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IN FOCUS

Finding a Turkey that’s rural and urban, far away and close to home

From "A Few Ordinary Days."
From "A Few Ordinary Days."Boston Turkish Festival Documentary and Short Film Competition


Everywhere economic and political change brings about isolation, migration, and anomie. Many of the films in the Boston Turkish Festival’s Documentary and Short Film Competition (Nov. 12-Dec. 15; I am one of the jurors) confront Turkey’s experience with these problems of social displacement and disruption. Two documentaries in particular approach the theme with artfulness, subtlety, and subversion.

Pınar Okan’s bittersweet and nuanced “A Few Ordinary Days” looks at four kids during four seasons in four rural parts of Turkey’s vast Anatolia region. The scenery is gorgeous, their lives are simple and rewarding, but the agricultural economy their families rely on is dying and most of the young people are leaving the villages for the cities.

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But these four want to stay. Not that their lives are perfect. In the summer Mehmet’s day starts before the sun comes up and he rides with his mother and father in a horse-drawn cart to a field by the sea where they harvest tobacco. Later he herds the goats who sometimes wander off and ruin a neighbor’s olive trees. He can find these chores onerous, but he has friends to play with and he doesn’t want things to change — though he wishes his dad would buy him a motorbike, or at least a new soccer ball.

In the fall Arda goes fishing with his father on the lake. A rainbow arcs across the sky. Some days he gathers olives in an Edenic landscape. Unfortunately, his parents want him to leave the village where the fishing and olives earn almost nothing and go to Istanbul or Ankara like his brother, who is attending university. But Arda finds cities too big and noisy, too crowded, and full of cars.

Ismail leads a long line of goats across hills that are two meters deep in snow. Despite the arctic conditions, he is grinning and looks exhilarated and plans to go sledding with his pals. But his mother is sick, and they must move to the city. “Who will be my friend?” he asks. “I’m afraid.” He’ll miss all the animals.

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Halide loves animals, too. She wakes up on a spring morning with two kittens on her lap; and her best friend is a rangy mutt named General. Her father seems to be doing well growing tea, but there aren’t many kids around to play with, except for snobby Ahmet, who visits from Istanbul at harvest time. “Aren’t you bored here?” he asks Halide. She shakes her head.

From "The Stone in the Well."
From "The Stone in the Well."Boston Turkish Festival Documentary and Short Film Competition

What might await those who leave for the cities can be seen in Gökçin Dokumacı's “The Stone in the Well.” His vision of Istanbul differs from that of Ceyda Torun’s delightful cat’s eye view of the city seen in “Kedi” (2016). There is nothing picturesque about this Istanbul’s squalid back alleys and crumbling buildings. The few cats seen are not cute and lovable but battered and mean, chasing away the gulls trying to eat their kittens. They are one-eyed and vicious and fight over rancid meat.

Dokumacı focuses on people living on the fringe of the city whose circumstances are no less precarious than that of the cats. An elderly legless man with vestigial arms nods as his friend, a black-bearded fellow with wild, kindly eyes and a porkpie hat, explains how digging will release history and the countless dead under the city. He helps the disabled man drink water and gives him a cigarette, lamenting that people make fun of his friend because he smells.

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Both, it is soon evident, are insane, lapsing into incoherence that at times is illuminated by an elusive poetry.

They are among the eight subjects — glum, ecstatic, paranoid, or sinister — who deliver similar monologues. Themes evolve, as the subjects apparently respond to unheard off-screen questions about friendship, climate change, the Internet, animals, jobs, favorite colors. The answers exfoliate into free association, obsessions, disordered thought, and unexpected insights.

To capture their point of view, Dokumacı intercuts their words with slow-motion images, time-lapse photography, reverse motion, jump cuts, ominous subliminal imagery, and an agitating, rhythmic soundtrack. These devices are striking but sometimes distract from the the words of these lost souls, which often sound like prophecies. “I know the true mystery,” says one. “I don’t want to say what it is.”

Go to www.bostonturkishfestival.org/competition.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.