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Watchtower (Gozetleme kulesi): Rotterdam Review

Watchtower Still - H 2013
TIFF

The Bottom Line

Slow-burning, socially-conscious melodrama is a disappointingly conventional second fiction-feature from one of Turkey's more promising writer-directors.

Venue

Rotterdam Film Festival (Competition)

Olgun Simsek and Nilay Erdonmez star in the third film by Turkish writer-director Pelin Esmer, set in a ruggedly mountainous area of the Anatolian hinterland.

Having established herself as a leading light of new Turkish cinema with the documentary Play (2005) and 2009's outstanding 10 to 11, a feature with non-fiction elements, writer-director Pelin Esmer stumbles with her first fully fictional outing, Watchtower (Gozetleme kulesi). This tale of an unlikely couple overcoming tragic and painful traumas to come together in a remote, mountainous area is essentially an old-fashioned romantic melodrama told in the slow-paced, reflective mode that's become the default style for arthouse fare worldwide.

Having premiered at Toronto last fall, the film won a brace of prizes at Adana in Turkey before popping up in competition at Rotterdam, where it fared better with the public than critics. Indeed, of the 16 Tiger competitors, it was the highest-placed in the voting for the Audience Award at  No. 27, no fewer than 31 spots ahead of the next-best, local contender Resurrection of a Bastard. This suggests that with suitable handling, the Turkish-German-French co-production could have a shot at arthouse play in receptive territories.

Having so pungently evoked the atmosphere of Istanbul in 10 to 11, which featured Esmer's uncle essentially cast as himself, the director now returns to the kind of far-flung territory she chronicled in Play. Dipsiz Gol, in an underpopulated northern area roughly equidistant between the capital Ankara and the Black Sea, boasts unspoiled terrain of peaks and forests, the latter overseen by firewatchers based in rudimentary lighthouse-type structures perched upon the former. The film follows the experiences of a new firewatcher, Nihat (Olgun Simsek), a thirtysomething former carpenter who relishes the solitude provided by his new occupation, some 4,600 feet above sea level.

He makes occasional excursions to a nearby village to stock up on supplies, and it's here that he meets the younger Seher (Nilay Erdonmez), an educated, intelligent tour-guide/cafe-worker who, like Nihat, is dealing with the aftermath of traumatic, deeply personal events. It's quite obvious from early on that Seher and Nihat are two lonely, damaged souls who will ultimately find solace in each other's company, and Esmer's methods of bringing this about aren't particularly surprising or original. Indeed, the picture is predictable and even schematic on a scene-by-scene basis and in terms of the overall narrative. But there are pleasures to be found in the two central performances, and Esmer's indictment of Turkey's lack of social infrastructure is no less eloquent for being so understated. A pity, then, that a crucial sequence involving childbirth is handled so clumsily, knocking this downbeat movie out of its stride to the extent that it never quite recovers. 

Dialogue is sparingly deployed, with much glum staring into middle-distances -- though given the breathtaking vistas afforded by the title's structure, gazing into the void is an understandably tempting pastime. That said, despite the watchtower's panoramic perspectives, the geography of the film's various locations is never quite sufficiently clear, a nagging distraction that becomes all the more problematic given the underpowered nature of Esmer's formulaic screenplay. Once the business of bringing together the two leads is accomplished around the hour mark, the pace starts to flag, and the second half becomes increasingly laborious all the way to the dampish squib of an ending. 

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Olgun Simsek, Nilay Erdonmez, Menderes Samancilar, Lacin Ceylan, Riza Akin

Production company: Sinefilm
Director / Screenwriter: Pelin Esmer
Producers: Pelin Esmer, Tolga Esmer, Nida Karabol Akdeniz
Director of photography: Ozgur Eken

Production designer: Osman Ozcan
Costume designer: Asu Kizilirmak
Editors: Ayhan Ergursel, Pelin Esmer
Sales agent: Visit FIlms, New York
No MPAA rating, 100 minutes