Writer-director Mehmet Akif Buyukatalay ably toys with our preconceptions in the unsettling opening scene of his assured debut, Oray, winner of the best first feature award at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. As the title character, played with charismatic intensity by Zejhun Demirov, addresses an unseen group while looking directly into the camera, he speaks of his awakening while serving time in prison for burglary, an experience that made him question the value of his life. “Either Islam or nothing,” he says. “Heaven or Hell.”
Those uncompromising words create the false impression that what Oray is describing is the now sadly familiar route to radicalization, but instead he speaks of his embrace of religious fellowship among the Muslim brotherhood. That focus on community within a network of first- and second-generation immigrant men living in Germany makes this intimate drama a compelling reflection on faith, even if its increasingly grim nature also brands it as challenging material.
The contrasting degree of religious commitment between Oray, who describes himself as “a Macedonian gypsy of Ottoman origins,” and his wife, Burcu (Deniz Orta), is conveyed with swift economy in a shot framed through their half-open bedroom door. He kneels on a prayer rug while she sits up in bed playing with her smartphone. When he snuggles up and tries to wrestle it away from her, she resists, resulting in a physical tussle that starts playfully but gets out of hand. Burcu storms off, slamming doors, and when he later tries to contact her, she blocks his calls. In a hotheaded moment, Oray shouts the Islamic word for separation, “talaq,” in a voicemail message, then immediately regrets it, begging her not to listen.
The fearsome power of that single word hangs over Oray’s head for the remainder of the film. A religious scholar friend informs him that under Islamic law, he and his wife must live as strangers for three months, that merely pronouncing the word has made her “haram,” or forbidden, to him. Burcu is more elastic in her beliefs, and having cooled off, she tries to talk Oray out of leaving their home in Hagen. But Oray is serious about his faith and his atonement, relocating to Cologne to make the separation more practical.
That change of air turns out to be good for him as a man looking for direction in his life. He finds work at a local street market and gets a deal on an apartment that becomes a meeting place for fellow Turks to reflect on matters of faith — the unseen men Oray was addressing in the pre-titles sequence.
He’s an eloquent, impassioned speaker whose natural leadership skills emerge, notably when he takes young Kosovan petty thief Ebu Bekir (Mikael Bajrami) under his wing to provide spiritual guidance. The new recruit’s tech savvy gets put to use as they begin live-streaming their meetings, reaching a larger group. These scenes are a sharp reminder of how rarely we see screen depictions of Muslim men not spewing ISIS rhetoric but simply figuring out what it means to nurture their religious heritage in a foreign community.
Oray is both pleased and disconcerted when Burcu pays him a surprise visit in a melancholy reunion graced by tenderness. The break appears to have brought them closer together, even if Oray is defying the separation rule. But it also scratches at the wound of his transgression, and when Bilal (Cem Goktas), the imam who seems threatened by Oray’s growing stature as a preacher, tells him that saying “talaq” three times dictates a definitive divorce, Oray is torn between staying true to the strict laws of his faith or saving his marriage.
Demirov has a potent screen presence, holding nothing back in a wrenching performance as Oray steadily unravels while struggling with the festering conflict. Orta also brings tremendous warmth and emotional investment to Burcu, increasingly shut out by her husband’s dilemma — the marginalization of women in the film is significant. Oray‘s escalating climactic scenes are perhaps a touch too unrelentingly dour, but Buyukatalay’s impressive control of the drama, his able use of a naturalistic, quasi-documentary style, his seamless mix of professional and nonprofessional actors and the probing quality of cinematographer Christian Kochmann’s handheld camerawork make this a feature debut that commands attention.
Production companies: FilmFaust Filmproduktion, in association with KHM, ZDF
Cast: Zejhun Demirov, Deniz Orta, Cem Goktas, Mikael Bajrami, Ferhat Keskin, Faris Yuzbasioglu, Kais Setti, Firat Baris Ar, Sahin Eryilmaz, Ramon Machtolf
Director-screenwriter: Mehmet Akif Buyukatalay
Producers: Bastian Klugel, Claus Reichel
Director of photography: Christian Kochmann
Production designer: Jeanette Bastisch
Costume designer: Marisa Lattmann
Editor: Denys Darahan
Casting director: Kerstin Neuwirth
Venue: Provincetown International Film Festival
Sales: Pluto Film