A luscious exploration of halfway points in love, morally and freedom against the backdrop of industrial Turkey.
Since her debut in 1994 with “The Trace,” Turkish filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu continued her string of successes with “Pandora’s Box” (winning at San Sebastian) and now her latest, “Araf” screening at the New York Film Festival. Simmering with sadness, heartbreak and redemption, the film reflects a style and depth reminiscent of the Golden Days of cinema.
Each long, thoughtful take, carefully blocked and presented, is a photographic fantasy to be savored. This is not an action movie. The action takes place within the hearts and minds of the lead character Zehra (Neslihan Atagül) and her lovers Olgun (Baris Hacihan) and Mahur (Özcan Deniz).
The setting is a truck stop about halfway between Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, combined with scenes of the closest small city, Karabuk. Karabuk is the first industrial center in Turkey, established in the 1930s. A coking plant, blast furnaces, foundry and tube works are established there, as well as chemical plants that produce sulfuric acid and phosphates. Nearby are the Zonguldak coal fields.
The word “araf” means purgatory or limbo in Turkish. In the context of this film, the word has the superficial meaning of halfway on the highway between the two urban centers of Turkey. Sociologically, the work signifies a population halfway between industrialization and tradition; a people halfway settled and halfway in transition, like the thousands of heavy trucks that ply the Istanbul-Ankara highway daily.
Like almost all teenagers in the world, Zehra wants to set out on her own and explore the exciting world that waits beyond the parking lot of the stultifying diner in which she works. Olgun has similar ideas, but neither of the two has any idea how to take the next step. Olgun considers the military, Zehra falls under the spell of a mysterious truck driver who sweeps her away with unspoken promises of freedom and independence.
It is not hard to figure out what happens next.
Turkish women are also halfway in their independence and self-reliance. There are established state agencies to provide and services to women who have broken sexual taboos. In addition, there are segments of Turkish society that would deal with such transgressions as capital crimes.
The place of the man is not “in between” but largely the same as it has always been. The man has the mobility and the moral freedom to do as he chooses. As such, the relative roles of men and woman are about halfway between right and wrong.
In the end, Zehra and her true lover will meet halfway between prison and freedom for their final reconciliation.
The setting and cinematography of this film combine to make a breathtaking cinematic experience. This region of Turkey combines industrial scenes reminiscent of the indusial northeast in America in the early 1900s with traditional Islamic home life. The story takes place in the winter and as in America’s industrial northeast, the weather varies from bad to worse.
The snow blowing across industrial wastelands is as desolate as it gets; a constant reminder of the necessity of escape at any cost. This alternates with steady, quiet rain set against the blankest grey overcast imaginable. The grey comes right down to the ground, into the diner where Zehra works. When Mahur arrives to take her away, for the day, his truck appears out of the thick miasma like St. George coming to slay the dragon.
At the iron plant, the scenes are not of cast iron engine blocks rolling off the assembly line, but of molten iron being poured, yellow hot, on the ground outside the plant. There is something very wrong with this, very wasteful and inexplicable.
The wasting of the iron, after the ore has been stolen from the earth and the earth left empty and violated, is a fore runner of the fate awaiting the young in Turkey and countries like it.
Wasting their lives watching trashy television while the world throbs with promises they will never know. The fascination we find in this comes from our realization that either we, or our parents or grandparents, saw and did the same things in the first half of the 1900’s. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To put the above description in perspective, this is not a thoroughly depressing film. It is a story that is full of hope for the future. Yes, it deals with serious issues, but there is closure. For those who appreciate simple, quality photography and the imaginative and expressive use of the camera, it is a fine way to spend a blustery fall or winter afternoon.
Cinematography by German award winner Michael Hammon and original music by veteran Marc Marder.
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Directed and Written by: Yesim Ustaoglu
Starring: Neslihan Atagül, Baris Hacihan and Özcan Deniz
Release Date TBD: New York Film Festival
MPAA: Rated R for language, brief violent images and drug use
Run Time: 124 minutes
Country: Turkey / France / Germany
Language: Turkish with English subtitles