‘In Between Dying’ Director Hilal Baydarov on His Distinctive Approach to Filmmaking

Hilal Baydarov, the sole juror of Jihlava’s main competition, the Opus Bonum section, has a back story with the fest dating to its screening of his 2018 film “Birthday” in the Docu Talents from the East section.

He later found a collaborator at the festival who worked with him on two films that traveled to the IDFA and Nyon doc fests: Georg Tiller, who came up through Jihlava’s Emerging Producers development program. This year, Baydarov’s “In Between Dying,” a somnambulant road movie set in his native Azerbaijan, screened in the main competition in Venice, drawing strong reviews internationally for its powerful imagery and ambiguous, sometimes violent characters.

How can Jihlava help shape the start of filmmakers’ careers and how important a role does it play these days in the doc world?

Jihlava gives a huge space to new voices. It is so important to discover new talents. I couldn’t find a place to show my earlier works but Jihlava put two of them in the competition in the same year! It really encouraged me to show my other films at other places and festivals.

Was there one particular experience here that stands out as something that really helped you or was relevant to the work you do now?

It is really very difficult for me to meet and talk with new people but I met some industry people with a beautiful spirit who helped me to spread my works.

How does your approach to doc making differ from that coming out of traditional film schools? I wonder if your background as a mathematician makes you more tuned into patterns, rhythms or other aspects?

Honestly, I didn’t know that I was making documentary films. I never thought about it. I never started with the intention of making a documentary film. I make film without thinking of categorization. I have to confess that my intuition works to find new balanced frames. I call it a “mathematical intuition.” It is not traditional “poetic intuition” because they mostly use “intuition” in poetic or magical meaning. It is mostly about harmony and balance. It is about beauty.

As a juror, what kind of experience are you looking for in viewing the films – and how important do you feel it is to reward films to help the director to gain recognition from a wider audience?

It is very easy to find good films but very difficult to find a good filmmaker. I don’t believe in the depth of field in images, films. I believe in the depth of soul of the filmmaker. I like filmmakers, not films. So for me the film is just a door to discover the person, the filmmaker. There are many “bad” films that helped me to find a good filmmakers. I like the film if I find this hidden path in it, even if it is a bad film.

In your own narrative film, “In Between Dying,” what was the genesis of your idea for the film and how much does that change in the process of shooting? It seems quite carefully scripted and planned.

Honestly, I never write a script. Just a few lines. And we forget it while shooting because we only work with intuition. I wrote all the poems there just before the shoot. I saw the cloud and it inspired me and I wrote some lines and gave them to my friend Orkhan Iskandarli, the lead actor. That is how we work. I never want to know what I shoot. If you know what you film, there is no meaning to film.

What is it about long takes and wide angles that appeal to you? Your scenes almost call to mind Old Masters in the National Gallery.

Actually, for me there are no such definitions – long take, sharp cut, short cuts, etc. I always start when I feel and I always stop when I feel I should stop. I feel the image and try to capture it. From film to film I understood that I don’t like cinema, I like life. It is just a moment of life, a moment of beauty that I always want to capture.

What’s your process working with DP Elshan Abbasov? Clearly, composition, lighting, often quite dark, and even mist are important to your approach.

I always work with the same people. And also in the same places! I don’t like changes. I mean, having the people that understand and feel like you are the best way to work and create. Because it leads to unity of existence, unity of the souls, that it is the only way to go to the source of life.

There’s a mythic quality to your story and characters in “In Between Dying.” Do they reflect old stories from Azerbaijan or is it all from your consciousness?

I read the story of Buddha when I was in high school. It is a simple story of Buddha that everyone knows – he was the son of the king, he never sees sick, old, poor people in the palace. One day he accidentally leaves the palace and meets with the reality of life and decided not to go back, and devoted himself to understand “life.”

This story was my starting point. Actually, it wasn’t because in the middle of the film (while thinking about it) I saw that it has a similarity with Buddha’s story. There are big differences also in the film – at the end, the main character returns to his starting point, and also there is a lot of humor in the film.

People have compared your work to Tarkovsky and Nuri Bilge Ceylan – and probably Terrence Malick at times. Does categorizing like that bother you?

I think there is no similarity between us. When people see long takes, clouds, or “poetic” images, they immediately start to mention these names. I really don’t see any common points between us or them. Tarkovsky was holy, he was like a Renaissance artist. The others are not like that. Nuri Bilge is so important a filmmaker of our time. He likes analyzing characters, going deep into their nature through the film, frame by frame, scene by scene.

I never tried to analyze characters, I never know who my characters are. When people ask about the characters, I always lie. I just give the answer that they want to hear. In fact, I don’t know who they are and I don’t want to know. I never know what my films are about.

I don’t see the film as a problem to analyze. There is no problem solving and I don’t think there is a deep tunnel or something. Cinema is only about one point or cinema is just one point among these 360 degrees around us. And filming is trying to find that point.

The haunting music and sound mix form much of the mood of “In Between Dying” – how do you work with these elements?

My composer, Kanan Rustamli, is my dear friend and we always work together. I have a piano education so I also have some ideas, always. He watches some scenes and composes and we decide together then. I worked with an amazing sound mixer for this film, Daniel Timmons. I am very glad having such incredible friends.

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