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A stylish but underpowered psychological thriller set in contemporary Turkey, Inflame is a local story with a timely universal message about fake news and Orwellian manipulation of history. Premiering in Berlin this week, it marks the feature debut of writer-director Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik, who previously produced and hosted a long-running cinema-themed TV show. Partly funded with a crowd-sourcing campaign, Inflame feels a little too cryptic and arty to make any serious waves outside the festival circuit, but it is a technically accomplished and atmospheric work from a rising young auteur.
Hasret (Algi Eke) works as a video editor at an Istanbul TV news station where the times are clearly a-changing. When her bosses start imposing official editorial lines, she becomes increasingly unsettled by the muzzling of any anti-government dissent. Fleeing from a job she has come to hate, Hasret hides away in her apartment in a historic neighborhood that is earmarked for demolition and regeneration. All around her, whole city districts are being erased and rebranded, an act of collective amnesia that mirrors the film’s key themes.
After she isolates herself at home, Hasret’s paranoia only worsens as she suffers audio and visual hallucinations. Her apartment rumbles, bangs and drones with no clear cause. The walls feel burning hot, and she overheats constantly. She also begins to obsess over the death of her parents, Anatolian folk musicians who officially died in a car crash 20 years ago, seeing uncomfortable parallels between their tragic fate and current examples of dissident Turkish artists being censored and oppressed.
Only made explicit in the final credits, the real-life backstory that underpins Inflame occurred in 1993 in the central Turkish city of Sivas, when an angry mob of Sunni Muslims stormed and torched a hotel that was hosting an arts conference. Their main target was the left-wing writer and humorist Aziz Nesin, who had incensed religious zealots by publishing parts of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses in Turkey. Nesin survived the attack but 35 others died, mostly artists and intellectuals from the minority Alevi branch of Islam.
As its bitter aftershocks continue to reverberate through Turkey’s legal system, the Sivas massacre is still annually mourned as a historic assault on free speech and liberal secular values, which have come under threat again recently during Recep Tayyip Edogan’s increasingly authoritarian regime. One of those murdered in 1993 was a feted folk musician called Hasret Gultekin, which may explain why Ozcelik gave her heroine a musical family background and the same name, Hasret, which has unisex application in Turkish. Sadly, these resonances will only strike a chord with native Turks and scholars of recent Turkish history, limiting the film’s potential dramatic impact overseas.
Painted in muted autumnal shades, Inflame is visually impressive for such a modest production, especially in its liberal use of lengthy tracking shots and incongruously lyrical tableaux of Istanbul’s colossal high-rise construction sites. Sound design and music are also effectively deployed to invoke Hasret’s frayed mental state.
Sadly, promising hints of psycho-horror classics like Roman Polanski’s home-alone thriller Repulsion dissipate before they can muster any real shocks. Let down by its frustratingly disjointed and diffuse narrative, Inflame is very much a debut film. It feels like Ozcelik has important things to say, but has not yet figured out the cinematic language to articulate them.
Production companies: Istanbul Film Production, EHY Film Production, Filmada
Cast: Algi Eke, Ozgur Cevik, Asiye Dincsoy, Selen Ucer
Director, screenwriter: Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik
Producers: Adnan M. Sapci, Sadik Ekinci, Emre Oskay, Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik, Armagan Lale
Cinematographer: Radek Ladczuk
Editor: Ahmet Can Cakirca
Music: Ekin Fil
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Sales company: m-appeal, Berlin
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