Meditative, Dreamy and Devoid of Categorization

in 22nd Ismailia Festival for Documentary and Short Films

by Massimo Lechi

The standout film from the Feature Documentary Films Competition combines family life with existential questions. Massimo Lechi looks at the relationship between mother and son against the backdrop of a village where time is still regulated by the passing of the seasons, a linear structure of nature that still challenges the viewer to enter another kind of temporal dimension.

When the Persimmons Grew (Xurmalar Yetişən Vaxt, 2019), the winner of the Fipresci Prize at the 22nd Ismailia International Film Festival, is an elusive masterpiece that miraculously succeeds in escaping any form of rational categorization. Partly a documentary focused on family life and childhood landscapes and partly an intimate diary by a restless intellectual crushed by the heavy weight of unsolved and unsolvable existential questions, the fifth directorial effort by the prolific (seven productions since 2018) Azerbaijani cult filmmaker Hilal Baydarov manipulates the already thin boundaries between fiction and reality, delving into painful metaphysical depths through delicate images of natural beauty. Unsurprisingly, it stood out from the rest of the festival’s long feature competition.

The beginning of the film is vague, dreamy: a long series of static scenes from rural life set in the Baydarov’s remote village in Azerbaijan. These are slow, beautifully shot and edited sequences that, while depicting a world still regulated by the passing of the seasons, introduce the viewer to a different time dimension where humble human silhouettes and trivial everyday sounds – as the noise of a train in the distance or the ticking of an old clock – fade in shadows and silence.

The core of When the Persimmons Grew is of course the portrayal of the director’s mother, Maryam Naghiyeva, a discreet sad-eyed lady who spends her life waiting for her artist son to come back home (Baydarov’s brother Vusal is seen in a few dialogue-less moments, too), while taking care of the old family farm. It would be somewhat imprecise to label her as the ‘protagonist’. As in Mother and Son (also from 2019), the other part of the diptych devoted to Naghiyeva, she is something more and, at same time, something less: a presence, a philosophical ideal, the contradictory embodiment of a disappearing culture. In the cinematic limbo slowly sketched and shaped by Baydarov’s camera, she represents past, present and future all at once. This is the same with her big yet modest house, which seems to be occupied only by family pictures in black and white and by a deep, almost paralysing sense of solitude: a place where time stands still, and from where it is possible to witness seasons come and go without completely perceiving the obvious changes in the surrounding phenomenal reality.

Home is a poetic and intimate space that the talented young auteur at some point enters with the same meditative attitude of his lonely parent. His own physical presence on the screen adds to the film a new unsettling energy that, though feeling initially dissonant and intrusive, is quickly mellowed and ultimately absorbed.

It is summer, a strikingly melancholic season during which the persimmons are picked, peeled, dried and stored: an ancient ritual which is rendered here as a sort of abstract choreography where man meets nature. Mother and son start taking walks in the woods and discussing philosophical topics. In fact, the brooding director talks, while the laconic woman listens with a mix of patience and disbelief and occasionally interrupts his pointless soliloquies on the supposed goodness of mankind and the different ways in which people rationalize the passing of time. Their interaction is brief and clearly unsatisfying, but it ends with a hug and an unspoken promise. Hilal goes back to the city and Maryam is left to the calm rhythms of rural life. They will meet again next summer, both a little older yet unchanged.

Two years after the awards in Nyon (where it had its world premiere) and in Sarajevo, When the Persimmons Grew completed its grand festival tour in Egypt, where it finally received the coveted critics’ prize, “for the unique way in which the director managed to explore deep existential themes through a highly poetic cinematic style.”

Massimo Lechi
Edited by Steven Yates