Coming to Baku to film a short documentary meant checking to make sure that anything I plug in doesn’t blow up like a firecracker. I brought an Arri 1000k light for interviews, which runs on both the USA’s 120 volt and the 220 in Azerbaijan. All I had to do was buy a 220 lamp from B&H, which I did. I got 4 plug adapters so I could charge my various batteries, phone, computer, etc, and I was good to go . . or so I thought! Hours before my departure, I realized my dimmer only ran on 120 volt. . . . So began a hunt, as I was taxied around town by my implacable driver, Jarulla. We soon strike gold at Santral Electrik, a halogen dimmer rated up to 2k watts. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter, my new hero Ceyhun, was not only an able salesman, but a quick electrician, who rewired the thing, transforming it from a home wall dimmer to a mobile video-production dimmer . . . There I was, good to go for interview set-ups. Thanks to Ceyhun!
So, here I am with (left) Ilaha Mammadli, a finance journalist from “Trend,” an international news services with offices in Baku. On the right is Rasmina Gurbatova, the film’s director. . . Most people speak Azeri to each other on the streets, but this interview was conducted in Russian. And although the vast majority of people in Baku speak Azeri, many people communicate in Russian. One expat told me it is elitism. Is it possible that despite 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism in Azerbaijan, Russian is still the urbane lingua franca here? Haven’t most cities that were colonized by the USSR (Budapest, Vilnius, Dresden) dispensed with its Lenin statues, Politburo leaders, and vestiges of Russian culture (language, etc) long ago? Baku, however, is an exception: is this because Baku has been a multi-ethnic crossroads for as long as it’s been a city? Only recently has it become majority Azeri. . . . For me, it’s a surprise that card-carrying Azeris still speak so much Russian without it messing with their Azeri nationalism . . .
What comes to mind when you think “Azerbaijan” and “food”? If you’re like me . . . nothing. So, what a surprise to arrive here Sunday and discover . . . some incredibly fresh, tasty cuisine! Here’s a photo of the Chef’s Salad that I had for lunch Sunday. It was maybe the best salad I’ve ever had. Most salads in the US are lettuce-dominated. Unless you LOVE lettuce, that’s not awesome. The good salads have an overpowering dressing, like a gorgonzola or blue cheese. These are yummy, but overpowering . . . Today’s “Chef’s Salad” at the “Restauro 90A” on the first floor of the Landmark Hotel blew my socks off. What you see is a perfect balance of: mixed lettuce, grilled chicken, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, capers, parmiggiano, parsley, dill, mint, and purple and green olives. The only dressing is a subtle olive oil. Everything was in harmony. The tomatoes were sweet. The artichokes were the best I ever had. The capers were the largest I ever saw. . . . I’ll let the economists argue over the “WHY,” but all I know is that all these veggies taste awesome and the veggies in my country don’t. . . . Now tell me: Which country is “developed”?
On the 20th floor deck of the Landmark Hotel in Baku. Filming the hubbub of a city in transition. It’s cold, this “city of wind,” with the Caspian’s expanse so thorough, I feel like I’m at the ocean’s edge. About 12 years ago, the per person income was less than $1,000; today, it’s more than $10,000. The sole reason: oil. And the newfound wealth is evidenced in a hundred cranes bowing over the cityscape. Pricey cars share the streets with old Russian Ladas. Slick businessmen strut past old rural grandmas. A sleek, postmodern glass facade reflects a 13th century stone wall of the Old City. Baku, a contradiction.
Baku is a big city with a tiny airport. I’ve landed in Azerbaijan, a country with about 9 million people — 4 million of whom are jammed into this cosmopolitan city on the Caspian Sea. I’m here to shoot a documentary . . . Newly landed, we queue up to jam through a single door. On the other side, travelers are chain-smoking in an endless passport-control line. This of course is comfortable compared to my second connecting flight: In Istanbul, a people-mover had dropped us off at the base of our airplane — in the middle of a driving rainstorm! All us travelers were drenched before we could mount the stairs. The Turkish Airlines flight was straight out of Pan American Airways, with turquoise seats and friendly stewardesses (!). I half expect to see Leo DiCaprio flying the plane. . . . After 20 hours: DC-Franfurt-Instanbul-Baku . . . I’m here!
“We the rich are literally dumping on the poor,” said Lisa Sharper today while I was interviewing her for a short film that documents eco-hazards and eco-opportunities in Harlem. Sharper’s NY Faith and Justice group has collaborated with WeACT and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion to engage Harlem’s communities around the issue of environmental justice. This is a hot topic in a place where public health indicators suggest something very fishy: some communities in Harlem and the Bronx have the nation’s highest asthma rates, for example. Why? Well, as Sharper explained, there are no public dumps in Manhattan, but 40+ in the Bronx. And of the seven bus depots in Manhattan, six are in Harlem. So, every hour of every day, buses go though Harlem, creating these corridors of pollution that settles in clouds on schools, homes, children. Lots of it. WeACT is into its 12th year on an MTA Accountability Campaign, that’s trying to get the city to think more about the health of Harlem’s people. Having not seen or heard much about this story, I didn’t care much. But now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have two reactions: first, I’m ashamed to live in a country that lets this happen; and I’m hopeful that progress can happen fast.
In Orange County, CA for some more interviews for Shattered Sky. Talking with journalist Sharon Roan, who wrote Ozone Crisis. Then interviewing Dr. Sherwood Rowland who won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to chemistry. His 1974 Rowland-Molina hypothesis identified CFCs as damaging the ozone layer, which led to the Montreal Protocol limiting the gas worldwide.
Great time today in sweltering Houston, where a pocket of film-lovers and runners came to a showing of Volcanic Sprint organized by Real Films. The Aurora Theater, an inspired second act for a 1920s church, is intimate, with a wood-paneled ceiling and walls. The Q&A goes an hour, with people interested in Cameroon’s situation almost as much as the particulars of the race. And with Saint Arnold Brewing Company a sponsor, the night is complete. Jeff Mills and his wife Barbara are founders of Real Films (and principals of Houston’s own IO Communications). Not only did they put on a classy event, but they made me feel right at home — if only for a day in Houston.
I have to admit that this film festival is killer! Not only did the programmers get some amazing films here, but all the organizers are relentlessly nice, and have created a very low-key atmosphere for us to just hang out and meet each other. In between watching amazing documentaries like “Class C” and “Man on Wire,” I hobnobbed with a lot of very inspiring people — including a sizable DC contingent. Here, from left, are Virginia Williams, producer of Frontrunner; Karim Chrobog, director of War Child; Brian Liu, director of Disarm (which won its category in the 2006 Jackson Hole Film Fest); and yours truly. Cool festival.