Journey to the Sun

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Feb 24 09:18:55 MST 2001


Steeped in the neo-realist tradition, Yesim Ustaoglu's "Journey to the Sun"
presents three characters from the depths of Turkish society in a visually
arresting and dramatically compelling fashion.

We first meet Berzan (Nazmi Qirix), a young Kurdish man who has fled from
his native village in southeastern Turkey after the army killed his father
during a raid. Each dawn he sets up his pushcart in a downtown Istanbul
plaza in order to sell videos, cassettes and CD's. In my own NYC, you can
see thousands of peddlers just like this who have fled their native
countries because of economic hardship or political repression, the late
Amadou Diallo included. Apparently Turkey has a similar migration, except
it is internal, from the village to the city. Berzan is also a political
activist whose main concern is the hunger strikers in Turkish prisons, news
of which streams across radio and television during the entire course of
the film giving it a newsreel like immediacy.

Next we meet Mehmet (Newroz Baz) who works for the Water Department. Armed
with an long brass tube connected to an earphone-like device, he walks
through the streets of Istanbul probing the ground. To a trained ear like
Mehmet's, faint rumblings might indicate a water leak. That instrument
becomes a metaphor for the underground political rumblings that will soon
turn his life into a living nightmare.

After watching a soccer game at a pub, Mehmet is en route to the crowded
room that he shares with three other working-class men. Out of nowhere a
mob of Turkish-flag clad hooligans come running down the street screaming,
"Kill the Kurds." After wandering into the mob, Berzan is jumped. Although
completely apolitical, Mehmet comes to his rescue out of a sense of fair
play. The two men then run off to an nearby apartment building where they
hide from further attack. From this chance encounter, a strong friendship
immediately develops.

Although Mehmet knows little about what it means to be a persecuted
minority, he soon learns how vulnerable an ordinary citizen can become
under conditions of fierce repression. Coming home from work the next
evening, his bus is stopped at a police roadblock. All the passengers are
ordered off to have their id's checked. Unfortunately for Mehmet, another
passenger, who fled from the bus moments earlier, has left a gun beneath
his seat. The cops suspect Mehmet of being a revolutionary and haul him off
to jail where he is interrogated and beaten.

Besides Berzan, the only person in the world who cares about Mehmet is his
girl-friend Arzu (Mizgin Kapazan) who works in a laundry. When she goes to
the jail to find out about his status, the cops order to sit on a bench
until they are ready to speak to her. An elderly woman, clad in traditional
Muslim garb, turns to her and says that she has been coming for weeks to
find out about her son, but they have yet to tell her anything.

Eventually Mehmet is released. His clothes in tatters and his face bloodied
and bruised, he shows up at his furnished room. They explain to him that it
is impossible for him to remain there any longer, because he is now a
marked man. In the middle of the night, a rightwing death squad has painted
a large red "X" on their door, a sign that a "terrorist" lives there. From
that moment onward, Mehmet becomes an internal exile dependent on the
solidarity of Berzan and the love of Arzu.

Although these are characters caught up in the charged political atmosphere
of contemporary Turkey, this is not a film about political intrigue in the
fashion of Costa-Gravas. While Mehmet and Arzu are completely apolitical,
Berzan's own political beliefs are neither shared with them or the
audience. It is simply a given, like their jobs or their appearance. In
fact it is Mehmet's appearance that causes him much of his trouble. Since
he is swarthy, the cops tend to assume that he is Kurdish even though he
insists he is from a small town in northwestern Turkey, far from the
Kurdish homeland.

"Journey to the Sun" is the second film by director Yesim Ustaoglu, a 38
year old woman trained as an architect. Whether this previous training
explains her acute visual sense or not, one can only wonder at her ability
to accent her tale with powerful imagery. Although the film virtually never
leaves the abject living and working conditions of the characters, her
camera finds a kind of odd beauty in every frame. For example, after Berzan
finds Mehmet a job at the local dump, we see him at work surrounded by
cattle and seagulls rooting through the garbage for food. Despite the
misery of the character and the setting, it has a lyrical quality. (It is
in this scene that Mehmet stumbles across a spray can of yellow paint that
he eventually uses in a pathetic bid to conceal his dark hair.)

Mehmet and Berzan's friendship is one of the most striking and moving that
I have seen in recent film. Perhaps the fact that Ustaoglu is female gives
her the liberty to explore the two men's near intimacy in a manner that
would have proved more awkward for a male director. When the two men are
seated next to each other on a bus, Berzan is touched by the look of
sadness on Mehmet's face and invites him to rest his head on his shoulder.
This gesture, as much as any other, expresses the emotional core of the
film. In the conclusion of the film, Mehmet risks everything to return the
gesture.

In an interview with the Village Voice, Ustaoglu spoke about her decision
to work with nonprofessional actors. She felt that it was necessary to
build an organic relationship between characters and place, mostly
on-location shots of Istanbul cafés and streets. She said, "All my films
start with an intense desire to look at human beings in a particular
environment."

"Journey to the Sun" is now showing at Cinema Village on West 12th St in
NYC. Highly recommended.


Louis Proyect
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