozens of festivals, including the Academy Award qualifying festivals, and won awards in France, Italy, Germany, Türkiye, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Yet Nazrin is mostly grateful to be able “to touch the audience” and that “around the world, people can see the struggles of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran.” 

“It’s a pity that I can’t visit Iran because they can arrest me for this film, but I’d love to have conversations with them [Azerbaijani Turks],” she says. “Still, when I see them abroad, I want to talk to them, to know each other.”

The film was funded and pitched to Nazrin by the Azerbaijan Cultural Society of Northern California, the same organization that financed her studies at FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), one of the best film schools in the world. “We did crowdfunding for my studying. We collected 6000 manat (3000 euro), but it was a 15,000 euro fee, so it was still impossible,” the artist remembers. That’s when the Azerbaijan Cultural Society of Northern California granted Nazrin a scholarship and she was able to turn her dream into reality.

Like many among the creative youth in the post-Soviet world, Nazrin at first chose a more stable major, economics, for her undergraduate studies, which she says shocked her parents. “I was drawing a lot when I was a kid, and my parents were supporting me. They thought that I would study design or something else,” Nazrin explains.

However, even while studying economics, her creativity could not be contained. She continued drawing, learning graphic design from videos on YouTube, and soon got an internship at Azerbaijan’s Coca-Cola Bottlers LTD as a graphic designer while continuing her studies at the university. Her next career endeavour unexpectedly led her to meet her partner in business and now husband, Rashid Aghamaliyev. As the founder and CEO of AnimaFilm Festival, Rashid was looking for a graphic designer for the festival. Nazrin was chosen out of a hundred other applications.

“We worked together, after that, we fell in love, and we married,” she explains. Soon after, Nazrin moved to Prague, where her husband was based. Today, the two continue working on the AnimaFilm Festival despite difficulties. “It’s really hard to make something in Azerbaijan. It’s not easy to find the budget to organize things. It’s a full-time job, but we are not paid,” she explains. “Every year, we are touching important topics; last year, it was about gender equality. From selling tickets, we collected the money to give [to] those who are starting animation, who are going to do their first debut film. It’s not big money for animation, but good support for them to start something.” 

This year’s festival is going to be the seventh. Nazrin believes in the importance of the AnimaFilm Festival for Azerbaijan. “We want to have local animation that our kids can watch and learn our culture. Our film industry is not developed, [but] we are working on it. I think something is going to change; I don’t know when, but I think soon.”

Nazrin’s current project about a condition called vaginismus, an involuntary tensing of the vagina, has been in the works since 2021. However, due to the prejudice in Azerbaijan’s patriarchal society, even mentioning the topic scares people away. “When I open this topic, everyone is thinking I'm going to show the vagina. It’s a taboo topic for them; it’s challenging here,” the artist says. That is why she believes that making this film is evermore so important for the Azerbaijani audience. 

“In my country, at school, biology teachers [would] skip pregnancy and period things. They are not teaching them. It’s weird, and I think we should talk a lot about sex education,” Nazrin says, sharing how she hopes her animation film on vaginismus can help other girls. “I want to travel to Azerbaijani regions and show it there because we don’t have sex education still. So, it’s not easy for girls to know their bodies; I learned my body [at] the beginning of [my] 20s. It’s not a healthy thing to know your body after marriage.” 

Although slow, there has been some progress in the development of the film, as now, in addition to Nazrin’s husband, Rashid, there is one more co-producer, a fellow Azerbaijani in Germany. “We are looking for other co-producers in other countries, still waiting for the result. It’s going to be a big thing when we finish,” the young artist says. “I hope it won’t get censored in Azerbaijan.”