Appreciators of director Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s films such as Journey to the Sun and Pandora’s Box will relish her latest, Clair-Obscur – another socially conscious drama laden with metaphors from the Turkish landscape, as well as hope and horror in equal measure. The film’s Turkish premiere was at the 53rd Antalya Film Festival, where it won five prizes including “best film”, “best director”, and “best female actor.” It will be in theaters across Turkey on December 16.
We enter the film through the dark, tumultuous waves of the Black Sea – a body of water whose name was not given lightly. The ancient Greeks called it the “inhospitable sea” because of its dangerous and gloomy depths, and it has lost none of its melancholy over the last 2,000 years. The specific location of Ustaoğlu’s film is Karasu, a coastal town in Sakarya province, where she once experienced the sea’s sublime power for herself. “I was there on a very stormy night. It was extraordinary,” she told The Guide Istanbul. “I watched the water and the waves almost until the morning, staying with the fishermen while the storm was destroying the pier.”
That image touched a deep and resonant place in Ustaoğlu’s mind. “The symbols of sea and water were there in the first lines of the script. Actually I use water as a metaphor in all of my films. Those are my own neuroses, obsessions, fixations that I use in storytelling. When I think of aggressive water, water that says something, I am immediately drawn to the Black Sea. It’s a sea I know very well, having lived in the eastern Black Sea region. Most of all, the sea there has no horizon. It’s dark and savage; it sucks you in; it’s loud and furious.”
An invisible plague
The potency of this metaphor becomes apparent as we meet the two women at the center of the film. Şehnaz is a psychiatrist who has been sent to work at a hospital in Karasu, and Elmas is a young patient who was with her husband and mother-in-law when they died traumatically, though she has no memory of the event. As the film unfolds, it emerges that Elmas is actually younger than her birth certificate states, meaning that her parents married her off while she was still a child. Elma’s troubled relationships with the deceased also emerges. In this way, Şehnaz and Elmas’ relationship expresses several layers of comparison: between maturity and youth, doctor and patient, educated and uneducated, middle class and lower class.
Following the Biblical maxim “Physician, heal yourself,” we begin to see disturbing parallels between Elmas’ trauma and the doctor Şehnaz’s own relationships. Growing interested in this synergy between doctor and patient, Ustaoğlu consulted with psychiatrist friends to test the idea. “Outside their professional lives of course there are things they’ve swept under the rug. As normal people they have plenty of problems in everyday life. Sometimes people who have little connection to them, from different classes and dealing with other issues, can say a single word that causes associations to come and go within the psychiatrist. But what if the doctor herself has a really unsolvable problem, which is possible for everyone? That is what the film presents.”
In Şehnaz’s case, this problem is her quietly abusive relationship with her partner, Cem. “We see them living in an accepting silence characterized by manipulation. But both of them have pulled the pins on their hand grenades, and they’re waiting. One day it’s going to explode,” Ustaoğlu explains. Unlike the captive Elmas, Şehnaz experiences no apparent coercion to remain with her dominating and insensitive partner.
The modern Narcissus
“I wanted to look at the details of being in a relationship with a narcissistic man: how she experiences it, how it becomes impossible… At first the relationship starts as absolute perfection, with the partners choosing each other willingly. Later on, one of the two becomes more susceptible to manipulation, and he or she cannot stop questioning how the relationship came to that point. This can continue until someone gets up, opens the door and leaves… When we talk about violence in relationships, we usually mean situations like a man stabbing his wife because she wants to leave him. But narcissistic relationships also include serious (psychological) violence, and that is relevant to everyone,” says the director.
The tensions in Şehnaz’s relationship, laid bare in almost imperceptible ways by her work with the traumatized Elmas, inevitably lead to an emotional explosion. It is the fine acting of Funda Eryiğit (Şehnaz) and particularly Ecem Uzun (Elmas) that makes the lead-up to this catharsis both harrowing and engrossing. Uzun’s talent was recognized at the Antalya Film Festival with the “best female actor” prize in both the national and international competitions.
Room for improvement
Despite the success of other female directors such as Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Pelin Esmer, Ustaoğlu believes that the Turkish cinema industry has some distance to go before real equality – both onscreen and behind the camera. “In my view Turkish cinema is not successful in making films where women are truly central, where the problems of women’s existence are shown. Films still tend to look at these issues from a male perspective. We see women being turned into victims, or it is a matter of ‘Will she leave or won’t she?’, or it is shown as a class issue. As far as I can see, this is one of the most important films on these topics for a long time,” she says.