Ali and Nino is a love story for the ages

We spent a few days with the cast and crew of Ali and Nino, an epic love story between a Muslim and a Greek Orthodox Christian, set in Azerbaijan during the First World War.

Adam Bakri and Maria Valverde in Ali and Nino. Courtesy Sundance Film Festival
Powered by automated translation

Palestinian actor Adam Bakri takes the lead role in Ali and Nino, a British film based on the acclaimed Azerbaijani novel of the same name by Kurban Said, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival at the weekend.

Part of the Bakri acting dynasty – his father is veteran actor and director Mohammad Bakri, and his brothers Saleh and Ziad are also in the business – he came to international attention in the title role of director Hani Abu-Assad's Oscar nominated drama Omar in 2013.

His new film is an epic love story set against the backdrop of the First World War, expansionist Communist Russia and the independence movement in Azerbaijan.

Bakri plays Ali, a young Muslim who falls in love with Nino (played by Spanish actress María Valverde), a Greek Orthodox Christian from neighbouring Georgia.

The true identity of the author of the source novel – Kurban Said is a pseudonym – has been a mystery since the book was published in 1937 in Germany. The most popular candidate is Essad Bey (born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku in 1905), a Jew who converted to Islam, lived in Germany and Italy in the 1930s and died in 1942, though this is still a matter of some dispute.

Whoever the writer was, the understanding of the different cultures and locations shines through in the book, with the bulk of the action taking place in Azerbaijan’s biggest city.

“For me the old city in Baku is where the story is,” says actor Adam Bakri. “That is where Ali’s world is.”

The film was largely shot on location in the city and surrounding areas. On a visit to the set last year, I was given a tour of the old town and shown the old square, which had been dressed to resemble how it looked a century ago.

The Maiden Tower, a tall brick turret that dominates the entrance, and a walk through the cobbled streets, with their old buildings and marketplaces, is like stepping back in time, even without the magic of the ­movies.

It’s easy to see how Baku inspired this story about a clash of cultures. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has once again been declared an independent state. Officially the government is secular, yet the ideology of the predominantly Islamic population is ­omnipresent.

However, the true journey back in time took place the next day, when I caught a plane to Ganga, the country’s second city, which was the capital of independent Azerbaijan for a few months in 1918.

It sits in a flat plain surrounded by mountains, the tallest of which are permanently snow-capped, and is a vast, open landscape of the type that is more usually associated with Middle America. The population is in the hundreds of thousands, yet it has a distinctly sleepy-town feel.

Next year, the city will be the European Youth Capital, and the gates to the city have been rebuilt using the original plans – but the most impressive sight is what looks like a replica of the Arc de Triomphe built in the middle of Heydar Aliyev park. Aliyev was a former Soviet politburo member who was president of Azerbaijan from 1993 until his death in 2003, when he was succeeded by his son, Ilham, who rules to this day.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Ali turns down a job working as an emissary in Paris, despite being aware that Nino wants to move to Europe, a place that is more in keeping with her upbringing. Who could have imagined that 100 years later, an Arc De Triomphe replica would make it look like Paris had moved to Azerbaijan.

A beautiful two-hour drive along a twisting and winding road makes the ascent from Ganja to Gadabay. The last part of the journey is along a dirt track, until I finally see lorries belonging to a film crew. I walk to a quite spectacular stone railway bridge, which is to be the scene of a pivotal ­battle between Azerbaijani and Russian troops.

It's the type of location that director Asif Kapadia adores. He is best known for the documentaries Senna, about the late Formula One driver, and the ­Oscar-nominated Amy, about British singer Amy Winehouse. But his feature films The Warrior and Far North were shot in sparse barren landscapes.

The production crew spent six months reinforcing the bridge to support a film crew – and there was Adam Bakri standing on it, gun in hand, filming a spectacular battle scene.

The next day, three separate shoots were happening on a vast plain. The visual effects crew was filming soldiers in front of a green screen, while the secondary unit was shooting a car rolling along a tiny road.

Kapadia, meanwhile, was with cinematographer Gökhan ­Tiryaki, who is famed for his work with Turkish Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, filming a scene in which Ali is told of Azerbaijan’s declaration of independence.

It is unusual to be able to see so many aspects of film production going on at one time, in a single location that looked like it belonged in a Western.

Valverde had just returned to work after a week’s break.

“It’s been such an experience being in Azerbaijan,” she says.

“It’s important to understand the culture – and also my ­character comes from Europe, and I think for the role it was very ­necessary that I came from another part of the world and that maybe sometimes I can’t ­understand this type of character that Ali is, because he is a Muslim and has a different way of doing things, so it’s an ­interesting fit.”

Her character’s role has been expanded from how she is portrayed in the novel, which is written from Ali’s perspective.

Bakri explains that screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) had made some alterations to the story.

“We made some changes because not all the traditions would come across or be sufficiently explained within the confines of a film – it’s tricky,” he says.

But to get inside Ali’s head, Bakri frequently returned to the book.

“You say, ‘Why does he do this, it doesn’t make any sense,’ so I would go back to my notes in the book to see what he was thinking,” he says.