Thursday, April 19, 2012

Films From the Near-East

We’ve been watching quite a few movies lately coming out of Turkey and Iran. Each in its own way might start a conversation about the mores of the culture as well as the sensibility of the filmmakers. My favorite is Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director whose still photography is striking. I have not yet seen his latest work, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The three films I want to talk about each offer windows into the daily lives of ordinary people and as such are most welcomed by Western eyes.

Certain behaviors are seen as universal such as sibling rivalry, coming of age and family conflicts surrounding care for the elderly. Other issues, somewhat more alien to us, grow out of gender politics and the degree that Muslim orthodoxy impacts their lives. Theocracy and the secular pull in opposing directions along with tradition and modernity.

In Abdullah Oguz’, Bliss, a young woman from a remote village is raped and therefore shamed as being a seducer. She is told to hang herself. When she refuses she is sent off to Istanbul with a cousin who is charged with throwing her off the train. He cannot. In fact he finds his own humanity over the course of their journey dodging family members. The film challenges the ancient, male-chauvinist practice, as it delineates the evolution of justice in the big city contrasted with the barbaric ways of Turkey’s countryside.

The Oscar-winning, Separation, by Kirnia Hosseini, might easily be enacted in many American cities which is why it found a large audience in the U.S. Family discord, a daughter’s divided loyalty, her confrontation with moral relativism, care for an infirm grandparent, single-parenting, outside help and the weight of the Koran… all come together in an artful confluence.

In the Turkish film, Times and Winds, written and directed by Reha Erdem, the focus is on three families in a small, rural village, each with children in early adolescence. Life is hard, goat-herding on rugged, un-arable land. The presence of Nature overwhelms, cinematically, with its long shots of the single mosque, marking the place against the vast landscape of wind, boulders and a shifting sky. The effect is to diminish individuality.

The children are lost between the urge of hormones and their place in the lineage of their prescribed life to-be. One boy fantasizes about ways of killing his father but this and all his yearnings will be crushed. The future of the children is foretold. Their identity is to be subsumed by the forces that have prevailed for a millennium. Authority rests with a town council, all male, and trickles down by a hierarchy from grandfather to father to son.

The film is punctuated by the headings, Night, Evening, Afternoon and Morning, the calls to prayer, in that order, which suggests that time moves back toward beginnings. Both the opening and closing scenes show a boy faced with his Imam father’s dying, running off to enlist another villager to call for prayer. Everyone is replaceable; continuity assured.

All these and other such films seem to me bold acts, making visible the shadowy lives of a struggling people. The artistry is evident, told metaphorically yet unsparingly. Turkey has always been a gateway between the Western and Eastern worlds, between two disparate religions and a thousand years of progress.

When an old order begins to die it becomes an art form, seen in new light. Perhaps this kind of film-making will allow us to see the universality of their human relationships; to recognize their family challenges as our own. At the same time one hopes these images and narratives might inspire change within their own borders.

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