Ghosts: Sharp on the Margins

Azra Deniz Okyay’s striking debut Ghosts (2020) marks another invigorating moment in Turkish cinema.

There’s never silence in Istanbul. At the outskirts or in the center, skyscrapers and office buildings slowly rise, transforming the local landscape into a cold city of the future. But what does this future hold? Ghosts weaves together the personal wanderings of four different characters trying to make ends meet – which Okyay investigates with deeply touching empathy and youthful wit. 

Didem (Dilayda Gunes), the youngest amongst the main characters, loves dancing, though not the conventional belly dancing that her acquaintances try to sway her into practice. Meanwhile Iffet (Nalan Kurucim) is trying to get a large sum of money to help her son who is serving time in prison. Ela (Beril Kayar) is a feminist activist and amateur filmmaker, shooting incognito videos which often appear in their own vertical format during Ghosts. And there is Rașit (Emrah Ozdemir), a figure of the underworld, specialised in hosting Syrian refugees in small and nonfunctional apartments. As each of these stories evolves on a separate track, Okyay’s aim firstly revolves around the misogynistic oppression of new identities emerging in contemporary Turkey, intent on challenging the traditional place women are assigned in society. This matter is reframed into a whole spectrum of changes that occur simultaneously: the gentrification and the expansion of real estate, at the cost of many people’s displacement. This social metamorphosis is also affected by a turbulent political scene  – with strikes and protests proving a constant backdrop to the events.

All four of these individuals’ stories have crossed paths before and are destined to do so again, revealing the complicated affairs that enable the working class to keep their heads above water, without succumbing to either having no source of income or accepting discrimination. These paths may not lead to resolutions that are legal, especially when the circumstances threaten one’s safety and freedom. It is impressive to see the characters’ humanity and shared emotional mechanisms in this galloping race of adaptation, as they try to adjust to the structural transitions of society, which are also inherently theirs. Just like ghosts, all these characters are there, living and breathing, yet their fingerprints do not leave a lasting trace. As Mustang (2015, the debut of Deniz Gamze Ergüven) predicted, overcoming a patriarchal and conservative model only happens in the sour, yet sweet, happy endings of fairy tales. Ghosts is nothing of the sort – emerging instead as an incisive, realistic insight into the complicated and unbiased causes and consequences that governs each character’s steps.It’s certainly difficult to intertwine all these threads into a coherent storyline and Ghosts is just as controlled and efficient as its subject’s demanding complexity. Okyay works with dynamic subtlety in both montage (Ayris Alptekin) and cinematography (Baris Özbiçer), achieving a sharp visual style. Handheld, raw camerawork, combined with intricate parallel narratives, intensifies the focus on the dramatic interplay, entangled with a passion for accuracy. Ghosts signals the need for more social criticism in Turkish cinema, in which Okyay has enough talent to become a household name.

Diana Smeu
Edited by Amber Wilkinson