A Metaphysical Road Movie

in 25th International Film Festival of Kerala, Trivandrum

by Paulo Portugal

The 25th edition of International Film Festival Kerala showcased quite a diverse and even robust selection, proclaiming that in spite of health issues, cinema is still a reliable and creative driving force. This was confirmed by our FIPRESCI award winner In Between Dying (Sepelenmis Ölümler Arasinda, 2020 ), by Hilal Baydarov. One of the most promising filmmakers in the Azerbaijani cinema, Baydarov has made seven full length films in just three years, five of them documentaries. In Between Dying is his second fiction film since his debut in 2018, with Hills Without Names. This concise and deep work came to the attention of the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas and the American actor Danny Glover who became executive producers of the film.

In Between Dying, that premiered last year in concorso in Venice, is in tune with his body of work. In a way, this unscripted film looks like a wider reflection on the previous themes. The film follows a man in black who abandons his house and family in search for completion in his life by affecting the lives of others. His words echo as an opposite omen, suggesting the circular path of this film.

The emotions are the main protagonists of Baydarov’s stories, usually made among friends and family. Life and death, sky and earth, love and hate, marriage and divorce, blindness and sight, sickness and health. His mother, Maryam Naghiyeva, is a source of inspiration and a constant presence in almost all his films. It’s with her that the story begins, as the sick mother that watches her son leaving home.

Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli, in a similar role to the one he played in Hills Without Eyes) is a sort of a dark angel on a moped, trailing a series of damned creatures afflicted by terminal gestures, somewhat relieved by his own momentary intervention. He saves a rabid girl in captivity after she bites her father’s neck; tries to save an estranged woman who kills her husband while Davud defends; picks up a bride that runs away from her brother/fiancée and washes a naked woman’s body before she is put in her grave. It is quite interesting that Davud was also the name that Hilal used to sign the poetry he wrote as a teenager. In a way, a small gallery of characters, that might all be just one.

One can see this journey as a metaphor of the search for love, with moments of sanctified predestination similar to Bhuda’s, our Siddhartha, by touching in a special way all those he meets on his way. What is striking, and at the same time clever, is the way in which Baydarov seems to juxtapose different stages of life and temporality in a story that evolves over just one day.

The storytelling is an interesting mix of the idea of time and motion with a mélange of film noir elements and snips of an interior voice. It is filmed as an intimate and deep gesture, probably not so far from his own documentary studies, often observing the casual gestures of his mother, like in the recent documentary trio Mother and Son, When the Persimmons Grew and Nails in My Brain (made between 2019 and 2020).

Here he assumes an unavoidable metaphysical path and, eventually, questions the meaning to life. It’s very refreshing to notice how the Azerbaijani filmmaker uses the road movie genre as a tool to follow his own senses, interconnected by a noirish tone.

Trying to find his family, he has to overcome several obstacles. The different women are all the same, even in parallel worlds. In a sense, his mother is the meaning of his own existence, like the isolated tree we see several times.

We recognize the proximity of Baydarov and the way he grasps life, time and light, to the bleak and mundane Bela Tarr (with whom he studied in film school in Sarajevo). There is also a kinship to the aesthetics and themes of Trakovsky, Bresson and Bergman. In this case, the idea of death is interpreted as the character’s need to go back to his own origin. So, in a way, the film teaches us that we can (or must) return home.

Paulo Portugal
Edited by Yael Shuv