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A film about a 14-year-old boy helping out his father at work in a rural outpost on the sea would probably feature gorgeous landscapes but wouldn’t necessarily make for an interesting story. But Gaza, the protagonist of the hard-hitting Turkish drama More (Daha), isn’t just any teen, and his father, involved in smuggling people from the war-torn Middle East into nearby Greece, doesn’t just have any old job. Turkish actor Onur Saylak (Autumn) makes an auspicious debut as a director here, turning Hakan Gunday’s ink-black novel of despair into a film that’s a hard sit but that suggests an awful lot — awful being the operative word — about the world we live in today.
After its world premiere in competition at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this should travel far and wide and drum up significant interest for whatever Saylak decides to do next as a director.
Ahad (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) is a heavy-set man with an equally heavy brow who exploits opportunities wherever he sees them and who expects unquestioned loyalty from the handful of people he works with, including his most loyal aid, Gaza (Hayat Van Eck), his teenage boy. The adolescent, with vivid and alert eyes and a can-do attitude that is probably more rooted in his relative innocence than in his character, is curious about the world and a good student. He’s been secretly testing for a good school in faraway Istanbul, though Dad isn’t very interested in his academic results, telling him to “f— school,” and that’s hardly the first sign he’s not an ideal parent.
Ahad — which, when read backwards, spells Daha, the film’s Turkish title — owns a small truck that he nominally transports fruit and vegetables with along the coast. But the vehicle is also used to take especially Syrian refugees from a nearby marsh to the large but dark basement underneath Ahad’s garage and from there, when the weather allows it, onto a boat that will take them to nearby Greece. Refugees generally seem to stay a couple of days in transit in the underground store room, during which Gaza is charged with making them food and distributing water bottles.
The task isn’t an easy one, but initially Gaza seems to tackle it like any complex challenge at school. There are cultural and language barriers — Syrians don’t speak Turkish and Turks don’t speak Arabic — but the boy manages to do a good job and even tries to improve the refugees’ living standards somewhat by reorganizing the cellar. Whether to show his appreciation or to try and convince him to stay at home rather than leave him behind and move to the big city, Ahad allows Gaza to smoke and drink and feel like he’s an adult. He even offers him to become a partner, rather than an apprentice, in his booming refugee business.
Neither of the men is a big talker, so Saylak, who co-penned the adaptation with Dogu Yasar Akal and Gunday, has to use other means to communicate what the men are thinking and how their characters are evolving. One of the main conduits of information is their physical reaction to some extreme occurrences, starting with one of the film’s most intense sequences, in which Dad drags a female refugee from the basement into their home one night to rape her. This has happened before and is amply foreshadowed, so it is not much of a surprise when it occurs. What does surprise is the way in which Saylak stages the rape, suggesting its extremely violent impact on both the poor refugee and the perpetrator’s son while keeping the actual rape entirely offscreen.
As the woman tries to escape the horror, Ahad finally manages to catch her and he brutalizes her in the corridor while director of photography Feza Caldiran stays in Gaza’s tiny bedroom. As if to literally block out what’s happening, the upset teen has closed his bedroom door and has sat down against it, with first the woman banging on the door for help and then a horrific pounding heard as Ahad has his way with her right behind the door. Gaza, who is the only one in the frame, can’t help but put his hands over his ears, a gesture that at once suggests how aggressive the assault is — the soundwork is appropriately terrifying — but which simultaneously reduces Gaza to something of a child, as he knows what’s happening but won’t do anything about it but pretend he can’t hear it.
There are more scenes that rely on other things than dialogue for their very visceral impact, though Saylak doesn’t always know how to exploit them for maximum impact. A rap song that Gaza has heard from some local boys, for example, seems to toughen his resolve and at one point serves as a way to prep him for a possible confrontation with his father. But the sequence — one of many that showcase the impressive and raw talents of Van Eyck — is all setup and no payoff, as Gaza, chanting the song’s chorus and mock-fighting, works up the courage to see eye-to-eye with his brute of a father. Ahad then arrives to confront his son, but Saylak suddenly skips ahead to the next, seemingly unrelated scene.
There are a few other small missteps like this, as well as some elements that are unnecessary. They include a sporadic voiceover from the older (but never seen) Gaza that reeks of literary pretension and actually distances the viewer more from the 14-year-old’s point-of-view rather than bringing him closer and a couple of very specific time-jumps — “78 days more” — that not only sound awkward in English (perhaps the nod to the title makes more sense in Turkish?) but don’t really add anything. Even so (spoiler ahead), More remains a tautly structured, carefully crescendoing story of a young boy full of promise whose potential and innate goodness are slowly being ground to a pulp by those around him who, and this is the real tragedy, in turn once probably were bright young things themselves. The bitter irony of becoming a heartless human while handling refugees that are escaping worse situations on their way to what they hope will be a better life makes More not only hard to watch but also announces Saylak as a very gifted storyteller who can handle complex material with impressive directorial confidence.
For the record, the film received no state funding from Turkey and was made only with private backing.
Production companies: Ay Yapim, Bit Arts
Cast: Hayat Van Eck, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Turgut Tuncalp, Tankut Yildiz, Tuba Buyukustun
Director: Onur Saylak
Screenplay: Hakan Gunday, Onur Saylak, Dogu Yasar Akal, based on the novel by Hakan Gunday
Producer: Kerem Catay
Director of photography: Feza Caldiran
Production designers: Dilek Ayaztuna, Aykut Ayaztuna
Editor: Ali Aga
Music: Uygur Yigit
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales: Heretic Outreach
In Turkish, Arabic