In the last years, at least two of the most daring films coming from Turkey showed quite sinister relationships between dogs and men. “Dogs and despair under the gloomy Anatolian sky” could be the title of an essay on the subject: a meditation on the political and social turmoil’s of contemporary Turkey, rendered through an easy but effective imagery of howling animals and freaked out human beings.
All this might sound like a debasing joke, but festivalgoers who are used to expose themselves to Italian mosquitoes will certainly remember the surprising success at the Venice Film Festival of Sivas (Sivas, 2014) by Kaan Müjdeci and of Frenzy (Abluka, 2015) by Emin Alper. Both movies won the Special Jury Prize and, causing a stir among cinéphiles and journalists, featured wounded or frantic dogs wandering around in barren spaces, barking and biting, triggering the characters’ rash and violent reactions.
In the latter, an hallucinated tale of paranoia set in a dirty and ghostly Istanbul, the massive presence of stray dogs was the menacing sign of an increasing sense of anxiety. Kadir (Mehmet Ozgur) and Ahmet (Berkay Ates), the two brothers who shared the screen and the burden of Alper’s political metaphor, were both stuck in an unconscious process of self-annihilation, which spiraled them into sheer madness. They represented a reality under siege, dominated by chaos and fear. Their inexorable auto-da-fé symbolized an entire country’s descent into hell.
In Sivas, which also won the Fipresci Prize at the 14th Dhaka International Film Festival early this January, the landscape is totally different. There are no dark narrow roads, no overcrowded markets, no smoky underground bars: no places to hide. Only dry grass, grey skies and empty pastures. A few seconds and we find ourselves in a bleak, inhospitable Anatolia, inhabited by moustached patriarchs and callous kids. Here we meet Aslan (the charismatic Dogan Izci), who is eleven years old and on the verge of becoming an aggressive bastard like his father and his brother, like every men in his village. It’s his destiny, one could say: in Turkish, aslan means lion. And it doesn’t matter if he is still lost in a whirlwind of unconfessed desires (the dream of being the Prince in a school performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), irrational frustrations, childish crushes, fears and wonders. Life, with all its bitterness and cruelty, is already after him. Like the camera that chases him through the rough grazing land, capturing every single breath, every sparkle of love and hatred in his eyes.
One day Aslan rescues Sivas, a majestic white Kangal sheepdog that has been abandoned half dead by his masters after losing a match against another fighting dog. Stubbornly determined to impress his classmates and the little girl he fancies, he starts curing and feeding the animal, in order to get it back in shape. Friendship grows between them. Now the lionhearted kid has a new pal, something to amaze the world with, something to be proud of. But soon the old owners show up again: Sivas must go back to fighting, there is no alternative. Sivas was born to fight.
Violence, oppression, machismo. While Frenzy, with its sudden explosions in the distance and its claustrophobic framing, tried to depict the complexities of present-day Turkey, Sivas, due to its rural setting, seems to deal with atavistic themes. Müjdeci drags the audience into a merciless society of men, where women disappear in the shadow and animals vent on other animals the instincts of their masters. But Sivas is not a film à thèse and, on the other hand, it’s also far more than a simple coming-of-age story. It’s a brutal tale of innocence denied, the portrait of a kid who, before reaching manhood, suffers from the inescapable contradictions of his painful condition: being too young and naïve to behave as a man among men, and too old and tough to seek relief in tenderness and hope. In this cruel scenario, the big white fighting dog is just a mute guide that leads Aslan to the end of childhood. To the sterile plain where only pointless battles are left.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2016