Yozgat Blues

in 29th Warsaw Film Festival

by Alison Frank

Yozgat Blues could be Turkey’s wry, lugubrious answer to Jules et Jim, with Nese, an aspiring singer, as the film’s Catherine. When her teacher Yavuz gets a job in the small city of Yozgat, she asks if she can come along and sing backup vocals. As they share living quarters in a cheap hotel, a domestic intimacy develops between the young woman and the older man. But two more men soon come onto the scene: a shy, must achioed barber and his friend, the city’s self-proclaimed leading artist and intellectual, both clearly entranced when they see Nese perform at the cabaret. Will any of the men win the heart of this quietly self-assured woman?

One participant in the Warsaw Film Festival’s ‘FIPRESCI-Warsaw Project’ for young critics pointed out that Yozgat Blues, in spite of its title, hardly shows the place at all. True enough, most of the film is set innon-descript interiors: the shabby hotel, the gloomy cabaret and unremarkable cafés. These drab locations necessarily direct our attention towards the characterswho, I would argue, epitomise Yozgat. Nese and Yavuz are aware that they’re only small-time performers, but they still take pride in their work: he fusses over his fancy shirt and she buys a shimmery new red dress. The barber’s confidence has been crushed by rejection; eligible young women are invariably put off by his modest occupation. Still, he glows with the determined ambition to run his own salon. Finally, amid all these self-conscious characters, the artist is the film’s unwitting jester, swanning about self-importantly with his ‘semi-autobiographical novel’ The Perfect Man, his weekly poetry readings, and his pretentious radio show.

Director Mahmut Fazil Coskun has an exquisite sense of dramatic irony, the most unforgettable quality of Yozgat Blues. With the exception of the artist, the film is populated by quiet characters who often hesitate to share their thoughts and emotions with each other. But to the audience, all is revealed through the brief gaze, the small gesture, and the little white lie. We see Yavuz, for instance, go out and buy some crockery in an attempt to make their living arrangements more homey; Nese immediately notices them, and asks whether the hotel has supplied them — ‘typical hotel dishes’, she remarks, while Yavuz merely smiles.

None of the characters in Yozgat Blues is particularly good-looking or talented, yet the audience quickly develops a fond interest in their lives, which become all the more precious for being so modest. It’s a world away from Hollywood, where the older man would be a shoo-in for the younger woman’s affections. Unlike the typical American heroine, Nese is overweight with bad skin and shows no particular promise as a singer — yet all the men love her, admire her voice, and respect her opinion. Yozgat Blues is a film of great sympathy and gentle good-humour, qualities all too scarce in recent debuts from Eastern Europe (as my jury colleague Gideon Kouts critiques in detail in his contribution). While the film mercilessly pokes fun at its one self-important character, the rest are deeply valued as vulnerable human beings. This is in noticeable contrast to Hollywood, which overwhelmingly values wealth, beauty, talent and social status. It was more surprising that the humanity of Yozgat Blues put it at odds with most of the other films in Warsaw’s FIPRESCI selection, which seemed to have chosen characters based on the extremity of their views and experiences.

Independent cinema has traditionally found its vocation focusing on characters and situations that don’t fit the Hollywood norm, and this has certainly included characters on society’s fringes, along with average individuals. Among the Eastern European debuts at Warsaw, however, it was not just fringe characters that dominated, but poorly developed ones: they lacked any complexity that would convincingly explain why they found themselves at the edge of society, or genuine redeeming qualities to convince the audience that such characters are worth 90 minutes’ attention. Yozgat Blues doesn’t end happily for all its characters, nor does it gloss over life’s compromises and disappointments, but against a background of gratuitously harsh films, it came as a reassuring dose of humanity.

Alison Frank