by David Katz
- VENICE 2020: Turkish director Azra Deniz Okyay breaks out with an excellent debut film featuring a cross-cutting narrative, a deserving winner of the International Film Critics’ Week Grand Prize
Ghosts [+see also:
film profile] has one of those brilliantly metaphorical titles. This is an urgently current piece of work, with no supernatural elements, yet the word perfectly evokes the tone of the film, conjuring a netherworld where a lost generation of young Turkish people walk. This debut feature, made in co-production with France and Qatar, garnered the main prize in the International Film Critics’ Week in Venice. It serves as a cinematic calling card for director Azra Deniz Okyay, who’s already won acclaim for her work in the art and advertising worlds.
Okyay’s film initially appears to be a realistic story of young people in peril, trying to evade the worst of a conflict zone. But her direction and screenwriting keep pulling out the rug from under the audience’s feet, with unusual skill for a helmer making her inaugural film. We’re immediately disorientated by the lack of title cards, for one thing, and then, with 20 minutes left, we’re finally greeted with “Hayaletler” (Turkish for “Ghosts”), in white capital letters against a dark screen. From its first frames, Ghosts upends expectations, acting appropriately as if there’s no set way to tell stories of this type.
Beyond Okyay’s formal skill, her screenplay has real storytelling momentum and gusto, and requires some concentration from the audience. Apt comparisons would be Amores Perros, for its puzzle-box structure, and La Haine, for its rebellious aura. The principal characters are two women coping in varying ways with civil strife in Istanbul. Dilem (Dilayda Güneş) is a young woman in and out of full-time work, with more serious ambitions of becoming a professional dancer. She exists in a milieu of young people at the forefront of protest movements against the Turkish government, but doesn’t seem as politically engaged as her peers. She crosses paths with Iffet (Nalan Kuruçim), whose work in waste removal involves her cleaning up the aftermath of scuffles between law enforcement and protesters. Her son Asil is in an overcrowded jail for a crime she claims he didn’t commit, and will be in enormous danger if she can’t find a way to get him some money. All the while, Raşit (played by excellent character actor Emrah Özdemir) attempts to profit from the redevelopment of Istanbul’s historic areas, as well as becoming a landlord for Syrian refugees.
Against the pitch-black nighttime, but with expository information from a radio broadcast, Okyay orients us in a particular time: the near future of October 2020. Her cinematic setting is not quite a dystopia, but she creates an interesting tension from depicting a scenario not unlike the circumstances of the coup attempt in 2016, yet in an imagined period of future civil crackdown. There are little hints which speak of wider disturbances: the lack of boys and men on the rubble-strewn streets, and orphaned children that Dilem and a more passionate activist, Ela (Beril Kayar), look after with a screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times. Ghosts’ social drama transforms into a semi-thriller, complete with drug trafficking, and back. And Okyay’s stylish visual sense has the final word, compounding her symbolic camera motifs, which move forward in long takes with occasional pans up to the sunlight. Dilem ends the film in an ecstatic dance, accompanied by the propulsive French-language pop of Las Aves. It’s like a ghost coming back to life.
Ghosts is a co-production by Turkey, France and Qatar. It was produced by Dilek Aydin, of Heimatlos Films, and co-produced by Marie-Pierre Macia and Claire Gadéa, of MPM Film. Its international sales are courtesy of MPM Premium.
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