IDFA review: Mother and Son

IDFA review: Mother and Son

An Azeri son and filmmaker returns to his mother after eight years – again – in this fascinating self-portrait that carves out its own path between observation and reconstruction.


When a little over half an hour into the documentary we see the mother and sun reuniting at her remote village house, and silently hugging, he has been away for eight years – or so we’re told. 


But this isn’t really the first time they reunite. First of all, the son, Azeri filmmaker Hilal Baydarov, made his previous documentary When the Persimmons Grew (2019) on the same subject, also with his mother (winning the award for Best Documentary at the Sarajevo Film Festival). 


Secondly, Baydarov does almost everything himself, including sound and cinematography. So he was already there for the first part of the movie, filming his mother quietly going about her daily chores. And he will still be there, filming his mother alone again, after we have seen him leave towards the end.


In between, we find similarly constructed scenes. When we see Baydarov, in a series of consecutive shots, pensively walking away from us through the countryside, it’s clear that after every take he had to walk back to get his camera. When we see him putting up a ladder to get his old cradle from his mother’s attic, we know he’s already been up there, and the ladder was already standing there, because the camera is up there. It’s so obvious that it feels as if Baydarov is urging us to realize this is all a construction.


Thus, even the calm and lovingly framed observations of his mother’s daily life – which form an important part of Mother and Son’s charm – might not all be quite what they seem. It seems as if time has stood still in this little Azeri village. And this is what Baydarov, returning from Baku after an apparently disappointing career, is looking for (as he arrives at his mother’s house, he tellingly sits down beneath a cuckoo clock). 


Note the past tense of ‘When the Persimmons Grew’, in which he said: “Home is a place where you can feel the time pass.” This time, he adds: “I do not believe in anything which has not been filtered by time.” So, he portrays his mother living a slow and quiet traditional life, on her own. She still hoists water from a communal well, bringing her own rope and bucket. She owns a few chickens, in a crooked hen house, and we see her pluck one of them, as the others gather round inquisitively. She walks through the fields and slowly climbs over some wooden fencing. And she often rests during the daytime, on her bed or couch, with nothing but the sounds of birds and crickets in the background.


It all feels very rustic and timeless, until we hear Baydarov complain about how much has changed since he left the village. He bemoans the new roads and sounds of passing cars, which were never there before, and the fact that the village is now hooked up to the gas network. But we never hear the cars passing – which means Baydarov edited them out. And he extensively shows his mother heating water on a traditional wood-burning stove and baking bread in a wood oven. We even see her ironing with an old-fashioned charcoal iron – but a little later on, as if Baydarov was pulling our leg, she’s using an electric one. Even though much or most of what we see might still be contemporary, it is obvious – and emphasized in his voice-over monologues – that Baydarov is à la recherche du temps perdu.


Similarly, when he is talking philosophically about how he loves looking at walls, and his mother berates him for it, saying “Didn’t you have windows in your house?”, and he subsequently takes one of his mother’s spare windows home with him when he leaves, this might be what actually happens or happened, but more likely it should be taken metaphorically.


Meanwhile these long voice-over monologues, which in the version viewed suffered from an inadequate English translation, portray Baydarov as a misanthropic, self-hating and self-centred man, with hints of suicidal tendencies: “How can it be that a person hates everything that he did? How I hate my voice, my writings, my shots!” 


He philosophizes on the evil nature of man, references Dostoevsky’s hatred of his own face, and proclaims generalizations such as “The greatest happiness of people is to look at the decline of others” and “What can a man, who is in search of meaning, find except defeat?” He actually becomes rather annoying, with an excessive amount of self-aggrandizing self-pity: “Why do I want everything to be bad, even worse? Why do I want everything to be unbearably disgusting?” and, “I know nobody cares about me.” 


One of the few times his mother gets to have her say, in her own voice-over monologue, it sounds like he has written it for her: it’s still all about him, using his kind of rhetoric. More than a double-portrait, Mother and Son feels like Baydarov’s self-portrait, using his mother and the memories of his childhood to help him understand where he stands, how he failed, and what he needs to do next.


However, this is not a negative critique – this is actually what makes the film so interesting. Hilal Baydarov (Baku, 1987), who came to cinema after careers in mathematics, chess and computer science, doesn’t seem bound to existing rules and categories of documentary and fiction, reportage and re-enactment, creating his own, personal approach to autobiographical truth, somewhere between reconstruction, observation, and confession. And his mother is not a passive victim in this. Tellingly, Mother and Son begins and ends with the same image of his mother looking into the camera – which is to say: at her son – smiling, with Bach’s Air on a G String playing.


It is timeless music, that returns a number of times during the film when, beyond questions of registration or reconstruction, Baydarov gently films moments which actually are timeless: flies dancing in the forest air, dust flowing in sunbeams in a cow shed. Here, in his calm appreciation of the moment, Baydarov finds an answer, whether he realizes it or not, to his own endless laments of failure and disappointment.


However, Baydarov is not done yet. Luckily for us. His upcoming feature In Between Dying (2020, announced) is categorized as drama, with his own mother, Mǝryǝm Nağıyeva, cast in the lead role, opposite Orkhan Iskandarli, who was also cast in Baydarov’s first feature Hills Without Names (2018) as The Wanderer – who returned to his native village after, you guessed it, eight years of absence. That film was also categorized as fiction, but Baydarov emphasised at the time that “there was no written script for the film and I wrote down all the voice-overs while editing”. 


After which he made Birthday (2018), about his lonely mother making cakes and waiting for a birthday phone call that never comes – while Baydarov of course is present all the time, filming her. Then followed One Day in Selimpasha (2018), a conceptual portrait of a man of whom we know nothing – a stylistic approach that echoes in When the Persimmons Grew and Mother and Son, in which information is also often withheld and has to be inferred (for example, when his mother visits a grave, we presume it’s her husband’s).


These last three films were categorized as documentaries, but obviously these categories do not concern Baydarov very much. He is cutting out his own path, rapidly adding film after film (he released three features in 2018, and two in 2019), searching for his own personal truth using all means at his disposal, with a strong focus on his childhood home. As he says in Mother and Son: “I understood that if I was going to do anything, I would have to make it here, not somewhere else. I have to go back to the house of my childhood, I have to make any film only here. In my old house and in these paths. If I will not be able to do anything here, then I have to die here.”


At a certain moment in Mother and Son, his mother tells Baydarov his filmmaking career is hopeless: “You have never completed anything that you started. Once upon a time there was only math in your life, then chess, then music, then literature – and then you studied a different field at university. It is your character to leave everything unfinished. And film is not your job. It is just a cursory interest. It will pass soon. You will leave it unfinished, as well. You’ll see…” Later, Baydarov sighs: “Mother, why are you always right?”


Let’s hope, for our sake, that this time she’s wrong.