Seymour Tahirbekov is a reluctant chess star, a young grandmaster from Azerbaijan whose life is rigidly controlled by his emotionally toxic father and coach. On the eve of his showdown with the defending world champion, Seymour’s nerves began to fray, and he escapes to a remote island populated by wild horses and a solitary old man. Away from the limelight, and with a newfound sense of freedom, he begins to find peace of mind. But with the world championship days away, it’s just a matter of time before the nationwide manhunt for the AWOL grandmaster closes in.
“The Island Within” is written and directed by Ru Hasanov, who co-directed the 2013 Locarno player “Chameleon.” Produced by his Baku-based outfit Coyote Cinema and co-produced by France’s Arizona Productions, the film world premiered in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival.
Born and raised in Baku, Hasanov studied in the U.S. before working for Vice Media in New York. His peripatetic career took him to Lithuania and Russia before he returned to Azerbaijan in 2017 to make “The Island Within,” calling it a good time “to help make things right here in the film industry.” Hasanov spoke to Variety about the parallels between chess and filmmaking, the high cost of success, and the recent emergence of the Azerbaijani film industry.
“The Island Within” is based on a true story. How did you come across that story, and how closely did you stick to it with your script?
Azerbaijan pays close attention to chess. We have two or three grandmasters; one of the chess players was number two in the world recently. We have very serious chess players, and I figured it’s really strange that this is something that we can be and should be proud of, but there hasn’t been a single film about a chess player. That is what gave me the initial spark.
Then my dad showed me an article about this island which was an ex-Soviet farm. There was, up until recently, this guy who lived here in absolute solitude, a Russian guy by the name of Vitaliy Pronin. He died this year, just a few months ago. I was fascinated by the idea of someone living on an island with unique flora and fauna. There are flamingos, and there are horses that drink water from the Caspian Sea. I was blown away by that. These two ideas clashed, and that’s how I came up with the idea of this chess player who runs off to that island.
Are you a chess player yourself?
Yes. I’m a chess enthusiast. I love chess, and I have a lot of friends who enjoy playing chess. I’m far, far from being professional, but I’m a big chess enthusiast.
Are there similarities between chess and filmmaking? Complex problem-solving? An ability to think a few steps ahead?
Well, in one way or another, of course. I think both cinema and chess, they in one way or another reflect life. You have to be both tactically and strategically thinking. Of course, it’s a matter of problem-solving as well, especially when you’re making a low-budget or no-budget film, you have to properly think about the ways of making it happen. Yes, I think there are similarities, but for me at least, I think that filmmaking is much more similar to chess. When we’re talking about film, it’s an art form that might be different than chess. Although I believe after the fourth move in chess, there are over a billion possibilities. I guess it’s about the same with film.
When we’re introduced to him, Seymour seems to be a passive agent in his own life: he’s at the mercy of his father and coach, local politicians, and the demands that are constantly being placed on him as a competitor. He’s spent his whole life confined within a system designed to make him the grandmaster he’s become. Do you think it’s possible for someone in his position to find a degree of autonomy within that system—to be something other than the chess machine we see him to be?
I think it’s not just about chess. There are so many examples, even films, about a very similar problem—“Whiplash,” or with “Black Swan.” When you’re doing something professionally, I think you automatically sign a deal with the devil. You invest so much of your life into [it]. Obviously, the more time you spend on something, the better you become at it. For example, I was doing thorough research, and the local Azerbaijani chess masters, even when they’re talking to you, they’re still playing chess on their smartphone. It’s something that takes up literally all of your time. You’re obsessed with whatever you’re doing.
For me, personally, it’s not really the matter of [Seymour] not having the time to do something. It’s more about the void that he feels in himself. It’s a matter of personal freedom that he doesn’t really have time to explore and form as an individual. There’s this thing I heard someone saying once, that boys need their father’s permission to become men. Maybe the problem is that he didn’t really have the time to get his father’s permission to become a man.
Well, it’s arguable whether the particular father he has would even allow him to do that. There’s a scene in the film where Seymour’s father tells him a story about the trials his grandfather endured, when he was arrested and tortured by the KGB. And his advice to his son is simply, “Man up.” Going back to your point, maybe it’s not just about his father giving him the time and space to become a man; it’s a question of what kind of man his father expects him to become. Do you find this idea of masculinity is particularly problematic in Azerbaijan?
Not just Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a very strange place. It’s a very interesting place. It is a secular democracy. If we go back into history, for example, women got their right to vote in 1918. We have this tradition of secularism and modernity. But at the same time, there’s a very specific mentality in the Caucasus. If you look at the culture of the Caucasus—whether that be Dagestan or Chechnya or Georgia —there is this expectation of a man being a man that goes way back into history. There are various influences. But yes, there is definitely an expectation about the role of what a man is. I think this film was sort of an exploration of the role that men have in this society. And on a larger scale as well, I think it’s time to properly reflect upon this issue of what is being a man.
Seymour struggles early in the film with a desire to be free, even as he admits: “I can’t even explain it to myself.” It’s sort of a paradox, isn’t it? He’s so trapped he doesn’t even know what freedom means.
Exactly. Look at it this way. He’s definitely an intellectual. He’s the number two chess player in the world. You can’t say that he’s intellectually inferior to anyone around him. But that’s the sort of thing that I witnessed numerous times with my friends and my peers. I have a lot of friends who are musicians, world-renowned musicians, who play, for example, the piano non-stop, 24/7. And while we were playing football in the neighborhood, they were stuck at home, practicing. Obviously, you realize that there is something more than this, but you don’t know what it is. Because you were never exposed to that. Of course, [Seymour] realizes that there’s this whole other world outside of the world that he lives in, which is quite limited. And he’s well aware of that. But he never had a chance to explore it.
There’s a tone of nationalism that recurs throughout the film, this very heightened—and inflated—pride that people take in Seymour’s accomplishments as somehow contributing to the nation’s glory. You present it in a very droll, tongue-in-cheek way, but I wonder what it means for you to be a young, Azerbaijani filmmaker? How do you want your film to be received as a snapshot—however personal and idiosyncratic—of your country today?
It’s a very complicated question and issue, because I think that it’s extremely important for a young nation to take pride in various achievements. You can witness that during the World Cup, or any other athletic event, when representatives of a certain group take pride in belonging to that group. In that sense, it’s no different with cinema. For example, when Hilal Baydarov got into Venice main competition [with “In Between Dying”], it was something that all of us, regardless of whether we’re friends or colleagues or like each other’s films or not, everyone was united because we took pride that one of us got into such a prominent film festival for the first time in our history. Obviously it’s a big achievement. I don’t see a problem in taking pride in something.
However, I do think that when we’re talking about filmmaking, and the film industry in Azerbaijan, there is a generation of young filmmakers which has been forming throughout the past decade. And I think that from year to year, we are making our voices heard. Last year, for example, one of our colleagues won the Fipresci prize in Rotterdam, and this year we have a film in Cannes and a film in Venice. We are in Sarajevo. So I think the tendency of this group of people, or this wave, who are making their voices heard internationally, this is a very good start and a very positive thing that all of us share and take pride in. Who could ask for anything more?