Of Goats, Men, and Asteroids

in 70th Locarno International Film Festival

by Melis Behlil

Turkish director Gürcan Keltek’s first feature, Meteors (Meteorlar) begins and ends with two images of the crescent moon, at opposite ends of the lunar circle. It’s an apt metaphor for the passing of time and history repeating itself again and again. This beautifully poetic docudrama, which takes place in the Southeast of Turkey, where different civilisations have lived for millennia, and men and animals alike have confronted the harsh living conditions, as well as one another. The crescent is also a strong symbol in the Islamic world, and has a dominant place on the Turkish flag: with its very first image, the film already combines the ethereal and the earthly.

In the first of the six chapters, several men in camouflage scale up a mountain with rifles in hand. It’s a wild terrain, devoid of any greenery, made to look even harsher through the grainy black-and- white photography. The chapter is titled “Hunters,” but it is initially unclear what kind of hunters they are – perhaps not of animals, but of men. In this part of the world, it could be either. Eventually, the men’s mumbled whisperings and the images through their rifles’ viewfinders reveal that they are in pursuit of mountain goats. These are majestic animals indigenous to the region, and in addition to the very present human danger they face, they also battle with one another, horns intertwined, constantly in danger of falling off the steep face of the mountain.

The film then leaves the animals aside and starts presenting how humans clash with one another. Grainy images, some clearly taken with cellphone cameras, document instances of clashes in different towns of Turkey’s Kurdish region, which were re-ignited in the summer of 2015, shortly after the ruling party lost its majority in the parliamentary elections. Most of the images in Meteors have been collected from different sources, and have never seen the light of day, other than perhaps on social media. The heavily-regulated mainstream Turkish media would never dare reveal any of these images, and the filmmakers would not have had access to these towns while the clashes were going on. In addition to street fighting recorded mostly from apartments’ windows, there are several scenes that reveal the destruction left behind. Most touching are the scenes where the local women and children share their plight with the camera. Nonetheless, they are determined, defiant, fully aware of the complexity of the region’s situation; in no way do they or the film ever blatantly appeal to the emotions of the audience. In a way, they are reflected in a later chapter, in the images of the sculptures seen on Mount Nemrut: proud faces with a strong sense of belonging for their land.

The fiction element of the film is introduced through its main (and only) character, Ebru Ojen, who is stuck in one of the besieged cities. Ms. Ojen is an actress and a novelist, and the very personal texts she narrates in a tranquil voice-over are based on her own writings. She is filmed often in close-up, and presents a personal connection to the events. Her expressive face and affecting words add another layer to the film, one that is impossible to reach through found footage alone. The strangest section of Meteors, which seems like a fiction (science- fiction almost) is in fact a real occurrence. In November of 2015, a meteor shower occurred in the region, putting a brief halt to the ongoing clashes. Literalizing the Turkish curse of “raining stones,” the beautiful blazing trails of the asteroids appear almost like abstract animations. The confrontation among and between men, animals, and nature extends to the skies.

Meteors strikes a fine balance on many levels. It combines the current with the eternal, the gritty with the sublime. Keltek’s previous documentary Colony, was a very subtle work about Cyprus and the conflict there. Similarly, although Meteors presents an extremely politicised region during a particularly charged period, it manages to stay away from the blatant propaganda material that permeates everyday life on all fronts. While the images, especially the found footage, are heterogeneous in terms of quality and scale, the editing combines them superbly, without making the film look like a patchwork. Keltek is a stylistically and politically daring filmmaker, and has the ability to pull off massive challenges. Meteors will be remembered for its multilayered narrative and narration, but perhaps most importantly, for memorialising a brief turbulent moment in Turkey’s history, and presenting it in a timeless context.

Edited by Rita Di Santo