Anxieties of Existence

in 32nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Berke Göl

The poetic tagline for Onur Ünlü’s 2006 film Polis can be translated into English — albeit rather unpoetically — as, “I swear, my inclination to violence is caused by heartache.” Taking up the dark humor of Takeshi Kitano and adding a local flavor, this funny and bloody debut harbors the themes which will recur in Ünlü’s later films: heartbreak, disillusionment and a stark sense of defeat in the face of life’s hardships, all coated with a shell of masculine fury and violence, and always presented with a twist of absurd humor. The 40-year-old Turkish director has already made five more feature films since Polis, as well as creating and co-writing two TV series which have been quite popular, at least among a certain segment of the Turkish audience. Alhough he avoids the thematic and aesthetic clichés of the New Turkish Cinema, he is undoubtedly an auteur whose films have little chance of making a larger impact on a wider audience. Their unique quality places them neatly between the arthouse and the mainstream.

The director’s latest, Thou Gild’st the Even (Sen aydinlatirsin geceyi), arguably takes melodrama and absurdity to the next level, even for an Ünlü film. The film’s attitude is defined by the Euripides quote at the beginning: “Man is created from anxiety”. Set in a small town in western Turkey, this black-and-white work opens with Cemal’s (Ali Atay) troubled face in close-up, sitting lifelessly on his porch. His father calls out to him from offscreen, but he does not respond. Although his father reminds him not to forget his keys upon leaving, he does forget them and without warning, we see him get off his motorcycle, walk through the wall, get his keys and come back out. His ride into town — during which he doesn’t even look at the road — is accompanied by “Mreyte Ya Mreyte”, a sentimental tune by Syrian singer Racha Rizk (also used in Nadine Labaki’s Caramel). It’s only a few minutes into the film, yet it is already clear that we are about to enter an unusual realm.

The universe of Thou Gild’st the Even is one where every single person has a different superpower or unusual ability. One can move objects from a distance as if using a remote control, one can shoot with his hand, and another one is immortal. However, none of these powers make them immune to the worries of the world, to existential anxiety, to being lovelorn or heartbroken. With this gallery of extraordinary characters played by an outstanding ensemble cast, the director seems to pose a simple question: what good are your originality, your uniqueness or any of your personal qualities, when in the end you only carry the heart and soul of a human being?

The real strength of Ünlü’s films lies in their ability to create a dramatic impact despite all their absurdity and the constant bombardment of over-the-top jokes. In Thou Gild’st the Even, Ünlü is at his best creating an utter sense of desolation even during the funniest moments, and interrupting the most dramatic scenes with unexpected jokes. Having written poetry and published a book in the late ’90s, his is a cinema of words; his scripts always rely on witty dialogue and wordplay. Here too, he builds some of the absurd humor on the literalization of certain Turkish idioms. In one particularly memorable scene, Cemal and his love interest Yasemin (Demet Evgar) literally “fly” (Turkish slang for being high on drugs) with joy after taking a handful of tranquilizers, only to “fall” back to the ground and vomit, managing in the meantime to discuss getting married.

One final note about the film’s distribution: Ünlü has announced that Thou Gild’st the Even will not be released theatrically. Instead, the film will meet the Turkish audience through special screenings at universities and cultural centers throughout the country, with the appearance of the cast and crew. The effectiveness and profitability of such an unusual choice is questionable, but in an environment where government-supported neo-liberal greed destroys classic film theaters one by one and filmgoers are forced to pick from the limited pseudo-choices offered by shopping mall cinemas, it certainly is a respectable and political act.

Edited by Lesley Chow