Monday, February 17, 2014

DVDebut (and streaming soon, we hope): Pelin Esmer's WATCHTOWER from Film Movement

Watching present-day films from the country of Turkey is tricky. They seem to represent modern living to some extent, as experienced by those of us who live in the west, but then we get these whiffs (sometimes much more than that) of cultural craziness that makes the movies seem as though they are coming at us from a different century. (Or two. Or three.) Think for a moment about movies such as Bliss, The Edge of Heaven or When We Leave (a German film, yes, but more about Turkey than Germany), and you'll have an idea of what I mean: violence, honor killings and women as chattel, to name a few fairly typical themes.

Interestingly enough, Turkey's most successful "international arthouse" filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has smartly managed to sidestep this by concentrating more on the male than the female, while offering themes that would seem to make Turkey more western than eastern. Hence, I suspect, his full acceptance by our cultural gatekeepers.

WATCHTOWER, from the female writer/director Pelin Esmer, shown at left, is one of the better and more interesting examples of new Turkish cinema because it faces head-on the question of woman's place in Turkish society and finds it greatly wanting. Yet, due to the story Esmer tells and the manner in which she tells it, we see the situation a step removed from the full-frontal, in-your-face, honor-killing set-up of Bliss. Here, a young woman takes charge of her life in a way that would never be necessary in most of the western world but that seems perfectly understandable in Turkey.

The location of the film, too -- a mostly un-populated, mountainous region of the country and the tiny bus stop with a shop or two nearby that services the area -- works beautifully to clue us in on how any kind of behavior that does not fit into fundamentalist thinking must finally be relegated to outsider status. Only if people do not know about it can deviation from the norm be tolerated.

The two main characters here (they pretty much make up the entire movie) are both running from their former lives, while dealing with a ton of guilt. Nihat (Olgun Simsek, above) has come to the area to work at the titular watchtower at the top of the mountain as a guard against forest fires. Seher (Nilay Erdonmrez, below) has left university suddenly with no explanation and is now working on the bus line that arrives and departs from the tiny station.

Part of the movie's pull is that we have little idea from what these two are trying to escape. Slowly this is revealed to us, and not, fortunately by any lumpy exposition. We learn in degrees, and in a way that seems believable to the situation. Dialog is kept to a realistic minimum, and both performers do an excellent job.

Initially there is almost no connection between these two people. When real connection comes, after a few months, it is fast and shocking and eventually leads to a guarded rapproachement. Among the movie's highlights are a fraught scene between the girl and her mother, and another scene of a natural act often witnessed in films but never, I think, seen in a condition as shockingly "solo" as here.

From Film Movement and running 100 minutes, the Watchtower DVD hits the streets this Tuesday, February 18, and as with most Film Movement titles, will probably be available on Netflix streaming very soon.
Watch for it.

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