Art is Something Useful

in 36th International Istanbul Film Festival

by Ofer Liebergall

A film whose underlying message that expression through art is far much better than order, politics and fear, is a simple, gentle story with wonderful performances. It caught the attention of Ofer Liebergall who states that it holds many of the things that made him realize why he fell in love with cinema.

The FIPRESCI Award winner in the 2017 Istanbul Film Festival national competition, Something Useful (Ise yarar bir sey) by director Pelin Esmer, is a simple and gentle movie that seems to hold inside many of the things that made me fall in love with cinema. It is thought provoking without being explicit, contains beautiful imagery, has rich and natural dialogue, and contains wonderful performances by the two leads actresses, Basak Köklükaya and Öykü Karayel. Above all, the film depicts well the joy and worries of meeting and connecting with another human being.

The plot of the film is quite simple – most of it takes place on a train traveling to the port city of Izmir and focuses on two women who meet by chance and start forming a meaningful connection, even if only for the duration of the journey. Esmer uses the growing relationship between the two heroines to show not only the way a new friendship develops, but also to exam the different role each person has in the society, sometimes without realizing how important the role is.

The older among the heroines of the film is Leyla (Köklükaya), a woman traveling to a reunion of her high-school class after 25 years. She says she’s a lawyer, but earlier in film the audience discovered that she’s also a renowned poet. Both sides of her professional life are important for the film’s message, because it seems that Leyla herself believes she’s more useful to society as a lawyer, a profession which is measurable easily, but she and the spectator find out throughout the film just how much more writing was and is something more useful in many ways. While the law may help in giving order in life, art and poetry help by giving a reason to live, sometimes the poems could maybe even save a life.

Leyla is a poet in every moment of her life, even when she is not writing. She keeps looking at her surroundings in an absorbing way, making up little stories in her head, inspired by the people she sees, experiencing life through looking at others. But there are no signs that there is something missing in her own life – she appears to have a good relationship with her actor boyfriend (even if he is not seen during the film), professional success and fame. The cure of her ability as an artist is in the way she can connect and understand the people she meets. This ability is being shown in a variety of ways in the film, especially in the relationship with the film’s other heroine, Canan.

Canan (Karayel) is in her early twenties, still not sure about what she is going to do in the future. Although she has begun working as a nurse, her desire is to become an actress, despite the wishes of her family. The train journey is hard for her because she is on her way to do a difficult and illegal job – fulfilling the wish of a paralyzed man by ending his life. The film does not try to justify or judge the paralyzed man for choosing to die; instead it shows how hard it is in dealing with the situation. Canan lacks confidence in herself as being right for this or any other job but going through the journey with Leyla makes her understand her doubt more clearly and thankful for that to carry on.

All along the way, the film shows us a little story in the backroad of the main plots, in a manner that gives the impression that the filmmaker had created a world where every minor character has her own complex story and pain. This quality is best shown in one long shot describing the reunion dinner – the camera moves around the table where Leyla’s classmates sit and linger on different conversations, some helping us see the main heroine in a new light while others are about the life of those characters we only get to see at that scene.

The theme that runs throughout all the small stories that are shown during the film is that life is full of pain and disappointment, but art, and especially Leyla’s poems, help deal with hard times by reveling the beauty that is there in every moment. True, this is not an original message, but Esmer has an original and moving way of expressing it. It seems that every person who was affected by Leyla’s poetry describes a unique experience, even if the film is aware that not many people read poetry, now more than ever.

Although a film about hope is something useful, Esmer’s film takes place in an environment where art is far from the center. This is apparent by the use of two returning motifs: the first is street-artists who draw various graffiti of birds throughout the journey; the second is of political campaigning. Leyla is drawn to the symbol of the bird and shows her disgust at the site of the political promises. Through her, Esmer puts the act of making art as an alternative to contemporary politics – connecting to people with sympathy and hope, instead of fear and hate. The director does this with a film that is as enjoyable as it is poetic and thought provoking, a rich, unique and useful work of art.

Edited by Steven Yates