Gone 'The Other and the Unknown' (Gittiler 'Sair ve Mechul'): Istanbul Review

Istanbul International Film Festival
Significant issue-driven drama trapped by heavy-handed miserabilism and melodrama.

Kenan Korkmaz's sophomore effort looks at the lives of two Assyrian siblings contending with being part of an ethnic minority at home and abroad.

Gloom, doom and furrowed brows permeate Gone 'The Other and the Unknown', Turkish director Kenan Korkmaz's second feature about modern-day Assyrians, a stateless people whose existence are mostly marginalized in nearly all the host countries they live in. Dedicating one hour each to a pair of siblings who has chosen different futures – one stayed in their hometown in southwestern Turkey, another upped roots and moved to Sweden – Korkmaz's film boasts of poetic visuals oozing solemnity and sadness, but was undermined by a heavy-handed approach in pushing many a melodramatic tropes about the forced acclimatization and repression of ethnic minorities by dominant social groups.

Bowing in its world premiere as a national competition entry at the Istanbul International Film Festival, Korkmaz's follow-up to the similarly exile-themed Luxury Hotel (2011) provides sufficient artistic vision to secure some festival bookings abroad – its transnational settings, perhaps, could provide the key to slots in migration-dedicated programs. Scandinavian events would probably find interest in the film, given the Stockholm-set second half with the abundance of references to the distress of impoverished émigrés and refugees trying to brave exploitation and the rise of xenophobic sentiments in the societies they live in.

In any case, the allusions to discrimination are certainly very obviously flagged: in the case of Yuhan (Yuhannun Akay), his identity as an "other" in a Kurdish-dominated area in Turkey is frequently manifested as he gets light-changed by the town merchant buying his self-made cheese, or when he sees his children glued to Turkish-language television at home after spending a day in school chanting Turkish patriotic slogans and singing the country's national anthem. Meanwhile, a distant towering minaret dominates the landscape and dwarfs the church Yuhan's family goes to – at least for the time being, as his children are also seen as studying an Islam-based curriculum in class.

Throughout his part of the film, Yuhan is either a listless traveler (as he drives to town and back for business, or when he ambles around his village under heavily overcast skies) or sits around locked in thinly-veiled ennui or despair. Here, Korkmaz is signposting the mentality of a suppressed being who couldn't leave: having once waived the opportunity to escape abroad, he now could no longer do it as he attends to his ailing village-headman father (Iso Akay) – whose position Yuhan would eventually have to grudgingly take up – and his own family. Pity his wife Sonya (Sonya Akay), who lives a doubly oppressed life as she also has to confront her husband's (and father-in-law's) angst and fury.

The foreign dream-life Yuhan yearns for would remain a dream for him – a postcard of Stockholm which he has kept for years – but it's also revealed to be more of an imagined reality as Korkmaz introduces Joseph (Savas Ozdemir) in the film's second half. Having lived in Sweden for more than a decade and fluent in the local language, he could yet find himself at ease at his new home: living alone and hardly interacting with his workmates, his friendship with the newly-arrived compatriot Aziz (Ruhi Sari) offers a glimpse of him coming out of his shell – a flicker seemingly extinguished by a deadly scuffle with racist thugs in a bar, an event foreboded with  television news heard to be inundated with news about the trial of the Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Brevik, who a bombed government building and then massacred 69 people at a Workers' Youth League camp in 2011.

But Joseph would at least see this tragic turn of events somehow providing him with a mission and hopes of a new bond and a new start – a resignation to the strange twists of fate which Yuhan would also acknowledge back in Turkey, as he realizes he would never ever emulate Joseph in securing what he sees as a better life. It's a destiny symbolized by Yuhan's inability to get a pigeon to leave his house, as the bird slams repeatedly at a window and passes out.

This is just one of the many animal-related symbols in the film: while Yuhan struggles with the locked-in pigeon, Joseph has his goldfish – which he would take out of the water and think about leaving it there to die, a decision he would swiftly recant. And both brothers still depend on animals for sustenance too: Yuhan works his flock and poultry to produce cheese and eggs, while Joseph beheads and skins fish in a food processing factory. Gone is filled with such visual and narrative metaphors – too much, as it turns out, as Korkmaz (who also lensed and edited the film) ushes these allusions and the despondency as much as he could. While the Assyrians' struggle might merit representation and recognition, Korkmaz's effort is too protracted and melodramatic in giving their plight a real urgency.

Venue: Press screening, Istanbul International Film Festival (National Competition), Apr. 15, 2014

Production Company: MOR  Produksiyon

Director: Kenan Korkmaz

Cast: Savas Ozdemir, Yuhannun Akay, Ruhi Sari, Selin Koseoglu, Sonya Akay

Producer: Kenan Korkmaz

Screenwriter: Kenan Korkmaz

Director of Photography: Kenan Korkmaz

Editor: Kenan Korkmaz

Music: Rahsan Izmirli Oguz

International Sales: Sparks Network

In Aramaic, Kurdish, Swedish and Turkish

126 minutes

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