'Civilian' ('Sivil'): Mumbai Review

Courtesy of Istanbul International Film Festival
A patient and poised take about the mental casualties of war.

Turkish director Levent Cetin's feature-film debut revolves around a former soldier's struggle to adjust to ordinary life.

Making his feature-film directorial debut, Levent Cetin has chosen a subject commonly found in Euro-American cinema but only now finding footing in Turkey: the post-traumatic stress disorder among young conscripts haunted by their acts of killing in the name of their country. Produced while Ankara and Kurdish guerillas were at a detente last year — a fraught peace now at the precipice as Turkish military jets launched an airstrike on the guerillas earlier this week — Civilian, which follows its premiere at the Istanbul International Film Festival with an appearance this week in Mumbai, is a timely piece that aims to take stock of a creeping emergence of problems among a new generation of demobbed young men.

There has been a spike in films about the fear and destruction suffered by Turkey's ethnic minorities in the country's long-running campaigns against separatism in the southeast of the country Civilian could be seen as a Turkish equivalent to Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, which tackles the scars of Israeli soldiers seen by some of the world (and sometimes by themselves) as guilty aggressors. At the center of Civilian is Emrah (a controlled performance by Umrut Sakallioglu), who begins the film mainly strolling along highways or shifting listlessly at home. He can't connect with his mother (Meltem Savci), is estranged from his girlfriend (Pinar Goktas) and is frequently awakened by nightmares of a particular episode during his military service: These flashbacks, spread throughout the film, gradually reveal his role in a deadly ambush on some guerillas.

Read More Come to My Voice (Were Dengê Min/Sesime Gel): Istanbul Review

All this is suppressed, however, as Emrah refuses to say even a single word about this experience: "I did it and came back — that's all" is the most he will say about his time in the field, as his confusion grows with ever spiraling bad dream about death and self-destruction. With the protagonist never really addressing the context of his problems, exposition of the circumstances come through audible (and subtitled) snippets of TV news bulletins.

Cetin steers clear of histrionics throughout the film, as drops hints about Emrah's past and present predicaments as the film moves along. The character's detachment from normalcy lies in the details: appearing downcast and disoriented while told off by his supervisor at his new job as a night watchman, he perks up suddenly when the boss brings up the concept of discipline - to which he responds slightly more energetically with a "yes, sir." It's a Pavlovian reaction that speaks volumes about his inability to purge the military mindset from within him.

Read More Oscars: Turkey Nominates 'Winter Sleep' in Foreign Language Category

Shot on a modest budget, Civilian limits itself to the most basic of settings - but Cetin's sharp editing meshes well with his lead character's monochrome, no-nonsense existence, intercut with splattered images of the past. While there are some tropes that might prove to be a bit forced - the brief (and quickly extinguished) flicker of affection for a stranger, for example - they are never relied upon as convenient devices for the development of the narrative.

Production company: Plot Film
Cast: Umrut Sakallioglu, Pinar Goktas, Munibe Millet, Meltem Savci
Director: Levent Cetin
Screenwriter: Levent Cetin
Producers: Levent Cetin
Executive producer: Dilek Aydin
Director of photography: Orcun Ozkilinc
Editor: Levent Cetin
Sound Designers: Ozgur Akgul, Dincer Demirci
International Sales: Plot Film
In Turkish
No rating; 79 minutes