'Until I Lose My Breath' ('Nefesim Kesilene Kadar'): Berlin Review

Another gritty slice of over-the-shoulder urban realism, though one with a somewhat unfamiliar setting

Turkish writer-director Emine Emel Balci makes her feature debut in Berlin’s Forum section

Ever since Rosetta won the Palme d’Or back in 1999, movies about working-class characters scraping by in hostile worlds, while a camera trails them from behind, have abounded in contemporary world cinema – to the point that the Dardenne Bros. have inadvertently launched their own genre. Call it the Dardenner, as in: “I went to see a new Dardenner from Brazil the other day. It was good but I didn’t like the ending.”

The latest such example is Until I Lose My Breath (Nefesim Kesilene Kadar), a debut feature from writer-director Emine Emel Balci that follows a harried textile worker trying to rent a flat in Istanbul, in the hopes of living with her estranged father. It’s a movie that offers a grim, gritty view of blue-collar life in Turkey, especially for a girl with few friends or family members to count on. And it clearly has its heart in the right place.

But as a Dardenner it brings nothing new to the table, dishing out the requisite shot-from-the-back-of-the head aesthetics while building a quotidian story that takes too long to work itself out – even if the conclusion is satisfying enough. Festival play and a few European art house slots await this Turkish-German co-production, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum sidebar.

Serap (Esme Madra) is a thin, ghostly pale “runner” in a local sweatshop, carting tissue back and forth under the stern regard of her aptly named boss, Sultan (Sema Kecik). When she’s not working – or sleeping at work on a roll of fabric – Serap lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who only care about the monthly rent.

But the girl has bigger plans, saving every Lira she can to pay for an apartment she’s hoping to share with her dad, Musatafa (Riza Akin), a truck driver who pops in and out of the picture with little concern for his daughter’s welfare. Meanwhile, Serap takes a liking to Yusuf (Ugur Uzunel), a delivery boy who swings by the factory and makes small talk with the other workers, including her sometime friend, Dilber (Gizem Denizci).

With the various plot elements in place, Balci – who co-directed the documentary Ich Liebe Dich, about Turkish women following their husbands to Germany – proceeds to track her heroine through thick and thin as she desperately tries to amass enough funds for a rental deposit, living out of plastic bags and showering in a public bathroom. Gradually, we learn a few key details about Serap’s life, such as the fact that her father abandoned the family at a certain point, forcing her to spend time in an orphanage.

Such tidbits help distinguish a character who remains purposely opaque throughout the film, avoiding genuine human contact and focusing all her energy on living with her dad – a man who seems to have other plans for himself. Serap’s obsessive quest guides the entire story, yet it never becomes engaging enough – either because the girl herself refuses to open up, or because there’s such a sense of Dardenner deja-vu here that the movie feels redundant, even if the Turkish setting is somewhat new.

To that extent, Until I Lose My Breath is most memorable for its portrayal of a laboring underclass trying to get by on the fringes of Istanbul, which DP Murat Tuncel depicts as an urban labyrinth of grimy streets and gray skies. Sticking forever by Serap’s side (or shoulder or neck), the filmmakers coax a strong turn out of Madra, who makes her feature debut as a lowly lost girl with dreams of a better life – in a movie that remains too ensconced in reality to dream itself.

Production companies: Prolog Film, Unafilm
Cast: Esme Madra, Riza Akin, Sema Kecik, Gizem Denizci, Ece Yuksel
Director, screenwriter: Emine Emel Balci
Producers: Nadir Operli, Titus Kreyenberg
Director of photography: Murat Tuncel
Production designers: Meral Efe Yurtseven, Yunus Emre Yurtseven
Costume designer: Manfred Schneider
Editor: Dora Vajda
Casting director: Ezgi Baltas
Festival programmer: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 94 minutes