'Sivas': Venice Review

Biennale di Venezia
This looks great even if the story and pint-sized protagonist don't really know what they want  

This Turkish film about a boy and his dog ain't no 'Lassie'

The movie might be about a little boy and his dog, but Turkish director Kaan Mujdeci's unflinching feature debut, Sivas, ain't no Lassie. Set in the brutal world of dog fighting in rural eastern Anatolia, this is a strikingly photographed but narratively somewhat baggy tale of a country kid who doesn't yet know the difference between being right and just wanting to have his way. A high-profile Venice competition slot should help this feature get noticed on the festival circuit, and theatrical distribution in cinephile countries such as France is likely. However, in straightforward marketing terms, the precise target audience for a film like Sivas is hard to pin down, since it's much too violent for kids yet doesn't give anyone over 12 or on just two legs more than a passing glance.

The protagonist of the film is not, as the title suggests, the eponymous Kangal sheep dog, which is not only called Sivas but is also actually from the city of Sivas (where Kangal dogs are believed to have originated). Instead, that honor goes to the imposing — in attitude if not in size — 11-year-old smartypants Aslan (Dogan Izci), which appropriately means "lion" in Turkish.

The film's leisurely first half-hour sketches the rather regular life of Aslan in the small Anatolian village where he lives with his parents (Banu Fotocan, Hasan Yazilitilas) and adult brother, Sahin (Ozan Celik). The boy is the kind of kid who tries to impress his peers from school and who, when he's cast as one of the seven dwarfs in a school production of Snow White, becomes irritable because of course he deserved to be the prince since his crush, Ayse (Ezgi Ergin), plays the lead. Aslan's also worried he might have killed a horse Sahin entrusted to him when throwing a stone. In this first section, Mujdeci keeps the camera close to the ground to match the eyelines of the pint-sized protagonists and is never in a hurry. Indeed, initially it is the kind of film where even a leaking pipe in the family stable gets its moment in the arty spotlight.

But the film's second act sees more action as the titular animal is finally introduced at a vicious and impressively staged dogfight, where Sivas loses and is subsequently left for dead by its owners. Little Aslan is the only one who notices the dog's still breathing and decides to stay by its side until Sahin has to come and pick him up after dark. Something of a conventional plot seems to develop when the lionhearted tyke tries to impress Ayse with "his" dog, which he's practically adopted and which none of the adults seem to think might potentially be a danger. Aslan even goes as far as staging a dogfight with another canine brought along by their classmates. This savage struggle, dramatically staged in the center of an extremely large wide shot and in a single take, again impresses and makes one pray there's a "no animals where harmed" notice in the end credits (thankfully, there is).

But just as the film seems to have found its groove, the third act again offers something else as his potential puppy-love interest drops from view, as do the other kids from Aslan's class, which he started skipping and for which there seems to be no real punishment. Instead, some of the adults of his family as well as the village head (Muttalip Mujdeci) decide to take Sivas and Aslan to the "national championship" of the illegal blood sport, near Ankara.

What's there in terms of story thus often feels secondary to a sense of place and character, but thankfully Mudjeci at least reveals an impeccable sense of how composition can suggest emotions and make situations dramatically more dynamic. The Berlin-based director, whose 2012 documentary short Fathers & Sons also look at dogfights in Turkey, has a natural flair for disposing the elements to their maximum advantage in his widescreen frames. For example, when he tries to ask his schoolteacher (Okan Avci) for the already-cast role of Snow White's prince, Aslan's face is half hidden by a garden wall, suggesting his head knows he should be ashamed, but at the same time he's still courageous enough to go and ask what his heart desires.

Indeed, the best thing about Sivas is the sense of the uncomfortable age at which Aslan finds himself, no longer a true kid but not yet a full-fledged teenager either. Small domestic details, such as the occasionally epic, entirely unreasonable tantrums — one involving him shedding his clothes as he keeps throwing stones at his father and brother is especially remarkable — and his refusal to let his mother wash him, send the appropriately mixed messages about his state of maturity. And as Aslan, the nonprofessional Izci, often very intense, is a true find who's nicely supported by a cast composed of a mix of nonprofessionals and actors.

Production companies: Kaan Film, Coloured Giraffes, Ret Film
Cast: Dogan Izci, Hasan Ozdemir, Ezgi Ergin, Furkan Uyar, Ozan Celik, Muttalip Mujdeci, Banu Fotocan, Hasan Yazilitilas, Okan Avci
Writer-Director: Kaan Mujdeci
Producer: Yasin Mujdeci
Co-producers: Nesra Gurbuz, Cigdem Mater
Directors of photography: Armin Dieroff, Martin Hogsnes Solvang
Production designers: Meral Efe Yurtsever, Emre Yurtsever
Costume designer: Ayse Yildiz
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Music: Cevdet Erek

No rating, 97 minutes