Sunday, 21 December 2008

[104] LTFF Week 2: Times and Winds & Two Lines

In its second week, the London Turkish Film Festival migrated north to take up residence in the Odeon Holloway and Odeon Lee Valley Cinemas. After a grinding cross-town bus-tube journey, I went to see two films at the Odeon Holloway. They were both united by their quiet, observational outlook, but were distinct in their subject matter.

The first film, Times and Winds (Beş Vakit), is a coming-of-age drama set in a rural town. Directed and written by Reha Erdem, it follows the lives of three early teenagers as they learn about love, death and responsibility. In theory, Times and Winds sounds like many hackneyed Baby Boomer films from Hollywood, but its location and execution give it a powerful edge. The village is idyllic, the lights of a city twinkle in the distance; the periods of the day are determined by the calls to prayer, which ring out from the mosque tower that oversees all of life and work. The landscape is varied, encompassing green pasture and rocky outcrop, and affords the camera countless opportunities for breath-taking widescreen shots. Not that the production team slacks off due to their natural surroundings. Erdem employs a mixture of camera techniques, from crane shots that rise to the mosque's peak, to weaving steadicam shots through the village streets, to communicate the setting of Times and Winds.

The film trumps childhood-drama expectations by presenting a de-centralised approach to the story, focusing on three characters and their families, as well as the community as a whole. Omer is a son of the local imam; his story is one of twisted jealousy, as he plots to kill his father. Yakup's story is a little more light-hearted, as he develops a school-boy crush for his young, beautiful teacher. Finally, a girl called Yildiz is doted on by her father. Even though the location of Times and Winds could suggest a rose-tinted, nostalgic, or quaint experience, the reality is more complex. The children spend their days roaming the countryside, but their lives are far from easy or picture-perfect. Family relationships are often brutal and cold: Omer's father is almost bullying in his adulation of a younger son, for example. Another subplot features the fathers of Yildiz and Yakup, who are implored by their father to build a wall each around their inherited land. Yakup's father is lazy and unskilled, in contrast to his brother, and is beaten like a child by his aged father when he falters. The score, culled from the work of Estonian minimalist Arvo Part, is in a monumental, austere, yet sometimes wistful mode that helps to complement and emphasise the restrained moments in the narrative. His repeated motifs are simple, yet stirring, reflecting the cyclical, beautiful, and harsh rural background.

Times and Winds is concerned with cycles, not just in the shifts from day to night or the repetition of daily rural chores, but in the perpetuation of family failings and traits. These moments, where the children become like their parents, are integral points in the narrative: Omer mimics his father as he sings the call to prayer from a hilltop, Yakup's crush on his teacher is shared by his father and, just as poignant, Yildiz must fulfil her role as a woman in looking after her baby sibling. Equally, life and death is all the more stressed in the birth of a calf, or the passing of an old lady. Village life seems stuck in these cycles, and brief glances of 21st century culture (a refrigerator, a digital camera, a microphone in the mosque) are notable and jarring. As such, the film's ending is abstract and open to interpretation. There is no resolution or emotional conclusion: it merely fades into birdsong. Nevertheless, this strengthens the thematic weight of the film, and should inspire audiences to reflect on the film's content. Throughout the running time there were various diversionary shots of the children lying in hay or heather; at first, these scenes seem more nostalgic or rustic, but as the film turns darker, these scenes become a morbidly foreboding. Do they sleep, or are they dead? Times and Winds is an elegant and moving film, full of beauty and discord.

By contrast Two Lines (Iki Çizgi) is an urban drama centered on a young couple in their twenties. It is just as quietly unfolding as Times and Winds, but not as successful. The film is quite heavy-handed in is exposition. The first half of the film's 90 minutes is dedicated to cementing the fundamental differences that separate its central characters. Mert and Selin live in a modern, metropolitan Istanbul, in a trendy flat. Their daily habits are truly incompatible: Selin works 9-5 in an office, whereas Mert spends his days wandering the streets, taking photographs. In the evenings, they barely communicate, as Mert spends his time holed up in his dark-room, stealthily filming and watching the young, perky girls in a building across the street, or goes out to an alternative rock concert. Selin, however, listens to Erik Satie, plays the piano, or reads. They don't look like they have much in common - Selin is well-presented, seen in her skincare regime and her work clothes, whereas Mert has a straggly beard, and wears shorts and sneakers.

It is contrived, exaggerated stuff, but it uses this hyperbolic, highlighted approach to communicate the isolation of young urban life, and the uncertainty of routine and relationships. The impression is that Mert and Selin are two lines, either diverging or running parallel, not truly enhancing or affecting each other's lives. The only contact and interaction they experience is through daily obligations, like Mert picking up Selin after work in their car, or eating together. Sex is another point of contact, but it sits alongside the other daily acts in its hollowness. These early portions, full of unspoken resentment and bitter jealousy, are evocative and eloquent. Mert's obsession with the neighbours, which on one level touches on the inherent voyeurism in photography and filming, also feeds into the young adult's fear of settling down, becoming boring, and losing the spark of youth and frivolity.

However, writer-director Selim Evci's decision to pull these characters out of their cocoon, by having them go on a road trip to Bergama and beyond, yields mixed results. On the one hand, it allows the film to indulge in wildly symbolic sequences, such as when Mert and Selin hide from each other in different rows of a sunflower field. It is here, though, that the film becomes almost too bitter, twisted and unfocused, as the underlying, unspoken jealousy and rivalry become more explicit. The final sequence, involving the couple engaging in eventually violent sexual roleplay, seems to be meant as a catharsis, or an outpouring of repressed emotion. However, the conclusion leaves the conflict unresolved. Sadly, it is in this point that Two Lines suffers from lying beside Times and Winds. That film unfolds in a complex, but graceful way, and resists a satisfying conclusion by choosing to subordinate the characters' stories to the cycles of life and nature. The inscrutability of Two Lines' end, however, is at odds with its similarly quiet, but pronounced exposition.

The 14th London Turkish Film Festival is now over, but it provided those in the area with a wonderful opportunity to see some daring, varied and stylish cinema. It has been an eye-opening experience, as beforehand I knew little of Turkish cinema. The festival team deserves commendation. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer next year.

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