All About My Mother

in 31st Warsaw Film Festival

by Ohad Landesman

Senem Tüzen’s debut film Motherland (Ana Yurdu), winner of the FIPRESCI award at the 1-2 competition in this year’s Warsaw Film Festival, is a human drama so intense and powerful, that it will leave you gasping for air when it culminates. The film, which premiered a month ago at the Critics’ Week in Venice to lengthy standing ovations, delicately portrays an intricate mother-daughter relationship that is both nurturing and destructive, loving and resentful. Its minimalist narrative structure, also written by Tüzen, hides more than it reveals, and cleverly makes use of tormenting absences to inform and guide the presence of two women positioned differently in contemporary Turkish society.

Nesrin (Esra Bezen Bilgin), a divorced middle-class woman, leaves her apartment in Istanbul so she could visit the house of her deceased grandmother, and obtain a peaceful setting to finish the novel she is currently writing. Her conservative mother Halise (Nihal Koldas) shows up at the village unexpectedly, and refuses to leave. The inescapable gravity of her presence puts her daughter’s writing plans at risk and drags her unwillfully into an emotional abyss. Nesrin, a powerful woman who has not only untied her marital bonding but has also escaped maternity against the pressure of Turkish tradition, has a hard time dealing with this uncalled-for situation. Her mother is obsessively delivering advice, criticizing her life decisions, and slowly strangling her emotionally. The dynamic between the two becomes emblematic of a much larger generational struggle between conformism and rebellion, tradition and modernity. It addresses an important national issue in Turkey, where millions of people, especially women, need to somehow reconcile their parents’ traditional upbringing with their new and modern way of life.

Nesrin can hardly speak, but she never stops looking at her mother, staring at a dark reflection of a familiar past she so eagerly wishes to run away from. Vedat O¨zdemir’s camera brilliantly captures this dangeoursly intimate proximity beteween the two women and manifests the feeling of suffocation. The village, with it narrow alleys, small interior spaces and freezing climate, becomes Nesrin’s prison. She is trapped, and Tüzen works hard to visualize her enclosure cinematically.  Motherland is filled with dark, only naturally lit, claustrophobic interiors that encapsulate this human drama. The minimalist mise-en-scene, secluding every object (a cell-phone, a laptop, or a traditional cooking dish) as a meaningful symbol, harboring the deterministic fate of Nesrin, a woman trapped within the claws of religion and familial bonds, hopelessly struggling to overcome them and obtain independence.

There is a matriarchal lack that haunts the two women’s conversations, that of Halise’s mother (and Nesrin’s grandmother), who just recently passed away. While Halise cannot find consolation for her loss, Nesrin can hardly partake in her abundant grief, thus making the old woman’s absence a guiding force throughout the story. With a few notable exceptions, men are also absent, but the scars they inflict are easily noticeable. Motherland takes place in a small village in Anatolia, where women only sit, prey, cook and gossip about family affairs. The pain they share ceases to be private, but when it really hurts, we realize, no one can alleviate it.

The rumbling surface of this intense but yet restrained drama culminates into a final tectonic shift, whose details I will not disclose. This shocking coda, unsparing and devastating, brings the only moment of tragic clarity in a film, where there is almost no solace and peace. Motherland is a strikingly genuine, carefully realized and incredibly moving story of a woman’s lonely struggle. Its austere but precise film language occasionally brings to mind Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s highly praised Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu), which levels a similarly unflinching gaze at the tense relationship between two people. At other moments, it is simply a tour-de-force testament to the current state of Turkish cinema, always fresh and highly inventive.

Edited by Christina Stojanova