Monday, November 26, 2012

135. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s film “Süt” (Milk) (2008): The Turkish "artist as a young man"

Semih Kaplanoglu is one of the finest Turkish filmmakers—and one who has a very distinct and intriguing style of film-making.  His cinema is slow, introspective and personal. He picks his actors for each role and camerapersons with considerable thought and care and the result is always apparent in the finished products. In his films, the emphasis is not on the spoken word but more on what you see and hear. In his Yusuf trilogy, each film is remarkable in the unusual manner it expounds the subtle weaves of a dyad—a sociologically significant relationship---some obvious and some less so. Süt (Milk) belongs to that very same Yusuf trilogy and constitutes the middle film in the trilogy. The three Yusuf films constantly remind this writer of the James Joyce novel A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. The Yusuf films offer epiphanies and the coming of age autobiographical tale of a sensitive artist just as James Joyce had developed his own semi-autobiographical “Yusuf” that he called Stephen Dedalus, complete with physical disabilities. Joyce is demanding of the reader: so is Kaplanoglu’s cinema of the viewer. But the patient and intelligent viewer of the Kaplanoglu films will be rewarded just as Joyce is rewarding to an analytic and reflective reader.

 Few films have an opening sequence as unforgettable as the one in Semih Kaplanoglu’s film Süt (Milk). The scene is rural Turkey. The viewer is initially shown some villagers watching some activity from a distance on a misty morning. People are talking in hushed tones. An old man is boiling a pot of milk in the open and writing something. The camera then reveals the unusual bit above the boiling pot of milk—a young girl is strung live upside down from a tree branch so that the fumes of the boiling milk reach her face. The viewer wonders if some weird devilish torture sequence is to follow. If the viewer is already squirming in the seat, wait---out of the mouth of the girl emerges a small live snake. End of sequence. A patient viewer will sit through the film and realize that this bizarre opening sequence has one primary linkage with the main film---not the girl, not the old man, not the snake but just milk. And Milk is the title of this film and milk has so many tenuous connections to the sequences that follow, just as the other titles of the Yusuf films connect with sequences in those.

Months after viewing this unusual scene in the film, this critic decided to ask the director directly about this unusual sequence that reminds one of some kind of exorcism. Kaplanoglu’s response is revealing “There is nothing unreal about it. At first we tried model snakes in that scene, but they didn’t seem realistic no matter how hard we tried to make them seem so. I decided not to make that scene. We had little snakes in jars which were brought by a zoologist, and we used it in the other scenes. Ms. Ozen (the actress hung upside down in the film) said that she would put one of them into her mouth. We were surprised but started to think about it. The snakes have an interesting property. When they are hot, they move very fast; when they are cold they move very slowly. Our zoologist suggested we decrease the body temperature of the snake so that Ms. Ozen could put it into her mouth without any risk. I looked at both the zoologist and Ms. Ozen with surprise. It was a dreadful thing, but both the zoologist and Ms. Ozen persuaded me to allow them to do it. So we made the scene. When the film was shown abroad, some people asked me if that was just an old wives’ tale. It is not. It usually happens to people in that region. When workers sleep near the water, some snakes slither into their mouths and then into their stomachs. And people drink lots of milk so that the snake can go throughout their intestines with the milk and come out of their bodies at the other end. Or they hang upside down from a branch so that the snake falls out through their mouths. “

Süt (Milk) is the second film of Semih Kaplanoglu’s Yusuf trilogy—and it deals with the adolescent Yusuf and his mother living in a village in Turkey. While it is a standalone feature film, Süt (Milk) can be best appreciated if the viewer has seen the other two Kaplanoglu films in the Yusuf trilogy. This is because of the absence of the father in Süt (Milk) and the relationship of Yusuf with his father is never revealed in this film—the viewer gets to know about that relationship in the next film in the trilogy Bal (Honey). The second film in the Yusuf trilogy is not a mere Oedipal tale as it could suggest in isolated deconstruction but more about the original mother-son relationship (possibly with breast milk being a forgotten link that is never shown or alluded to in the film) as the young man has grown up and is selling milk, one of the many rural outputs produced on their farm (run by Yusuf and his mother), in the nearby town. Yusuf’s complex psyche is comprehensively and progressively unraveled only after watching the three Kaplanoglu films in the trilogy. Once the viewer has seen all the three films, the Oedipal angle in Süt (Milk) recedes in significance and the viewer grasps the trilogy is really about the artist flowering from bud to bloom. Explains Kapalonglu on his website “We all have mothers and it is highly possible that much is hidden in the time we spent with our mothers, and the time we are no longer able to spend with them.

Süt (Milk) is indeed a complex film. It captures the tension of a young man who wishes to be a poet, and yet is an introvert, a loner, a reader of books and one who has toiling on a farm with his mother to make ends meet, especially in the absence of a father, the traditional bread winner of all conventional families. When the struggling young poet does get his first poem published in a local journal of repute, both mother and son are happy—but for different reasons. The poem is about a beautiful, adorable woman. The mother, as most mothers would, believes it is about some young girl her son fancies, while in reality the poem is about her. The film is indeed about how the mother figure plays a crucial part in a poet’s life just as the father was so crucial to the development of the poet at an earlier stage in life (as depicted in Bal (Honey).

And there are women in Süt (Milk) who knock at Yusuf’s door, figuratively speaking. A local girl is attracted to him but the constant cell phone conversations by the girl to others while in Yusuf’s company, underscore for Yusuf how meaningless the relationship is or would end up being. At the same time, there is a sequence where Yusuf looks at a female silhouette in a Turkish bathhouse. The director seems to imply that the young poet is interested in the opposite sex but they do seem literally and figuratively shadowy and out of focus at this stage of his life. Kaplanoglu’s cinema is just that—beads of intriguing shots and sequences that could make an interesting necklace only if the viewer chooses to string them together.

Kaplanoglu’s Süt (Milk) provides insights into the manly aspirations of the Turkish male—it is a rite of passage in life to be enrolled in the military—apparently a done thing in that country to be considered a regular male Turk. And Yusuf flunks the entrance requirements as he is found to be epileptic (for Joyce’s Dedalus it was poor eyesight that was a stone round the young artist’s neck). Later in the film Milk, Yusuf the reject from the military is working in a mine of sorts with a friend whose pocket is filled with unpublished poems. Yusuf is physically capable of hard manual labor but he is still attracted towards poetry or friends equally interested in poetry. Milk is a film with sequences that can imply that imply much more than is shown. For instance young Yusuf catches a fish that could make a great meal for him and his mother. When he reaches the kitchen, to his surprise he finds his mother plucking a bird’s feathers. Obviously someone else has provided it. The sequence underscores that Yusuf is not and will not be the breadwinner for the family; his mother has chosen someone else for that role. That is Kaplanoglu’s cinema—quiet statements that add up to paint a larger picture.

Kaplanoglu’s third and arguably the most fascinating film in the trilogy is called Bal (Honey) and that film explores the father-son relationship with Yusuf as a young boy, where the presence of the mother is not paramount. His first film Yumurta (Egg) in the Yusuf trilogy looks at Yusuf as a grown up man, with both his parents now dead, but assessing a relationship with a woman who could possibly be the key to his aspirations to sculpt an artist’s life. Thus while Honey explored Yusuf under the influence of his father, Milk explores Yusuf’s growth in the shadow of his mother, while Egg deals with Yusuf who has emerged from the parental shadows and is able to understand complexities of life on his own, having distilled the influences of both his parents. Kaplanoglu is one of the two mesmerizing Turkish filmmakers alive and making films today--the other being Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While Nuri Bilge Ceylan has written and developed most of his recent works with his spouse Ebru Celyan and an early work with Emin Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu has often developing his scripts either on his own or with Orçun Köksal (on Honey and Egg) and Özden Cankaya (on his debut film Away from Home). If there is a major difference between Kaplanoglu and Ceylan, it would be that Kaplanoglu’s films are more personal and inward looking than Ceylan’s cinema. Both filmmakers are distinctive in their respective styles and both are fascinating filmmakers.

This writer was intrigued by the physical oddities of the character Yusuf in Kapalnoglu’s Honey and Milk, especially when we know that the trilogy is close to the life and thoughts of the director and screenplay writer. In Honey, the young Yusuf is very close to the director Kapalanoglu. Kaplangolu had clarified in an earlier interview put up on the European film awards website that Yusuf “has parts from me. I referred to my own youth and childhood while writing the three scripts and I believe I was able to handle the issues about Yusuf’s life, troubles and quests realistically. My own childhood served as a point of reference for the script of Bal (Honey) as well. My troubles at school while trying to learn how to read and write, my questions which grown-ups left unanswered, the intense cruelty and richness of nature...”

In Milk, the young Yusuf is not conscripted into the armed forces because of his epilepsy. Kaplanoglu’s explanation provided to this writer’s query on the epileptic Yusuf is revealing—and it reveals the influences on a sensitive director while developing a script. Explains Kapalanoglu, “Yusuf’s illness is genetic and was passed on to him from his father. This illness is all that remains of the father in Egg. It is also related to the sensitivity of Yusuf. I don’t see any men with epilepsy nowadays, but when I was a child there were lots. It was not uncommon to see people having seizures in the street. They were so common that the proper ways to help someone in that condition became common knowledge. Also Prince Myshkin has epilepsy in Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”. It was a character that influenced me years ago. Maybe this is why I decided for Yusuf to have epilepsy in the film.” For those familiar with Prince Myshkin, the actions of Yusuf in Milk and Egg do bear some resemblance.

The most useful response of Kapalnoglu to this critic’s specific questions was the one relating religion--an element that was quite obvious in Honey, but less prominent in Milk and Egg. Explained Kapalanoglu : “According to many religions, this is the journey of the soul which comes from the spiritual world, matures in this physical world and returns to the spiritual world when we die. According to those religions, this world is merely an illusion, a test, a play ground, a dream as Prophet Mohammed said ‘All the human beings are asleep, when they die, they wake up.’ This is a circle which unites Yusuf’s life with the adventures of mankind. Yusuf’s life story is the life story of mankind.” This is probably why the cinematic works of Kaplanoglu (Turkey), Clair Denis (France), Zvyagintsev (Russia), Reygadas (Mexico), Kawase (Japan) and, last but not the least, Terrence Malick (USA) stand out as substantive personal cinema of a philosophical kind rarely encountered today.

P.S. Kaplanoglu's Bal (Honey) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Viewers who have seen Tarkovsky's Mirror will note several points of convergence in the scene where the baby Alexei's mother meets the doctor who has lost his way and falls down while sitting on the fence and the scene in Kaplanoglu's Milk, where the postman falls down from his bicycle while making small talk with Yusuf's mother. In both films, the rear part of the respective mother's head is underscored in close-up while opening the scene. (See the clip below.)