The invitation came with a catch.
An Azerbaijani producer who was putting together a collection of short films asked filmmaker and writer Maria Ibrahimova if she’d be interested in contributing. But the project had parameters: The movie would have to be shot in the Old City section of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. It’s a neighborhood that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on the strength of its centuries-old architecture, which bears witness to the influence of Zoroastrian, Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, Russian and other cultures.
The stipulation was “a wonderful one,” recalls Ibrahimova, who splits her time between Baku and New York. The Old City is “an incredibly atmospheric place that I know very well and absolutely love.”
The notion of an Old City shoot immediately gave her an idea for a story. That light-bulb moment led to Ibrahimova’s “Letter to God,” a poignant and humorous 17-minute film that will screen as part of the DC Shorts Film Festival & Screenplay Competition, running Sept. 10-20. This year’s edition of the festival — the 12th — will feature 125 films from 24 countries, the eponymous screenplay competition and other events.
The story concept that suggested itself to Ibrahimova, following the producer’s offer, drew on a Russian-language short story by the humorist Marian Belenky. Ibrahimova grew up speaking Russian: Born in Moscow, she immigrated to the United States with family members when she was 5 years old and grew up in New York.
When she was getting her BA at the New School, she happened to catch a screening of Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary “Richter: The Enigma,” which makes arresting use of music and archival visual materials.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to make films,” she recalled via e-mail from New York.
She went on to round out her education with film courses. After marrying Emin Ibrahimov, who hails from Azerbaijan, she co-founded a film and digital production company in Baku.
Ibrahimov helped produce “Letter to God,” which tells of a lonely widower (Yuri Baliev) who receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer and subsequently decides to write, and mail, a missive to the Supreme Being. In honor of the original short story, Ibrahimova wrote the film’s dialogue in Russian, which is spoken by some in Azerbaijan. (The film has English subtitles.)
As it follows its elderly protagonist, “Letter to God” captures glimpses of 12th-century fortress walls and other sights of Baku’s Old City. In one scene, patrons at an outdoor tea house drink tea served from a giant samovar. In another, two friends in a grocery store eat caviar straight from the tin. Ibrahimova says she tried to create a fictional world where the pace is more leisurely and the emotional connections are more old-fashioned.
“The world of the film doesn’t really exist anymore — not in Baku, not anywhere,” she says.
“Letter to God” is not the only international work in the festival to grapple with matters related to death and the spiritual. In the dark comedy “Good Morning,” by Polish director Milena Dutkowska, a man commits suicide, only to find himself in a warehouse-like afterlife where the happenings are both surreal and banal: A would-be maestro conducts an orchestra that appears frozen in time. Another man seems to be spending eternity shopping for a hat. Another wants to smoke, but there is not a match or a lighter to be had.
E-mailing from Lodz, Poland, where she spends most of her time while completing her film-school studies, Dutkowska said “Good Morning” was inspired by a single sentence — she translates it as “I hanged myself, and it has not made a bit of difference” — in Polish author Wieslaw Mysliwski’s novel “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” As soon as she read the sentence, she knew she wanted to respond artistically, she recalls.
Eventually, she conceived of “Good Morning,” which was filmed on a negligible budget in a warehouse in Lodz. (The film is in Polish with English subtitles.)
“My vision of hell is not so dramatic, like in a [Hieronymus] Bosch painting. It is quite domestic,” the filmmaker said. For her characters, the warehouse afterlife captures the “essence of what they want[ed] to escape from” when they were alive. “And what is more, it [happens] over and over.”
In short, she adds, “What causes suffering is not the hellfire, but respectability and boredom.”
While awaiting the kickoff of the DC Shorts Film Festival, with its international component, globally oriented movie buffs can check out a recent documentary about Alberto Sordi (1920-2003), a comic actor who was a beloved and prolific presence in 20th-century Italian cinema. The 2013 documentary “Alberto the Great,” directed by brothers Luca and Carlo Verdone, will screen at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Large Auditorium on Sept. 5. Luca Verdone will attend the screening.
Sordi first made his mark on cinema when he was selected to be the Italian dubbing voice of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame. He later became a movie star in his own right, ultimately appearing in more than 160 movies, including Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” and Mario Monicelli’s “La Grande Guerra.” He also directed films.
Speaking by phone from Italy, Luca Verdone said that, having been a friend of Sordi’s, he had been anxious to work on the documentary, which was timed to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the actor’s death.
“In Italy, he was very, very famous,” Verdone said. “He was Actor Number One.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Alberto the Great Sept. 5 at 3 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Large Auditorium. Free. Visit www.nga.gov.
12th annual DC Shorts Film Festival & Screenplay Competition Sept. 10-20 at various locations. Tickets: $12-20; all-access pass, $100. Visit www.dcshorts.com.