Masterpiece of the coded message

James Robertson reviews ‘Journey to the sun’ by Yesim Ustaoglu, Turkey/Germany 1999, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Turkish with English subtitles

This film focuses on two working class men in Turkey. The first is Berzan (Nazmi Oirix), who is a Kurd from the east of Turkey. Mehmet (Newroz Baz) is from the west - it is not clear whether he is a non-Kurd or merely a Kurd who is trying to abandon his identity. In any case, it is academic, because Mehmet’s dark skin leads to police assuming that he is. Some way into the film, he will change his hair colour in a vain attempt to escape ethnic stereotyping.

There are strong hints that Berzan is politicised in some way. Mehmet sees Berzan on TV being arrested during a protest in support of prison hunger strikers. Berzan says it was “nothing”. No political parties are mentioned in the film, but he sells cassettes from a box which has a yellow and green sign on it. These, plus red, are the Kurdish colours, and the sign is lingered on more than once, conveying the impression that the viewer is to take note. The omission of red may have a significance I will come to later. And in one scene on a bus, Berzan conceals a young woman’s ID at an army checkpoint. She has her hair cut short and wears a scarf in the style of women guerrillas. Berzan says to her, “They nearly got us that time.”

Berzan is possibly older than Mehmet, and certainly comes across as more mature and experienced. They get to know one another after Berzan’s car is set upon by football fans, presumably fascists, who demand he toot his horn to support Turkey. When he does not do so, this shows he is a “fucking Kurd”. Mehmet, who is passing by, comes to his aid and they flee for safety into an apartment.

Later Mehmet is arrested by the police at a roadblock while travelling on an Istanbul bus. A bag containing a revolver is found. A bearded man gets off the bus just before the roadblock, and we presume that the bag is his. Mehmet is interrogated about the gun, and asked which party he belongs to. He denies that the gun is his or that he is a ‘terrorist’. His girlfriend (Mizgin Kapazan) comes to the police station, and is told by an old woman that she has been coming to the police station for weeks, waiting for news of her son who was arrested.

Eventually Mehmet is released, badly bruised. He goes to his workplace, and falls asleep. When he wakes up, his work colleagues tell him he has to go, because “they” have painted a red cross on the door, and “we’re all fucked”. Mehmet may be out of the police station, but he is not out of the prison that is Turkey. Clutching his only possession, a portable TV, he has a brief street encounter with a Russian-speaking prostitute - they are both outsiders, both the wretched of the earth.

He meets up with Berzan, who tries to help him, but Mehmet finds that he is unemployable, a pariah followed by a red cross, one who needs to stay out of the way of the police.

Then Berzan is reported killed. Repeatedly in the film, TV and radio reports of a prison hunger strike feature, and we last see Berzan in apparent TV news footage, being set upon by riot police. Mehmet and his girlfriend claim the body, though the official in the morgue at first will not allow it because they are not family members. At this point, his girlfriend’s parents drive up and take her back with them, and she disappears from the film.

Mehmet is left alone with Berzan’s coffin, determined to take it to Berzan’s home village in the east. He steals a lorry and takes the coffin. After various incidents he gets on to a train and shares a compartment with a fair-skinned young man from his own village who is doing army service. The man says he is a commando, and wishes he had never been assigned “out here”. When a policeman comes into the compartment asking for IDs, the army soldier says Mehmet is travelling with him, possibly saving Mehmet from a hard time at the hands of the police.

Finally, Mehmet gets to Berzan’s home village, which is deserted, flooded and has red crosses painted on several doors. He floats Berzan’s coffin off into the water, and the film ends. The credits showed that a European Union fund had contributed to financing the film.

Ustaoglu, the film’s director and screenwriter, answered some questions from the audience. She said red crosses were painted on the doors of Alevis and Kurds in the 1970s, and news reports suggested the practice was making a comeback. She said the film had had a limited screening in Turkey and she was hoping it would receive permission to be shown more widely.

This may explain a lack of political detail in the film. For example, two of the Kurdish colours feature on Berzan’s sign, but not all three. Perhaps this is a concession to allow the film not to be interpreted as ‘terrorist propaganda’. No political parties are mentioned by name, the fascist football fans do not display any insignia or give the grey wolves hand signal as in real life, and the organisations or demands of the hunger-strikers are not mentioned, only the fact they are on hunger strike. A dead striker’s name is spoken, but is apparently fictional, so a definite connection with the 1996 prison fast, in which 12 leftwing inmates died, is not established. The film was shot in Turkey and probably had some sort of permission, though Ustaoglu said shots of tanks and soldiers on a street in an armoured car in the Kurdish east were taken clandestinely.

The film’s camera work is often breathtaking. Jacek Petrycki, an associate of the late Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski, is responsible for it. The sense of menace around the characters is well conveyed, not least at the numerous roadblocks which interrupt the characters’ journeys. Clearly, something is rotten in the state of Turkey.

In the foyer outside after the film, I heard an English-speaking Turkish woman express relief that Journey to the sun did not lay too much stress on politics. The audience was liberal-left, with quite a few people speaking Turkish. In my opinion, it should have been more politicised, without necessarily having to be a manifesto for a particular party or group. A non-Turkish audience would have to know Turkey well to understand various allusions in the film - for example, the annoying chime heard at several points is actually from a van selling calor gas cylinders - an everyday phenomenon in Istanbul’s shanty towns. A member of the audience was puzzled by the prostitute who spoke Russian, probably not realising that they are a common feature of post-Soviet Istanbul. He also did not understand why Mehmet seemed to follow what she said in Russian, although it seems the director was making a point about outsiders being able to understand one another.

I hope Weekly Worker readers get to see this film, if, for example, it is shown at the London Film Festival. It is a masterpiece, even with the criticisms I have mentioned, and will help anyone to understand Turkey at the end of the 20th century.

James Robertson