Celebrated Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov has won international acclaim for a fast-growing body of work that has included seven films in the past two years while also attracting high-profile collaborators.
Baydarov is making his Venice debut with the competition title “In Between Dying,” a film he produced with Elshan Abbasov and co-producers Joslyn Barnes of Louverture Films and Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas and his Splendor Omnia Studios. Danny Glover and Susan Rockefeller also served as executive producers for Louverture.
“In Between Dying” follows a troubled young man, Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli), who leaves his home on what is to become a fateful and dreamlike journey that spans a single day as he flees pursuers and searches for meaning in his life.
Baydarov’s largely improvised work was inspired by the story of Buddha – the early life of the pampered Siddhartha, who was kept sheltered in his father’s palace and shielded from the suffering of the outside world, but who undergoes profound change after venturing out and coming face to face with the sick and dying.
Expressing great admiration for French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Baydarov finds particular inspiration in his quote: “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” He notes that of the thousands of films he has seen, it is the works of Bresson, as well as those of Ingmar Bergman and Andrey Tarkovsky, that he loves the most. “I adore them, I adore their filmmaking. They are real masters. I am inspired by their films and their ideas as artists.”
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Baydarov shares Bresson’s view of cinema. “Film is art, first of all. You should feel it. You should feel the rhythm. You should feel the characters. I only remember films that made me feel something. Bresson is a real master of cinema. His films always make me think about life and human nature. Even when I mention him, when I think about Robert Bresson, I start to feel something. I prefer to feel something before understanding it.”
Like his past works, which often blur the lines between fiction and documentary, “In Between Dying” was largely improvised, with the director and actors often relying on weather conditions and landscape for motivation. “The main idea was to show the change, the perception of the young man in one day,” the director explains.
Baydarov studied film in Bosnia-Herzegovina under acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, who founded the Film Factory program at the Sarajevo Film Academy. It was there he first met Reygadas, who served as a mentor at the school, but they rarely spoke as Baydarov spent most of his time in the city of Mostar, where he earned his living playing chess.
Baydarov’s films are “so rooted in a tradition of cinema that is today an endangered species – and at the same time so mystical,” Reygadas says.
He met Barnes at last year’s Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyon, Switzerland, where she was serving on the international feature jury. “When the Persimmons Grew,” Baydarov’s intimate portrait of his family, won a jury prize there for its “uncompromising restlessness and poetic subjectivity, for its grammar of pure cinema and its exploration of time.”
“These are bedrock elements in all the work I have subsequently seen Hilal undertake,” Barnes states. She describes Baydarov as “a filmmaker erupting with a volcanic and obsessive need to create,” adding that he exhibits the “kind of courage that is just essential in responding to the era we live in.”
Thanks to Barnes and Reygadas’ support, Baydarov was able to finish post production on “In Between Dying” in New York and Mexico City.
Filmmakers in Azerbaijan face limited resources, but it is a challenge that Baydarov nevertheless embraces. “Of course, everybody complains about the restrictions and limitations. Honestly, I love it. I really love it. I’ve made some documentaries in just one room, in one house, and I really showed all the things that I wanted to show. Of course the limitations and restrictions are bad. But I take advantage of it. I see that it’s all I can do and know what I can do. I love it because it helps me enlarge my creativity. It gives me inspiration. We are very few and we understand that we are not the masters of the world, we are not powerful, we have to wait for the special moment.”
That economical creativity has also contributed to an impressive output of two to three films a year. “I never start with the intention of making a documentary or a fiction film,” Baydarov says. “I enjoy making films with my friends and I enjoy playing with the camera. If it becomes a documentary film, it’s okay for me. If it becomes a fiction film, it’s still okay for me. There is no difference for me. That’s why so many people don’t understand my films. Are they documentaries or are they fiction? I don’t see any difference between them and I don’t believe in categorizations, I don’t believe in genres – cinema is just cinema.”
Baydarov is working on two projects, including a crime drama that is in post production, described as an “anatomy of a crime,” an atmospheric and poetic story about death. He is also set to start shooting another film in December, a kind of sequel to his 2018 feature “Hills Without Names,” which was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th-century painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” The new film will continue the mystic story of the wanderer, exploring themes of solitude and aspects of the human mind.
Berlin-based Pluto Film is handling world sales for “In Between Dying.”