"Where the Fire Burns"

in 35th Montreal World Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

Sounds of birdsong and breezes rustling the wood; a simple country house painted white and blue, with little furniture; a family cheerfully going about its chores out front in the open air, its matriarch very pregnant with child number six: the opening scenes of Turkish writer-director Ismail Günes’ Where the Fire Burns (Atesindüstügüyer), in competition at this year’s Festival des Films du Monde in Montréal, are imbued with bucolic contentment and a sense of existing almost out of time; these people live a simple, god-fearing life remarkably similar to that of their ancestors; the twenty-first century lies elsewhere. The camera follows Ayse (Elifcan Ongurlar), the eldest daughter, through the house — we spy her secretly admiring a photo of a handsome, mysterious young man — as though drifting on a gentle current, not wanting to intrude on the calm atmosphere. This is home base and status quo, a setting at once gentle and primitive, the starting point from which all hell will break loose, sending Günes’s two central characters far out into unfamiliar territory.

Ayse collapses and is taken to hospital in the nearest city. Her parents fear some terrible mortal affliction, though, aided by a serene but overly symbolic dream sequence, most of us have by now already guessed the truth: Ayse is pregnant. And Ayse is still a teenager. And Ayse is not married. When Ayse’s father Osman (Hakan Karahan) learns of her condition all the tenderness and concern he’s thus far exuded rapidly drains, replaced by primal rage. He vows to kill Ayse, and it does not for one moment seem like an empty threat, nor does his wife make any attempts to dissuade him. There’s something blackly comical about the hospital staff treating Ayse with such kindness and enthusiasm regarding her pregnancy while her parents loom over her, faces steeled with murderous determination. Is that titular Fire the spark of life glowing in Ayse’s womb, or is it really just a satanic soldering iron driven into the minds of her crazed parents, set upon their killing their own offspring in the name of family honour?

Then another major shift in the film’s tone occurs: Osman decides that the most efficient, discreet method of killing Ayse will be to take her far away, do the deed and bury her in some remote place. Osman borrows a car, loads the trunk with weapons, poison and tools for digging, and Where the Fire Burns becomes a road movie. The farther Osman and Ayse travel from home and all they know, the more Osman’s sense of mission is re-contextualized, partly because of the sheer time spent with his kindly daughter on the road, partly because a chain of small mishaps seem to conspire to keep Osman from carrying out his plan: the trunk carrying his supplies won’t open, or it does open but he spills the poison, or Osman has an epileptic seizure. There are numerous such small contrivances that lend themselves to being read as either coincidence or divine intervention, prolonging this journey in the hope that Osman’s patriarchal fury will run its course before it’s too late.

The quotation from the Koran which opens the film proposes that when you kill one person you kill all, when you save one you save all. This would seem to encourage a purely allegorical interpretation of Where the Fire Burns, as does the peculiar scene in which Osman meets a man in a café to purchase a gun just as a television broadcasts a story about another unrepentant Turkish father who has murdered his daughter for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. There’s also the German tourist who discovers she’s pregnant at the same time as Ayse and who later crosses paths with Osman and Ayse several times during their journey. And there is the moment when Ayse sees a bitch nursing her pups near an auto-repair shop by the side of the road. The sanctity of motherhood is alluded to everywhere these characters go. This continued insistence of the film’s themes should be overbearing, but Günes balances his broader brush strokes with a steady stream of small details in behaviour and comportment that instill his characters with sufficient nuance so as to run counter to their function as mere archetypes. (One detail I especially liked: after an entire night waiting in the hospital, mom still has clothespins clipped to her dress front.)

This is the third film in a trilogy about violence that Günes began back in 1999 with Where the Rose Wilted (Gülünbittigiyer), a film banned in Turkey because of its criticism of the military coup. Fittingly, this final installment is grounded in the belief in the power of empathy to disarm brutality. Which is not the same thing as asserting that violence, senseless death and brutality will not find its own way of infiltrating our lives; indeed, there’s a harrowing ambiguity surrounding precisely how this story ends. What the film seems to tell us above all is that any declaration of murder or of war can be overturned, that even one convinced to act viciously can be redeemed. The film’s greatest strength resides in its use of landscape as a psychic mirror, of the road trip as internal or spiritual journey, movement and time as a way of healing wounds. Nothing feels rushed or forced. Haste is antithetical to wisdom. Thus it is only by the end of Where the Fire Burns that we have a clear sense of just how deeply textured this journey we’ve taken has been.

José Antonio Teodoro