A big chunk of Turkish cinema with a ridiculously high rating in IMDb turns out to be rigidly conservative soap operas. It reminds me of our mainstream Indian films, where mediocrity is often hailed as masterpiece. When it comes to making political films, the majority of works from both these nations offer a very two-dimensional, dim perspective. So, it’s always exciting to see a singular film-making talent who demonstrates level of nuance and skill in execution. Emin Alper is one such exceptional Turkish film-maker. The unique film-making style and deft construction of political parables witnessed in his two feature-films gives me hope that he is going to be next prominent Turkish director, in the vein of Nure Bilge Ceylan and Zeki Dermirkubuz. Mr. Alper has a degree in economics and received PhD in modern Turkish history. His debut feature Beyond the Hill (2012) is set in remote foothills. He deftly handled a story about Turkish family’s internalized and externalized conflicts, which doubled up as an allegory for his nation’s transition to be a closed society. In the sophomore directorial effort, Abluka aka Frenzy (2015), Mr. Alper goes to restless, claustrophobic streets of Istanbul. The director’s rich political insights turn the predicament of individuals into a subtle critique on current Turkish political scenario. It’s also works as a universal story about repressed, unstable societies.
Loud explosions open the narrative. A tall, middle-aged prisoner is transferred to a crumbling room. Sirens are heard everywhere. Terror and paranoia pervades. This isn’t a dystopian society; this is contemporary Istanbul minus the azure skies and post-card beauty. Nation-wide protests commenced in the year 2013 against the alleged authoritarianism of former Prime Minister and current President Erdogan. The protests were answered with police crackdown, consuming 22 lives. From then on, the bridging nation between Europe and Middle East has witnessed escalating series of internal and external conflicts. Kurdistan militants have resumed their insurgency plus the Islamist militant violence spreading from Syria is eroding the country’s stability. The Turkish judicial independence is on shaky terms, press & social media are repressed, and human rights violations are on the rise. Violent clashes in and around Istanbul has made countries like UK, France, USA, etc to warn their citizens traveling to the city. The events in the movie Abluka happen in the pre-coup d’etat attempt days (on July15th, 2016 -- quelled by the Turkish government and followed it with bloody purges). The situation in Istanbul has only gotten worse in the second-half of 2016.
The unrest in the streets actually gives the tall prisoner of the story his alleged freedom. The man named Kadir (Mehmet Ozgur) is released on parole, on the condition that he has to work as an informant for Turkish intelligence services. Kadir, who is in a constant state of distress, goes to a low-income neighborhood near Istanbul to have a reunion with his younger brother Ahmet (Berkay Ates) – in his late 20s. Kadir now works as a garbage man, sorting through rubbish bins to gather evidence about home-made bombs. He and his group of paroled prisoners were trained to smell & identify the chemicals used to make compact bombs. As Kadir secretly works to get rid of rebellious elements of the society, his brother Ahmet literally disposes the alleged diseased creatures. Ahmet is employed by the state to shoot stray dogs. The official version is that the dogs are tranquilized and homed at a facility. In reality, the dogs are killed and buried under a hole.
Although the brothers have had their re-union, they still lead an isolated life. Ahmet has last seen Kadir when he was seven. He’s closer to the middle brother Veli, who has mysteriously disappeared 10 years before. Kadir is more or less like a stranger to him. Ahmet sets up his elder brother in a flat above the house of his friend Ali (Ozan Akbaba). The brothers, Ali and his wife Meral (Tullin Ozen) sit for the dinner. The ensuing conversation at the dinner table reveals the fact that Ahmet’s wife has left him, taking their two children with her. Kadir feels the need to be closer with his brother in these desperate times. But, Ahmet isolates himself inside the house, answering the door to no one. The killing of dogs has taken a strain on Ahmet alongside other personal conflicts. At work, he misses a shot and the bullet grazes past a stray dog’s leg. Later, we see Ahmet secretly taking care of this injured dog. Inside the house, he does strange renovations at odd hours. He hopes that the dog’s company will eradicate his loneliness. But the constant threat over the safety of stray dog plunges Ahmet into web of paranoia. Kadir’s garbage sniffing activities yields nothing good, which strains his relationship with the intelligence officer. The terrorist bombing keeps on escalating in the city. The authorities retaliate with more roadblocks, checkpoints and mass imprisonment. The societal disintegration affects Kadir’s mental health too. The brothers’ cursed fate is eventually interlinked by this internalized and externalized unrest.
Abluka is about a family which chooses paranoia over trust. If we replace the word ‘family’ with ‘nation’, it would reflect the situation Turkey finds itself in (“This country is weird. We all live in holes and do secret things” laments Kadir, sitting at a secluded tavern). And, it’s not just Turkey; the political conflicts of 20th & 21st century often gets entangled in such atmosphere. On one hand, Kadir and Ahmet are threatened by outside forces, while on the other hand they don’t get united because of the lack of trust. Director Emin Alper once again demonstrates great eye for framing the unsettling beauty of the topography. The brighter color palettes couldn’t be found as most of the shooting takes place in confined places and claustrophobic streets (cinematographer Adam Jandrup). The atmosphere in the initial sequence is filmed with gloomy realism. But, when the narrative gradually slips into paranoid mood, Almer and his DoP choose over an expressionistic style, extracting immense tension from the atmosphere. The production design is impeccable, especially the exterior locations, squirming with looming anarchy.
The script unfurls from the subjective viewpoint of Kadir and Ahmet, interlinked at key moments of the narrative. The problem with the script is that it has two unreliable narrators, which may cause more confusion for the viewers. Both of them are afflicted with delusions. The events in the second-half works well as pointed political allegories, but there’s not much emotional engagement with the characters. As Kadir and Ahmet withdraw themselves from reality, we too get a little alienated from them, instead of being empathetic about their situation. Of course, director Alper keeps on fascinating us with his visual choices. The crack on window glass and the march of thundering armored vehicles suggest the fraying mental health of Ahmet. Nevertheless, there’s more political bite than emotional resonance in the later scenes. The inclusion of a third, middle brother provides an intrigue with an unsatisfying pay off. Once again, brother Veli is invented more for symbolical reasons than to deepen the narrative’s complexity. As I previously mentioned, the biggest strength of Abluka is its robust audiovisual choices. In some sequences, Mr. Alper elegantly blurs the line separating reality and delusion. The two central performances are top-notch. Ozgur is brilliant as the world-weary Kadir who also remains desperate to appease his boss. The supporting performances are solid, especially the man who played Kadir’s equally paranoid intelligence officer.
Abluka aka Frenzy (119 minutes) is a skilfully crafted examination of paranoia and isolation in a conflict-ridden landscape as well as mindscape. Despite the slightly frustrating script, it is worth watching for the impeccable construction of an ominous atmosphere.