In our country, it’s quite common to hear individuals claim, “My life is like a film” or ” If you shoot my story that could be a film”. Such statements have become so frequent that we often find ourselves not taking those who utter them too seriously, disregarding their words. However, Ilkin Yusif’s documentary film “Looking for a Hero” takes a distinct approach by considering these individuals and embarking on a quest to discover lives that hold compelling narratives. The director, who also assumes the role of the main character in the film, initiates the search with a simple yet impactful cardboard sign bearing the words “I am looking for a hero.” With a desire to step aside from the spotlight and hand over the role of the hero, the director sets out to find a person who can seamlessly fit into the storyline, a character that complements the overall dramatic arc. As the film unfolds, we will have the opportunity to witness whether this ambitious endeavor proves successful or not.
For most documentaries, the life journey and struggles of the protagonist(s) often constitute the heart of the film’s resonance. Consequently, discovering a captivating character in documentaries and adeptly conveying their life narrative stands as the primary pathway to achievement. Sometimes, a vivid and compelling visual portrayal is all it takes to craft a triumphant documentary. Undoubtedly, within our community, there exist individuals who grapple with an array of social challenges. Regrettably, these individuals have not been extensively featured in our documentary landscape thus far. This can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a prevailing inclination towards narrative storytelling in feature films, as well as the general frivolous approach by audiences towards documentaries.
Discovering a compelling narrative within the routine existence of an ordinary Azerbaijani, amidst their daily concerns and household trials, is no simple feat. The intricacy and challenge of this task become evident in the interactions with the first individual that the director-hero attempts to engage with. This person imparts a perspective that resonates as a recurring motif throughout the documentary. He asserts to the director, who is on the hunt for a hero, that “The true heroism lies in bringing home bread every day. This refrain serves as a leitmotif, a thematic thread that underscores a deeper meaning. It appears to symbolize how the common Azerbaijani, grappling with the weight of his troubles, often ascribes his sole purpose and significance to the act of earning a livelihood – a basic sustenance. This dedication to securing “bread money” leaves little room for considering any additional forms of heroism. Just as the saying goes, “No one is a prophet in his own land,” similarly, someone engrossed in the pursuit of survival cannot easily be seen as a hero. More than aspiring to be a hero, their primary focus lies in providing for their family and muddle along.
If the film had continued at this level and in this manner, it would have given the impression of a column or an article about our man. However, Ilkin Yusif does not accept this approach and hints that there are other moments waiting for the audience as he has just started his search. If the theme of the film was to raise this approach, it would not have opened its main card so quickly, it would have been a little more patient to make the audience think. The emergence of this idea in the first scene indicates other issues as well. The audience must patiently join this journey and endure all the hardships to find the hero.
The dynamism of the film stems from Ilkin Yusif’s direct interactions with people and his unhesitating approach to questioning. With each inquiry about their heroism, tension mounts. One individual asserts a belief in having undertaken crucial deeds but feeling undervalued, while another disassociates entirely from the notion of heroism, deeming themselves worthless. The contrasting self-perceptions of these individuals, despite their similar appearances and life circumstances, imbue the portraits with complexity. As these portraits take shape, distinct notions about various male members of society begin to crystallize. Although the director made efforts to engage with women and capture their perspectives, societal norms and pressures led them to shy away from the camera, remaining distant from unfamiliar individuals. This circumstance underscores the complete absence of vibrant female characters in Azerbaijani cinema, offering a comprehensive explanation.
As the film unfolds, our hero-director’s recurring question, “Are you a hero?” and its counterparts evolve into rhetorical devices. It becomes evident that even unearthing a genuine hero would yield an unaltered outcome. The objective isn’t solely to locate a hero, but rather to engage in the act of searching itself. The process of searching holds greater significance and worth than the eventual discovery. As the film progresses, one of the interviewees grasps this underlying “deception” employed by the director. They candidly remark, “If you do manage to locate the hero, then the film’s title cannot remain ‘Looking of a Hero’; an entirely new name must be bestowed upon it.” Indeed, should the hero be successfully identified, the work’s title must undergo a complete transformation.
Irrespective of the rhetorical nature of the question, the heroes grapple with personal inquiries aimed at self-understanding. “What constitutes heroism?” “Do my past experiences hold the essence of heroism?” “What life events are requisite to embody a film protagonist?” These individuals earnestly seek to elucidate their inner queries. Amidst these contemplations, their life narratives gradually unfold, revealing vivid strokes to the audience. Although the definitive line between heroism eludes them, their portraits and stories gradually take shape, painted on the canvas of our perception. The veteran who braved the First Karabakh war, the individual who finds heroism in shepherding, and the diligent laborer who perceives his life as distant from heroism yet refuses to remain silent in the face of injustice – these figures have become familiar, almost intimate to us.
Individually, these diverse narratives, each originating from a distinct life, gradually converge and coalesce within the viewer’s mind. As the film draws to its conclusion, the mosaic of these stories amalgamates to shape a comprehensive portrayal of Azerbaijani society. The director’s pursuits prove far from futile; he deftly paints a vibrant tapestry of Azerbaijani life, offering glimpses into the essence of each individual. Indeed, the task of distinguishing one among these personalities, etching them deep into our consciousness, is no simple feat. However, when viewed collectively, they transform into a chorus of familiar, cherished figures. It’s as though we’ve known them for years, shared in their trials and tribulations, and henceforth, they become constant companions in our thoughts. The director’s achievement stems from this intricate tapestry of richness and unity, solidifying his success.
Two years later, upon returning, the director presents the individuals with the footage featuring them. Amongst the scenes, there are those who have since passed away. Emotions of sorrow and melancholy envelop the family members, yet simultaneously, a sense of solace emerges. They find solace in the knowledge that the departed father shall persist in eternal vitality within these captured images. The film’s remarkable power lies in its capacity to elevate ordinary individuals, entangled in the threads of daily struggles, to the stature of heroes. It imparts this elevated perspective to a broader audience, ensuring that these figures are not consigned to oblivion within the realms of audio-visual records. Irrespective of their successes and shortcomings, these individuals indeed personify heroism through their actions and choices.
Top of FormAmongst this ensemble of individuals, Ilkin Yusif stands as a hero himself. His heroism extends beyond the act of seeking out and presenting these people to us; it encompasses his ability to carve out time from a myriad of commitments and contribute to the realm of art. It’s remarkable that a director, who follows on a career in commercial films, dedicates his attention, energy, and resources to the domain of documentary filmmaking, a pursuit often lacking substantial financial gain. Especially in the prevailing circumstances, in a time marked by various challenges, the director’s journey – traversing roads, wandering from street to street, house to house in search of heroes – holds profound significance. This quest doesn’t solely pertain to this particular film; it’s a reflection of Azerbaijani cinema’s pursuit. We should unquestionably applaud those who persist in generating novelty despite adversities, individuals who willingly offer sacrifices for the sake of artistic accomplishment. By acknowledging this, I’m not seeking to romanticize or downplay the trials inherent in such endeavors. Rather, it’s a gesture of solidarity and encouragement, an affirmation that their efforts are appreciated and that they stand not alone in their aspirations.