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A parallel could be drawn between the miracle of Saint Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish and Hilal Baydarov’s Balıqlara xütbə (Sermon to the Fish). While the 13th century heretics of Rimini weren’t interested in St. Anthony’s words, a shoal of fish congregated near the seashore to listen to him in their stead. Nowadays, people are often uninterested and turn their backs to the two biggest tragedies of the contemporary world: the ongoing wars, and the pollution of our planet’s natural environment. These two issues intertwine in Azerbaijani director Hilal Baydarov’s ninth feature length film. A graduate in mathematics and computer sciences, Baydarov moved from Baku to study filmmaking at Béla Tarr’s filmfactory Project at the Sarajevo Film Academy, which nurtured a number of young talents under the Hungarian master’s four-and-a-half-year leadership. Baydarov’s career as a director has been a rather prolific one since he made his debut with Hills Without Names in 2018: that same year he premiered two more films, One Day in Selimpasha and Birthday, followed by the Katech trilogy – When the Persimmons Grew (2019), Mother and Son (2019) and Nails in My Brain (2020) – and his Venice main competition entry In Between Dying (2020) and Crane Lantern (2021), both produced by Carlos Reygadas, who serves also as producer of Balıqlara xütbə. Although Baydarov’s first films were documentaries, and his process of shooting with minimal crews lets reality penetrate in great measure his works of fiction, he himself rejects the differentiation by saying he never thought about whether he was making documentary or fiction films. His newest offering, Balıqlara xütbə, is an aesthetically stunning work photographed by the director himself. The set-up of this visual poem is simple: a young soldier returns to his deserted village to find his sister and a dog as the only survivors. The apocalyptic landscape is filled with oil drilling pumpjacks. Among his first words, Davud (a recurrent character of Baydarov’s latest works, played by Orkhan Iskandarli), declares: “We won the war”, to which his sister responds: “Everyone you know is dead. They all rotted and died”. As the clouds pass by and the land dries further, Davud’s memories of the war slowly start unfolding off-screen. A remarkable work with the sound, including Kanan Rustamli’s hypnotizing musical score, combined with the breathtaking yet desolate images transport the spectator to a dream-like state of mind, in which one begins to wonder: are we still alive?
Hilal Baydarov, a director and documentarian from Azerbaijan who has won awards at many international film festivals and trained under Béla Tarr, is a former IT technician.