Once Upon a Time In Anatolia (2012)

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Text by Heikki A. Kovalainen

To start the new academic year 2016–2017, we had the pleasure of watching Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012), a meditative murder mystery by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, having made his name earlier with the film Uzak – Distant (and winning Palme d’or at Cannes with Winter Sleep in 2014). The film was chosen and introduced to us by our colleagues, Mahmut Mutman and Meyda Yegenoglu, who were most kind to give us a chance to develop our own interpretations of the film, alongside their perspectives.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as Prof. Mutman noted in his general remarks on the film, is a film having won high praise in the corpus of an impressive director. The film numbers, among other rankings, in the BBC’s The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films (placing 54th on that list), so our expectations were high.

Ceylan’s film, however, poses multiple challenges to the spectator, since it treats not only its protagonists but also its central events in a deceptively simple manner. The film circles around a minimalistic plot: Five men drive around the Anatolian steppes, searching for a lost body that is finally found once night turns to day, and the ensuing events seek to make sense of what the murder means. All of the protagonists are men (the murder suspect, a police officer, a prosecutor, a doctor and the chauffeur “Arab”), making up a kind of Kafkaesque constellation of bureaucratic and professional roles, with intertwined interests. No attempts are made to disguise their masculinity.

Some spectators, indeed, may see the film as a nonreflective treatment of masculinity, with allegorical reflections on the meaning of life. I, however, resist an allegorical reading of the film not least because the film refers more to itself than to other texts. This is the case, in particular, with the little stories-within-a-story in the film. Most importantly, there’s a recurring narrative being told between the protagonists of a woman having committed suicide, allegedly to take revenge on her husband guilty of betrayal. Thus the theme of feminine protest surfaces in the film, albeit obliquely.

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Among the discussants present in our film session, disagreement arose precisely on this front: to do with the treatment of women in the film. I’ll address this point only briefly, since the matter is complex. Our interpretations of the film varied from virtual misogynism to reading it as a feminist criticism of masculine power structures. Perhaps the best synthetic remark in this respect was made by Pirjo Nikander, who noted the film’s dealing with ubiquitous power structures (be they between men, or anybody else); how they pervade our human lives at every possible level.

Second, a less heated debate emerged concerning the question of aesthetic uniqueness of the film. There were those among us who thought the film was good but not unique and those for whom the film really stood out as a distinctive cinematographic accomplishment. I count myself in the latter group, largely because the film’s narration is exceptionally coherent: with all the dialogues forming an intricate network of cross-references; with the cinematography showing masterful treatment of light and shade both in the night and in daytime; and with the sophisticated use of rhetorical strategies such as formalist techniques of defamiliarization.

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Defamiliarization takes place in the film, in particular, through a repeated gesture of showing a sequence of events taking place, say, an examination of the dead body, coupled with verbal dictation of these very events onto a police investigation tape – which creates an odd effect of coupling not entirely dissimilar to defamiliarization. For me, all of this contributes to a distinctive aesthetic experience. I view Once Upon a Time In Anatolia as a phenomenological, down-to-earth depiction of men seeking to find the truth of who died and how. The interactions between the protagonists are depicted with exceptional smoothness and spontaneity, interrupted mostly only by bodily scruples linked with eating biscuit, yoghurt, apples or pumpkins.

Discussion on the relative uniqueness of a given work of art may be ultimately futile, for even the great classics in the history of any art form are in some respects unique but in others not so much (just think of, say, Hamlet, which consists not only of a plagiarized plot but also plagiarized lines, in addition to those penned by Shakespeare). Whether a book or a film earns our high praise depends on how we, as readers or spectators, are successful in interpreting overt and covert messages of the piece, unveiling the artistic techniques doing their work through the artwork at hand.

Links:

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160819-the-21st-centurys-100-greatest-films

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamiliarization

Leviathan (2014)

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Text by Jukka Tyrkkö, Pia Koivunen & Heikki A. Kovalainen

Leviathan is one of the internationally most recognized Russian films of the last decade. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (1964-), the film was released in 2014 to rave reviews and much controversy. A bleak, uflinchingly naturalistic depiction of a layman’s life in contemporary Russia, Leviathan was enthusiastically received in the West – and it’s been this very enthusiasm that’s made the Russian authorities somewhat nervous.

Putting it briefly, Leviathan is a story about a man who loses everything. The tragedy takes place in a fictitious small town by the sea near Murmansk, in North-West Russia. The local administration, especially the mayor of the town, Vadim, wants to expropriate a property on the Barents sea coast in order to redevelop the region. The owner of the property, a middle-aged mechanic Nikolai (Kolya) doesn’t want give up without a fight and takes the case to court. What follows is a Kafkaesque battle between a little man and corrupted local administration.

Reactions to the film have been very mixed in Russia. The current Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinski, has accused the director for trying to court Western audiences. The film was warmly received in the West, indeed, and it’s been precisely this enthusiasm that’s made the Russian audiences somewhat nervous, as they’ve found the film to be depicting contemporary Russia in a disturbingly grim light.

At the same time, Leviathan has been praised for taking a fearlessly realistic and honest look at modern life in Russia, for depicting the plight of the underdog fighting the system, and above all, let us not forget, for its hauntingly masterful cinematography.

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We had the pleasure of watching Leviathan in one of the IASR film sessions, preparing ourselves for the upcoming Winter Seminar to be held in St. Petersburg. Discussion on the film touched on various themes, for instance, the relationship between the state and the church.

The question was raised as to whether Zvyagintsev’s film presents criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, or of the illicit bond between religion and state, more generally. As a Russian film critic Yury Gladilshchkov puts it, “the film is about the faith of current Russia, about the horrible Leviathan, a corrupted state without honour and conscience, where the church safeguards the state, while the Christ is, in fact, privatised by criminals (bandits).”

Certainly, in a Russian context, one cannot help seeing the critique’s teeth gnawing primarily at domestic issues, yet a more general argument may be drawn out from the film as well. In the film, the mayor Vadim makes appeals to God – via his confessor – to justify his ruthless behavior towards Kolya. Implicitly, the film may be taken to suggest, then, that any attempt to use God to justify the state’s actions against the interests of the individual is unjust. We’re assuming that a Western spectator, at least, will side with Kolya in the way she views the film, finding the mayor’s actions without any moral footing.

Finally, a hypothesis was outlined during the discussion that there are perhaps two genres of film qua social critique. There are films, on the one end of the scale, that invest abundant energy in depicting characters’ emotions – to the extent of using melodramatic conventions – and among these, Ken Loach’s films are perhaps the prime example.

On the other end of the spectrum, social criticism can be practised via the medium of film in the Bressonian tradition. Within this genre, the director is concerned with showing incidents happening to the characters but without showing their emotions; rather, emotions are left for the audience to experience. On our view, Leviathan falls within the latter tradition – and it is precisely in the film’s dispassionate portrayal of the underdog’s fate where the power of the film lies.

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Head-on (Gegen die Wand, 2004)

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Text by Jessica de Bloom

Cahit Tomruk (Birol Ünel) is the main male character in Fatih Akins movie Head-on, originally titled Gegen die Wand (2004). Heavily depressed after the death of his wife, the Turkish-German forty-something year old man spends his time in late night bars surviving on a diet of alcohol and cocaine and living as if there was no tomorrow. After a suicide attempt, he wakes up in a psychiatric ward and meets Sibel Güner (Sibel Kikelli), a Turkish-German woman who has also tried to kill herself…

Sibel asks Cahit to marry her so that she would be able to break out of the strict rules of her conservative Turkish family. Sibel’s plan is to live separate lives as flatmates with Cahit, which would free her from the expectations and conventions of her tradition-bound Muslim family. After initial hesitations, Cahit agrees to the sham marriage and Sibel moves into his flat.

“A marriage of convenience in which love is highly inconvenient” (following Katy Karpfinger’s wording), gradually unfolds into a romance. Through the comic scenes and conversations, the viewer is almost willing to believe that there is a possibility of a happy ending for this unlikely love story. Until things take a different turn…

This movie deals with second-generation Turkish immigrants living in Germany, torn between the West and the East. It is about love and hate, life and death, joy and misery, destruction and renewal, freedom and the search of identity while trapped between cultures. Critics such as Karpfinger and Matthew Leyland, respectively, have described the movie as “unapologetic in its violence, brutal, raw and uncompromising, but also hilariously funny”; and as a film “that’s part comedy, part tragedy and filled with a sense of edgy surprise.”

Akin’s movie seems to suggest that life begins when we push boundaries, leave routine behind, take risks and live outside the comfort zone. Only by inviting misery and despair into our lives are we able to experience and cherish true happiness and fulfilment.

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About the director:

Fatih Akin (1973) is a Turkish German film director, screenwriter and producer living in Hamburg. His debut film Short sharp shock [Kurz und schmerzlos] was awarded in Germany and Switzerland. Gegen die Wand (2004) was his fourth movie and he received several famous awards such as the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin Film Festival and “Best Film” and the “Audience Award” at the European Film Awards. Akin’s work recurrently deals with struggles and confusions of immigrants (in particular immigrants of Turkish decent) in modern Germany. His work pictures strangers living in strange countries in search of a personal identity between cultures.

Eternity and a Day (1998)

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Famous writer Alexander is very ill and has little time left to live. He meets a little boy on the street, who is an illegal immigrant from Albania, and goes on a journey with him to take the boy home (from a synopsis in IMDb)… On one of the special sessions of the weekly IASR seminar, we got together to watch the film Eternity and a Day (1998) by the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos. The idea was to provide a platform, on the one hand, for some reflections on Greece, and on the other hand, for interdisciplinary discussion on whichever universal themes come to the fore in the film.

Theodoros Angelopoulos’s Cannes winner Eternity and a Day (1998) is a film allowing us to revisit Greece, its myths, beauty and the complicated present — or the present such as it was experienced in the 1990s. Absorbing streams of illegal immigrants from the Balkans, fighting a depression to have been but one among many to have struck Greece, Angelopoulos’s enigmatic work depicts a country right before the turn of the Millennium, searching for its identity through poetic means, with some help from classical Greek literature. At the same time, this is a meditative and minimalistic addition to the tradition of European art films, whereby Eternity and a Day can be seen to engage universal themes of human existence.

On a shared viewing, we found that Eternity and a Day is a film about being an outsider, not only in relation to others but also within one’s own life and one’s own vocation. The protagonist of the film is an aging poet, Alexander (Bruno Ganz) who seems to struggle to find meaning in his own poetry, which for the most remains unfinished. He’s working on a poem “The Free Besieged” by a Greek poet from the 19th century, which suggests an allusion to Dionysios Solomos (1798–1857), the Greek national poet. Alexander, indeed, turns out to be a doppelgänger of Dionysios, since he mourns— in line with the historical fate of Solomos — having been estranged in his own language. (Dionysios spent large parts of his life in Italy and also wrpte poetry in Italian, alongside Greek, and he never finished his key poems, including “The Free Besieged”, which deals with the Greek War of Independence.)

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In a minimalistic movie such as Eternity and a Day everything happens slowly and gradually, so little details and nuances are of foremost importance. Take, for example, the two scenes where (illegal) immigrants climb on high fences; the first one takes place at the border between Greece and Albania; the second one occurs when Alexander’s daughter is celebrating her wedding. On both occasions, groups of immigrants climb on the fences, in order to see better to the other side. But on neither occasion do the climbers reach across the fence; the foreigners are barred, as it were, from full participation in what’s taking place on the other side.

Speaking of doublings, it may be noted how mirroring relationships in the film are not confined to doppelgängers or reoccurring scenes, but extend themselves into dialogue and dramaturgic detail. As one of our fellows, Jukka Tyrkkö eruditely observed, Alexander gains initial contact with the unnamed immigrant boy by offering him a sandwich, after what seems like the boy’s desperate attempt to run away following his unwillingness to return for Albania. Following this scene, it is the boy, in turn, who asks whether Alexander has had anything to eat — and the doubling becomes a tripling, when Alexander, a couple of scenes later leaves his dog to the housemaid Urania saying that the dog is hungry. Thus are chains of reciprocal recognition created…

On a psychological level, Eternity and Day is a film about dreaming and remembering: its memories are woven from the fabric of Alexander’s life, while its dreams reach to the imagination of the Albanian boy. In the beginning of the film, the little boy has no past to recall — at least he has hardly any expression on his face. As his relationship with Alexander deepens, however, both of them regain the ability to mourn, and the Albanian grieves the death of his friend Selim. Moreover, when the unlikely friends separate from each other at the end of the film, a ship sails away from the port — carrying onboard the boy who’s been taught by Alexander to dream of seeing seaports on his journey.

Following Theodor W. Adorno, it is memory that is needed for us — both as human beings and as a nation — to come to ourselves, and without memory, indeed, we fall to melancholia and never begin the proper grieving work. This idea seems to fit the texture of Eternity and a Day as well, for it is the memories that bring both the protagonist and his juvenile friend to life. With the film’s tint of melancholic existentialism, however, is mixed a Mediterranean element of joy and friendship (as Risto Heiskala noted in good spirit), without which Alexander’s and the Albanian boy’s intimate relationship would perhaps never come into being.

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