An Unfaceable Tragedy

in 35th International Istanbul Film Festival

by Ali Deniz Sensoz

After its world premiere at Istanbul Film Festival, Zeki Demirkubuz’s latest movie, Ember, sparked heated discussions about whether the director was repeating his cinematic perspective and was stuck in the same themes. I believe no one would disagree with me when I say that Ember adopts the typical characteristics of Demirkubuz’s direction. But is the director really taking a step backwards as claimed by some? Or is he renewing his cinema?

It’s possible to say that Ember is closer to his other movies such as Innocence (“Masumiyet”) and Destiny (“Kader”) that are built on the tragedy of male characters, rather than Nausea (“Bulanti”), Inside (“Yeralti”) and The Waiting Room (“Bekleme Odasi”), in which the director delves into his own persona and its reflections. Just as in Innocence and Destiny, Ember follows the story of a character, Cemal (played by Caner Cindoruk), who struggles to restrain his lust by fighting with his pride. When Cemal is put in prison in Romania where he has traveled for business, his wife, Emine (Aslihan Gürbüz) is left all alone with their sick son. Cemal’s former boss, Ziya (Taner Birsel), becomes aware of her despair and offers to help her by paying the bills of her son’s surgery. Long attracted to Emine, Ziya now becomes closer to her, and the two start a secret affair, which Cemal comes to suspect upon his return to Istanbul.

Starting out as if narrated through Emine’s perspective, the movie changes focus with Cemal’s arrival in the city. Leaving aside the dynamics of the relationship (first pragmatic, then problematic) that develops between Ziya and Emine, the movie leaves the viewer alone with the tragedy of the cuckolded Cemal. However, one should note that the viewer’s relationship with Cemal is very different in nature from that with Bekir, the hero of Innocence and Destiny. Whereas Bekir’s self-consuming lust turns into a tragedy that permeates the very psyche of the viewer, Cemal’s tragedy is unlikely to create such an emotional impression, because this is a “cold” movie in which Demirkubuz puts distance between himself and all the characters. But it’s also possible to claim, considering the director’s choice of narrative, that this distance is deliberate.

This movie doesn’t have the classic Demirkubuz characters who expressively manifest their lust, find it troubling to put their emotions into words, are miserable, and hide their tempestuous inner psychology behind their disdainful gaze. Ember leaves the viewer alone with three characters who stare at one another, are crushed under the weight of what they cannot utter, and seem to be on the verge of exploding.

The long stares in Ember differ from those cliché scenes in New Turkish Cinema in which characters take a long gaze at the horizon. Rather than representing the existential crises of alienated characters, these stares portray the weight of the unconfessed felt by the characters, although they know everything that’s going on.

Cemal’s Stare

A film in which no emotion can be put into words, Ember may look like it has melodramatic potential on paper, but that’s not the direction it takes on screen. What Demirkubuz has decided to leave out of frame sets the distant tone of the movie to a great extent. Not showing dramatic scenes such as the surgery of the child or the death of a character, Demirkubuz also leaves violence off-screen in the most emotional scene in the movie, in which Cemal punches his wife. This scene is the closest we get to the characters in the emotional sense, but the director, who up to that point seems to have offered a godlike perspective, changes the perspective with a narrative trick and pushes us out of the most dramatic moment in the movie. It might prove useful to examine what kind of relationship the director has formed with the audience in order to understand this scene better.

The trademark of melodrama is that it makes the viewer personally feel the emotion on screen. What convinces us of Bekir’s lust in Destiny is the fact that Demirkubuz persuades us that Bekir is a living and breathing character, on whom a tragedy has befallen. Aiming to capture a view of unadorned life in Destiny and Innocence, Demirkubuz is in a constant play with the audience. Chasing after cold hard reality, the director is also skeptical about his illusion of reality and tries to disrupt it. His signature scenes in which doors are open and closed almost miraculously are the moments in the movie where he makes his influence visible. An out-of-this-world and miraculous incident takes place in that hard reality. That’s why it’s significant that we see the door opened by the invisible hand of the director in the scene where Cemal beats Emine. At the end of the scene, Cemal breaks the fourth wall with his direct gaze, which alienates the viewer from the fictional world of the movie at the most emotional moment of the plot. The moment you realize that the perspective of the camera belongs to their son, that broken illusion is rebuilt again. The viewer now knows that the actor is looking at his son, not at us, and from this moment of alienation onwards, the story keeps continuing where it left off.

The fact that we see the reflections of the characters in mirrors, windows or TV screens may be examined in this context as well. Portraying the reflection, not the representation itself, these frames are so powerful and expressive as to throw the viewer out of the world of the story. For instance, the transition from the reflection of Ziya’s face in the mirror to the direct representation of the character in the scene in which he hesitates about confessing the truth to Cemal creates an ambivalence in both the characters’ and the movie’s relationship with reality.

Ice Blue

One of the most essential elements that set the visual tone for this distant movie is the director’s mise en scène. For the first time since Envy (“Kiskanmak”), Demirkubuz has put a lot of thought into the visual world of one of his films. This is mostly due to the fact that Ember, which has a rather simple narrative structure, prefers to communicate through mise en scène and visual directing. Using various shades of blue in lighting, setting and costume design, Demirkubuz creates a fictional world of ice blue, within which he places shades of red to create contrast. For instance, in the scene of Ziya and Emine eating together, we see the burning fireplace reflected on the TV screen. In the scenes that take place inside rooms, heating grills are placed so that they attract our attention. The warm colors in the movie are used to portray the emotional state of the characters who are “burning on the inside” but unable to express their feelings. The fire inside these characters who are unable to confess to one another due to conscience, guilt or pride is transformed into an ember in the face of the ice-cold reality of social life.

As in other movies of Demirkubuz, the apartments turn into mirrors of the inner world of the characters. In his article on Nausea, Abbas Bozkurt said, “Demirkubuz is the only one in Turkish cinema who understands the language of the home and easily makes it a part of the narrative.”1 The fact that Emine, smoking a cigarette on the balcony under a blue light, is illuminated with yellow light when Cemal turns on the switch is the biggest proof of how a director who speaks the language of home can turn an insignificant and common detail into a narrative element. A similar lighting is used when Emine is climbing down the stairs in the building, embedding the conflict between warm and cold colors into the visual realm of the movie.

In Ember, Demirkubuz displays his ability to understand the language of objects not only inside the house but outside as well. The dirty yellow and blue lighting we see in the cityscape of the suburbs is often used in exterior shots. The conflict between warm and cold colors permeates every frame of the movie, from the tiles of the playground where Emine and Cemal take their son to play, to the patterns on the clothes in the textile workshop. Thus, the ember burning inside the characters transcends being a metaphor for the characters themselves. It brims over the apartment and penetrates every setting in the city.

Ember is the story of three characters who cannot face their mistakes and fail to stand behind their actions. It’s also possible to see Cemal, Emine and Ziya as three characters shaped by a society that seems to talk a lot but fails to talk anything of value. The presence of a side character who constantly plays “okey” in the coffee house and chatters away makes this contrast even more visible. Emine cannot tell Cemal how she really feels about him, nor can Cemal say to her how much he knows, nor can Ziya confess to Cemal that he’s having an affair with Cemal’s wife. After all is said and done, we see Cemal and Emine struggling to return to their daily routine. They’ve seen great betrayals, deaths, and lies, but life goes on as if nothing happened. This time, Demirkubuz doesn’t try to catch the viewer’s attention by focusing on one man’s tragedy. Through his visual language, he draws, in three characters, the portrait of a troubled society whose members have become experts in playing the three monkeys. The story of three characters who fail to face their own tragedies turns into an ice-cold portrait of a society which is dominated by a level of hypocrisy that can put up with anything so long as the family, power and the homeland are protected, and which, having failed to face its history, has turned into ember.


1 Abbas Bozkurt, “Esikte Cereyan”, Altyazi 154 (2015): 43.

Films mentioned in the text

Nausea (2015)

Inside (2012)

The Waiting Room (2003)

Innocence (1997)

Destiny (2006)

Envy (2009)