A Winning Contender: My Marlon And Brando By Sheila Johnston
To play yourself in a film is a dangerous business. Especially when you have also co-written the script, and when that script describes your frustrated and, eventually, tragic grand passion. The spectre of rampant self-indulgence hovers lightly over My Marlon And Brando (Gitmek: Benim Marlon ve Brandom). But Ayca Damgaci keeps it at bay with her compelling, nakedly emotional central performance; indeed, it is to the enormous credit of everyone else involved that the film pulls off its delicate balancing act.
In the movie — as in life — Damgaci is an actress based in Istanbul and, we gather from the light-hearted prologue, has had a whirlwind romance with a charming Iraqi-Kurish star (Hama Ali Kahn) whom she met on a film shoot. She is plus-sized and defiantly unglamorous; he is bald and comfortably the wrong side of 40 — both posses an unarguable charisma, but it is one of the more delightful features of the film that neither is at all good-looking in the conventional sense.
The times are not smiling on their union however. As the US prepares to invade Baghdad, contact becomes sparse between the lovers, who communicate in eccentric English, their only common language. Ayca tries repeatedly to phone and writes flowery love letters: the film, called “Gitmek”, or “Go Off”, in the original Turkish takes its curious English title from her poetry.
Hama — now in the Northern Iraqi town of Sülemaniye — is not much one for putting pen to paper, but he does dash off zany video diaries, in which he dresses up as Superman or a decorated army general to pour out his devotion. His comic missives are a welcome counterpoint to the movie’s gathering tone of melancholy, although, as the political situation darkens, so too does their content, providing a touching snapshot of the deteriorating state of his country.
This compact 90-minute film is billed as a road movie but in fact nearly half the story is set in Istanbul. This impersonal, wintry cosmopolitan city could be almost anywhere, and is full of people caught up in their different forms of solitude. Ayca rehearses a dubious-sounding political fringe show (at a theatre constantly beleaguered by power cuts), demonstrates against the war, talks to her friend about Internet dating, meets political refugees from Iraq and has fraught relations with her nervous elderly neighbours.
Huseyin Karabey, a first-time feature film-maker with a background in documentary (he also co-wrote the script), brings a freewheeling visual style to the film. His camera is fast-moving, raggedy, mostly hand-held, and is very sharp at moving in on revealing details and characters on the edge of the image — his focus is not just Damgaci, though she’s present in almost every frame, but the wider world she lives in. The accompanying music is also extremely well-chosen.
Hama promises to join his lover as soon as he can: “I’m your mountain” he professes. But still months pass and he does not come, and Ayca finally resolves to travel to Iraq, against all her friends’ advice. Her journey takes her to the Iraqi border, which turns out to be closed, forcing a detour into Iran, a place — next door to home, geographically, but a universe away culturally — which she finds dismayingly hostile towards a Westernised woman. En route, the people she meets underline the fact that she’s hardly alone in being separated from a loved one or suffering because of the madness of the war.
Given the film’s personal origins, the central romance is its least satisfying aspect. We are invited to buy wholesale into this “once-in-a-lifetime love”; but on the other hand, Hama remains a shadowy presence. There is the lingering suspicion, as he constantly procrastinates, that his intentions may not be wholly sincere; or even that the whole affair might be a fantasy. My Marlon And Brando resolves this question, rather abruptly, with a final scene that pushes the storyline to an melodramatic conclusion. Yet along the way it makes many larger points, skilfully, unpretentiously, rooting an intimate narrative in the biggest and most tumultous of global landscapes.