Oliver MÜSER: "Humor is a promising approach to countering polarization"

03.01.2023 (Caucasian Journal) Happy New Year, and welcome to our holiday special interview! We hope you enjoy the comedy video (below) and the conversation with  Oliver MÜSER, Berlin-based political scientist and creator of the famous Dolma Diaries comedy series. 

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Dear Oliver, happy holidays and welcome to Caucasian Journal.  We decided to devote the special New Year’s interview edition to your comedy series – the Dolma Diaries. If someone has not seen the first episode about the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Georgian trio – just click on the video below and have fun. But the central question is – when shall we see the next episodes? What is needed to continue the series? 

Oliver MÜSER: Thank you very much for having me on this special edition! First of all let me say that me and the whole team behind the production are very happy that so many people enjoyed the pilot episode and are constantly asking about more episodes. I wish there was a clear answer to your question, but the boring truth is that it all depends on funding. We officially submitted the proposal for continuation to one donor organization so far and we are in talks with a few more, but I cannot say for sure if it will work out. I really hope we can go forward because we are extremely motivated to show more than just this first small glimpse of the story.

AK:  How did you manage to raise funds for the completed work?  The high professional level of the video suggests it could not be created by volunteers only…

OM: That’s a long story, but to make it short: We first pitched the concept of the series to the German Foreign Ministry back in 2016 and they supported the development of a script in 2017. Since these early days, the political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) was always very supportive of the idea and in 2020 as well as 2021 it worked out that they could fund the preparations and the production of the first episode.

The second part of your question is quite interesting because in the years between writing the script and finding funds to realize (parts of) it, I was pondering a change of the concept so that it could be quickly done with a group of friends and volunteers without external funding. We probably could have done it, but it would have had a less professional look and thus possibly not led to the reaction that it did. I also dislike the idea that civil society can do unpaid or underpaid work just because it is idealistic work.

In case we do not receive funding for more episodes, I could imagine pooling the talents and resources of all the people who want to support the continuation and this could result in a beautiful crowd-effort. But it would also be even more complex to organize than it already is and as I said, I would really want for the people involved to get paid for their work.

Having said that, I will not forget that many people involved in the pilot production did work more than they had to because they were passionate about it and some people did contribute voluntary work such as some translations or the cool animations at the beginning and end of the episode by Azerbaijani artist Fidan Akhundova. Other than that, music was something we did not have a budget for, so the musicians of the introductory rap music allowed us to use their songs and our Georgian main actor Beka Buchukuri composed the wonderful film music.

AK:  You mentioned the long story, I think now is a good moment to tell us how this project came about?

OM:  As I said, the story begins in 2016, when the so-called Four-Day or April War between Armenians and Azerbaijanis happened, accompanied by a wave of online hatred. I think this frustrated many people in civil society, including me, who had spent years trying to bring the two peoples closer together through peace-building workshops and similar meetings. I was thinking with some friends what approach could really resonate with young people in the region and we quickly arrived at the idea for a humorous joint Armenian-Azerbaijani-Georgian web series to counter the hatred. Thanks to the German Foreign Office, we had the chance to put together a team of scriptwriters and the four of us met several times in Berlin and Tbilisi over the course of 2017 and finalized a script for one season of eight episodes in early 2018. 

We chose Berlin as the setting because it is a neutral place where rapprochement might be easier and we also included a Georgian in the story, because Georgia is obviously part of the regional dynamic and I think the relationship between Georgians and their neighbors is very interesting as well. There was little room in the first episode to explore these relations or the situation in Abkhazia or the role of Germans, Russians or Turks for instance, but I hope we will get the chance to explore more of this in the coming episodes.

After finishing the script, it proved quite difficult to turn it into reality. A comedy series is not part of the usual spectrum for many donors and they probably were not sure what to make of it, also because of some of the politically sensitive jokes we had in the original script. Luckily, FES had long been interested in supporting the production and in 2020, we started the preparations. Then sadly, the Second Karabakh War happened so we decided to change the script and take out everything we thought might be insensitive in the new environment. I actually stopped calling it a comedy series at that point. For the continuation, I would rather go for a human story with funny moments.

AK:  Would you like to tell us more about your cast and crew? 

OM:  The original team consisted of me and the three other script writers - Artom Petrosyan from Armenia, Fazil Aliyev from Azerbaijan and Georgi Javakhadze from Georgia. Lots of other people contributed ideas for the script in the early days, mostly friends from the South Caucasus and from the three Diasporas in Berlin.

For the shooting in summer 2021, we found a great (technical) crew of young Berliners and asked the Georgian director Dito Tsintsadze to help us with his experience and make sure we have at least a certain level of quality. For the main cast, we initially wanted to do a big casting in the South Caucasus, but because COVID-19 was still an issue and we did not have endless funds, we decided to search among Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians in Berlin and some other cities in Germany. With Anar Rzayev, Hamlet Ambarzoumian and Beka Buchukuri, we found three wonderful guys who got along very well during the shoot and did a great job considering none of them had any previous experience with fictional filmmaking. This goes for almost everyone in the team, including me. I had some experience shooting documentaries, but zero with drama or comedy. So I think the pilot episode was a huge learning experience for all of us and I have a long list of things we want to do better in future episodes. 

AK:  And what about yourself - how did you get interested in the South Caucasus?

OM: I was always fascinated with the transformation process of the countries of the former Soviet Union and spent a year in Kyrgyzstan between high school and university. Seen from neighboring Central Asia, the South Caucasus was always a region I wanted to get to know better. Almost 10 years ago, during my studies, I got the chance to travel the region and spent two weeks in each Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, trying to understand the mix of external influences and their own strong identity and history. Besides this more intellectual interest, I just really enjoyed the atmosphere in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku, met many great people and I continued coming back every year between 2013 and 2019 for different projects, including the Dolma Diaries. And so I also learned something about the mutual prejudices and stereotypes and I felt there was a lot of comedic potential in all this tragedy and it would be much better to have a comedic competition than a military one. 

 I think we are living in a global era of political comedy. 

AK:  Humor and politics, culture and politics – I believe you have something to say about their connections, don’t you?

OM:  I cannot say that I have studied this topic intensely, but I think we are living in a global era of political comedy which was probably kickstarted by Jon Stewart and his daily show in the 2000s. It transcended comedy, calling out structural flaws in US politics, criticizing political and media culture and drawing attention to underreported topics. Now, there are political satire formats in almost every (democratic) country and I think the audience understands that this is partially for their entertainment and partially a way of dealing with their frustrations with the political process. Many of these political comedians are becoming popular public intellectuals of sorts who set or influence the political agenda. A few have become so popular that they went into actual politics with the most famous example obviously being Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Entertainment is a great way to bring serious topics to a wider audience and make people question their entrenched beliefs without forcing anything on them.

Though not comedy, an example from the South Caucasus of the role that entertainment can play in politics and society is the extremely popular Georgian series „My Wife's Girlfriends“ which I am sure you know, and which also touches upon very serious issues such as domestic violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people. So I think entertainment is a great way to bring serious topics to a wider audience and make people question their entrenched beliefs without forcing anything on them.

We know from academic research as well as personal experience that serious topics treated with humor are perceived as less aggressive and difficult stories can be presented this way without triggering an immediate defensive attitude. This is another reason why humor is a promising approach to countering polarization and stimulating a rethinking of deadlocked attitudes in conflicts, such as the ones in the South Caucasus.

AK:  Going back to funding – I welcome you to use this interview to find new supporters! Of course you may count on Caucasian Journal as your media sponsor, but also tell our readers if you are open to donations, grants, crowdfunding, and feel free to share the details. We know there are many potential funders among our readers. 

OM: We might do a crowdfunding campaign at some point, but for now we are focusing on conversations with donor organizations so if you as a reader have ideas for organizations that might be interested or you are working for a grant-giving organization and think this series should continue, please get in touch at dolma.diaries@gmail.com and we can start the conversation.

In general, I would recommend to readers to subscribe to our YouTube channel to be informed about all developments around the Dolma Diaries. If we go forward, we will expand our social media presence to other platforms, but for now YouTube is the place to receive updates and hopefully good news soon. 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers on the New Year eve, the floor is yours. 

OM: Well, we started the Dolma Diaries mainly to contribute to rapprochement between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, so my wish for the new year is of course to see a quick resolution of the current crisis on the Lachin corridor. And then beyond that, I really hope that 2023 will be the year we see a just and peaceful settlement of the overall conflict that allows for the process of healing and rapprochement.  

AK: Thank you very much, and best of luck to you!

You are welcome to follow Caucasian Journal at:

Google News  *  Twitter  *  Facebook  *  Medium  *  LinkedIn  *  YouTube  *  RSS

To request an email subscription to Caucasian Journal, enter your email address:

No comments:

Post a Comment