'Song of My Mother': Sarajevo Review
Prize-winning family drama about Kurdish refugees in modern-day Istanbul suffers from an excess of understatement
A moving meditation on love, memory and cultural identity set among the Kurdish community in contemporary Turkey, Song of My Mother struck gold last week at the 20th annual Sarajevo Film Festival, taking home the big prizes for best film and best actor. This bittersweet family drama is an impressively mature feature debut from writer-director Erol Mintas, who only scraped together the final postproduction costs using crowdsourced donations.
Austere and restrained in style, Song of My Mother is an archetypal festival film that should pick up more bookings after Sarajevo, especially considering it has French and German co-production credits. But the slow paced, open-ended story and opaque treatment of complex political issues will make it a tough sell beyond local markets and dedicated art house connoisseurs.
Set in 1992, the powerful opening sequence features a schoolteacher in a remote Kurdish village delighting his preteen class with a lively fable about a crow that dreams of becoming a peacock. But his story is cut short by the arrival of armed men who drag him from the school and drive him away. This ominous abduction is never fully explained, but it sends ripples through main plot, which takes place 20 years later in the high-rise suburbs of Istanbul.
Sarajevo prize-winner Feyyaz Duman, recently seen in more heroic mode in last year’s Cannes entry My Sweet Pepper Land, stars as Ali, a handsome schoolteacher and author whose Kurdish ancestry makes him a target for routine police harassment. He shares a cramped Istanbul apartment with his elderly mother, Nigar (Zubeyde Ronahi), who constantly nags him with impossible plans of returning to her village home. Engagingly played by nonprofessional Ronahi, Nigar is a compelling mix of proud matriarch and passive-aggressive martyr, a layered portrait that will strike a painfully authentic note among viewers with aging relatives.
Ali patiently plays the dutiful son, trying to placate his mother by seeking out ancient cassette tapes of her favorite Kurdish dengbej singers. But his all-consuming dedication to the high-maintenance Nigar only amplifies tension with his long-suffering Turkish girlfriend, Zeynep (Nesrin Cavadzade), who is pushing for them to start a family of their own. The stunning Cavadzade has minimal screen time, but Mintas sketches the fault lines between Zeynep and Ali in a few sad, elegant strokes.
Featuring a spare, mournful score by Basar Under and cautiously framed in mostly hand-held shots by George Chiper-Lillemark, Song of My Mother has a downbeat audiovisual grammar to match its understated script. Mintas is working with quality ingredients here, but he allows the film’s energy to dissipate in its second half, with too much repetition and dramatic inertia. The lack of any context about the long, ongoing conflict between Turks and Kurds is another alienating factor for nonlocal audiences. This quietly assured debut may well signal the birth of a noteworthy new voice in Turkish cinema, but he will need to shout a bit louder next time.
Production companies: Mintas Films, Arizona Productions, Mitosfilm
Cast: Feyyaz Duman, Zubeyde Ronahi, Nesrin Cavadzade
Director: Erol Mintas
Screenwriter: Erol Mintas
Producers: Asli Erdem, Erol Mitas, Guillaume de Selle, Mehmet Aktas
Cinematographer: George Chiper-Lillemark
Editor: Alexandru Radu
Music: Basar Under
Sales company: Mintas Films
No rating, 103 minutes
Aug. 25, 6:05 p.m. Updated with links to THR stories.