While the Arab world continues to consume its daily dose of the petty nonsense of Turkish soap opera Nour, a young Turkish filmmaker is currently taking the art world by storm.
The name is Fatih Akin, a 35-year-old German-born director of Turkish parentage who rose to international stardom with his 2004 surprise Golden Bear winner “Head-On. The film centered on a doomed romance between a 40-something Turkish man, who broke all ties with his home country, and a second-generation young Turkish woman divided between the two divergent cultures.
“Head-On was one of the first high-profile pictures to address the conflict between the German and Turkish cultures. Turks are the largest ethnic minority in Germany – 2.3 million in total. Issues of assimilation, racism and immigrant rights continue to be raised as Turkey itself grapples with the divide between Islamic conservatism and liberal secularism while still chasing the dream of joining the EU.
These dilemmas were front and center in “Head-On. For his next project “The Edge of Heaven, Akin dropped these concerns for a more universal story about fate, happiness and people who cross paths but never meet.
Winner of the 2007 Best Script award at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Edge of Heaven is a much richer cinematic and intellectual experience than the intense punk romanticism of its predecessor; a film that has cemented Akin’s name as Turkey’s biggest cultural icon since Nobel Prize winner Urhan Pamuk. The film is closing the latest edition of the Caravan of the Euro-Arab cinema next Monday.
At the heart of “Heaven are six characters; two mothers, their two daughters, a father and his son. The film is divided into three sections, two of which, as Akin indicates with ominous title cards preceding each segment, will witness the death of two characters.
Set between Germany and Turkey, the film begins as Ali (revered Turkish actor Tuncel Kurtiz), an old German immigrant, saunters down a neighborhood for prostitutes. From the look on his face, Ali seems to be no stranger to the area. He spots a slightly dark middle-aged woman he fancies. The prostitute is Yeter (Nursel Köse), also a Turkish immigrant. Ali offers Yeter to exclusively sleep with him and move in to his place. After being threatened with murder from a group of radical Turkish Muslims demanding she quits her profession, she accepts Ali’s offer.
Ali is a widower with one son, Nejat (Baki Davrak). Nejat is a perfect embodiment of assimilation. Born in Germany, he’s a college professor teaching German literature in Bremen. After a tragic accident, he moves to Turkey and purchases a bookstore selling German books.
Yeter has a daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), a 27-year-old member of Turkish militant group. Wanted by the Turkish authorities, Ayten flees to Germany. She meets Charlotte ‘Lotte’ (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a young idealistic German student who immediately falls for Ayten.
Lotte’s mother, Susanne, played by great German actress and Fassbinder’s muse Hanna Schygulla, is suspicious of her daughter’s new girlfriend.
Susanne is a former hippie turned average white German bourgeois who believes that all Turkey’s woes shall be solved as soon as it joins the EU.
Borrowing the asymmetrical narrative of “Babel and “Magnolia, characters of all different stories are connected. The structure of “Heaven’s narrative is stronger and more cohesive, maintaining the focus on the characters themselves rather than the trickeries of the narrative.
Each character is searching for something; absolution, value, lost parent or child, and perhaps even happiness. The film starts with all six characters, including the inflammable Ayten, well saturated into their own world. None of them foresee a fundamentally different life course beyond the one they’re leading. Destiny though forces them to make life-changing choices and reevaluate a life they never questioned.
The culture and political divide between the two nations is swiftly approached, functioning chiefly as a catalyst for destiny’s disfigured scheme rather than a social predicament with general repercussions.
Akin doesn’t condemn either culture. He does regard politics though from an exceedingly cynical perspective. When Ayten applies for asylum in Germany, her request is denied on the assumption that since Turkey is planning to join the EU, such transgressions Ayten accuses her home country of committing doesn’t seem plausible.
The Turkish police, on the other hand, seem intent on curbing opposition, of adhering to firm principles they refuse to bend. Yet, when an international crisis between the two nations erupts, they instantly express their willingness to overlook the law in order to solve this calamity that might hamper their EU campaign.
Politics and people are set in two distant spheres. Politicians and lawmakers assume they know the people, believing to comprehend the exact implications of their decisions. Akin refutes this theory and there’s an underlined frustration expressed towards the ignorance and haphazardness of politics.
The strict laws of politics are contrasted against the uncertainty of the characters. In one scene, Nejat is seen in an empty hospital with Yeter following his father’s heart-attack. There’s a sense of displacement, of emotional vacuum Nejat can’t elude. It doesn’t change much when he moves to Turkey. The bookstore is the one place that feels like home, among German literature and foreigners.
Same goes for Lotte. Her passionate idyll with Ayten is both an exotic sexual liaison and a pretext to put her idealism in action, to peruse a lofty purpose. The characters’ perceptions and expectations of themselves and the world would inevitably dash to pieces.
The absurd, meaningless deaths exemplify this notion. The irrationality behind the happenstances these characters face diverts them into paths they never intended to take. None of them gets what they initially want, and only when they succumb to the grip of destiny do they recognize the one meaningful thing buried underneath the politics, cultural differences and futile personal pursuits: the humanity that binds them all together.
In essence, “The Edge of Heaven feels like a continuation of legendary polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s themes of coincidence and the role fate plays in influencing our choices. Akin grants his characters a kind of deliverance that, despite appearing transcending and resolute, is in fact temporary.
Nejat, Ayten, Susanne and the others will continue to search for hope in strangers’ eyes, embark on other relationships and endeavors, attempt to make peace with themselves and the others and perhaps find some fulfillment in places destiny throws them in. The final image of the film where Nejat sits silently by the bay, staring at the endless horizon, says it all: we’re all just sitting here, by the edge of heaven, longing for tranquility and hope beyond this long, turbulent storm.
Catch “The Edge of Heaven on Monday at the Artistic Creativity Center in Alexandria. For more information, please call 012 7836712.