Film and TV

Animated Short From Houston Filmmaker Premieres at MATCH

Gazi the judge will feel very familiar to modern audiences.
Gazi the judge will feel very familiar to modern audiences. Screencap from The Man From Oghuz: The Judgment
Everything you need to know about director Murad Aliyev can be summed up in this factoid: He’s been working on The Man from Oghuz since 2008, and he scheduled the premiere before the final touches were finished. The film was ready 72 hours before he shows it to his first paying audience this Saturday.

“That’s how I am. I like tight deadlines!” he told the Houston Press in a phone interview, laughing as he said it. “If I didn’t have the deadline, it would take me forever to finish.”

The Man from Oghuz: The Judgment, made with the support of a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance, is a 3D animated short about a corrupt judge in the Tenth Century who has to deal with a stranger in his city. Aliyev co-wrote the film with his friend, Aydin Salimov.

Aliyev’s movie is based heavily on the history and mythology of his native Azerbaijan, and the style of the story will be familiar to anyone who has read Arabian Nights. Though not an Arab country itself, Azerbaijan has a long and complicated history with Iran and the Safavid dynasty. Those regional, military, and religious tensions are foundational to the plot of Oghuz.

The titular man (Matthew Curtis) is brought before the judge Gazi (Dick Terhune) to answer for the crime of punching a guard who insulted the man’s mother. Gazi is a fascinating monster of a person, believing himself capable of great wisdom and justice but always falling short of what most of us would call decency. In one breath he castigates his Vazir, Imran (James Smillie, Big Finish Doctor Who cast represent!), for having an orphan boy stealing food arrested, and in the next, prescribes the comparatively mild punishment of five lashes.

The dissonance of his role clearly weighs on Gazi. Underneath his bluster and ego is a man bitterly losing faith in the system but is also equally terrified of it falling because it benefits him so much. This is where Oghuz is at its strongest. Gazi will be familiar to everyone who has watched a boss or politician fail to live up to human ideals because they secured their own safety and happiness first. Despite the ancient setting, the film feels terribly timely.

“It became something more relatable and modern,” says Aliyev. “Problems that we are facing now, they are the same problems man has faced since the inception. Problems of corruption, discrimination, and all those kinds of stuff. Azerbaijan has this rich history and mythology, but every time it is told, people go fantastical. I wanted to focus on the more mundane.”

At its core, Oghuz is a compelling dialogue between the audience in the form of the man and Gazi, representing authority. There is this fascinating, terrifying sequence where the man suggests a plaintiff be given some compensation after his only possession, a goat, is stolen by the guards. Gazi agrees, but then cuts the compensation down with court fees and taxes, including one that punishes non-Muslims. It’s a somber lesson in how concepts like law and justice can be twisted until they are indistinguishable from theft and thuggery.

Oghuz is a beautiful film, competently animated and clearly in love with the bright aesthetics of the Islamic Golden Age. Visually, it ranks between a Barbie DVD and a really good PlayStation 3 game, which is impressive for an independent short. The style fits the stage-play presentation admirably, allowing the audience to focus on the story.

The only major downside to Oghuz is that it is simply not finished. The short is a semi-sequel to a previous one, The Man from Oghuz: By the Fire, and it ends just when the story is getting really interesting. Aliyev has plans to turn the whole thing into a televisions series, but for now there is no closure to the story or explanation for the man’s journey at all so far.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting a piece of a puzzle as a proof of concept. James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s short film version of Saw is probably the greatest modern example. However, Oghuz would probably be better served with a slightly punchier ending and a sense of completion.

It’s not a reason to sleep on the film, though. Oghuz is well worth the watch for the innovative way Aliyev has explored his country’s legends, and the dialogue is often riveting. One way or another, Aliyev is definitely a local filmmaker to keep an eye on.

The Man From Oghuz: The Judgment premieres Saturday, June 22 at 6 p.m. at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH), 3400 Main. For more information, visit MATCHouston.org or call 713-521-4533. Free with reservation.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner