"Milk": Narratives from Z to A By Eva af Geijerstam

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Eva af Geijerstam

A trailer blazes against the skies in the opening shot of Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain. A woman strikes herself on the head with a hammer at the very beginning of Occupation (L’autre) by Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic. What went before and after these explosive opening shots will follow, like in Haile Gerima’s Teza with its complex web of dreams, memories and leaps of time in the tormented history of Ethiopia.

The breaking up of conventional narrative was in abundance in Venice: avoiding telling the story from A to Z, rather starting with the Z, and then working your way through the alphabet with or without clever deviations. It takes plenty of skill, unless it is to become a hollow cliché, a dramatic gadget. The Burning Plain showed those skills. No surprise, as Arriaga already excelled in the practice in his scripts for 21 grams and Babel.

The Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu does it differently. In what is to become the “Yusuf Trilogy” he’s reached the second part Milk (Süt). In the first film, Egg (Yumurta), a middle aged poet, Yusuf, returns to his native village in inland Anatolia to bury his mother. In Milk, Yusuf is still a young man, recently graduated, struggling with his dreams of becoming a poet and his feelings of being deserted and betrayed as his widowed mother starts a relationship with the town station master. The third part, Honey (Bal) is expected to follow Yusuf from birth and through childhood.

In this way Semih Kaplanoglu bridges the time gaps between then and now. The huge and rapid transformation of a predominantly rural society and the disturbances in its social and cultural fabric is demonstrated in Milk, dowsing rod (1) side by side with a cell phone or cows and cheese making at the foot of modern apartment buildings. Or the mystic and esoteric side of Sufi philosophy and its claim on the universality of nature and love, beside pool-tables, television sets and screaming militarization.

Egg suffered somewhat from banality, i.e. metaphors we’ve seen before, perhaps best captured in one single shot: a bird’s egg falling from Yusuf’s hand to break against the camera lens. Milk does not. Its pace is slow, its dialogue sparse — like in its predecessor — but it’s all the more charged with poetic, beautiful and emotional images and sounds intimately tied to the landscape.

The vulnerable Yusuf of Milk is equally lost with women and men of his own age. He cannot communicate with the former, he cannot identify with the latter. When his mother refuses to stay the eternal “mother”, and delivery of milk is no longer needed he’s at a complete loss. Of course one could object to the necessity of making Yusuf into a would-be poet, hammering away on his typewriter as a proof of some special and rare sensitivity. But the objections wither gradually until the last image: Yusuf clutching a gigantic Wels catfish (2), stranded in waters too shallow for it to survive.