Letters From Turkey (3): Watching This Film Is Like Looking In A Mirror

There are films I can’t get out of my mind, even days after viewing them. Acclaimed Turkish director Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s recent film, “Araf”, is one of these; the images, the settings, the colors, the performances… are still with me although it’s been more than two weeks since I watched the film.

This is mainly, for sure, because Ustaoğlu is a very talented filmmaker and “Somewhere in Between” is a poetically beautiful film. The director knows what she is doing. And, in addition, “Araf” also keeps affecting me because of its honest depiction of the lives of people living in limbo – those suffering the ill consequences of industrialization and modernization in Turkey.

A highway service station, against a wintry backdrop, sets the context for Ustaoğlu’s film. “While I was writing the script, the perception of life in and around the service station reminded me of a state of limbo, a state of waiting that is neither hell nor heaven; an uncertain, hopeless state, like in purgatory”, she explains.

Using this service station, the director elegantly brings together the main characters of the film: beautiful Zehra; the breadwinner in her traditional and conservative family; Olgun who is in love with Zehra, and their slightly older friend Derya who tries to stand on her own two feet. They all work non-stop, waiting for something to change their lives. The service station is also the place where we meet Mahur, the “mute” truck driver with whom Zehra later naively falls in love – Mahur is to disappear, soon leaving Zehra pregnant.

Ustaoğlu’s mesmerizing film is dark, sad, slow and painful, at times, to watch. It gives, especially in the first half, a sense of going nowhere. However, this is not a weakness. On the contrary, I believe, it is one of the things that make this film powerful and beautiful. This “going nowhere feeling” helps us get under the skins of the people whose lives the film is depicting. It gives us time for reflection. The slow moments of the film are, therefore, in my opinion, Araf’s most thought-provoking and most poetic moments.

The film’s screening in Turkey also came at a time when there was an intense debate about abortion. Therefore, I believe that, probably, the film’s darkest scene, where we see Zehra’s miscarriage in the toilet of the hospital, needs special attention and consideration. Her loneliness in that hospital toilet is actually the loneliness of those women who feel suffocated by Turkish patriarchy.

Araf is a film that shows “us” to “us” from many different angles; it gives us a picture of Turkey; the picture of a country at the crossroad of modernization, and also a picture of those who face and suffer inequalities, waiting for something to change in their lives….

More Letters from Turkey

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