Semih Kaplanoğlu : Poet with a movie camera
Winner of the Golden Bear for “Bal”/“Honey”(2010) (the second for Turkey after “Metin Erksan’s Susuz Yaz”/“A Dry Summer”, 1963), Semih Kaplanoğlu is one of the most distinguished names of the contemporary cinema of Turkey. Born in İzmir in 1963, Kaplanoğlu graduated from the Cinema and Television Department of the Nine September University with a 16mm, black-and-white short film, “Mobapp–Meşru Olmayan Bir Aşkın Parçalanmış Portreleri”/ Mobapp The Fragmented Portraits of an Illicit Love” (1984) about a public servant’s love for a shop dummy, a film with the influences of German expressionism. He worked as camera assistant, prepared cinema programmes for television, wrote and directed television series, made commercials and “wrote articles on plastic arts and film in various journals and pursued his passion for poetry before his first feature “Herkes Kendi Evinde”/“Away From Home” (2001), a film that explores the notions of identity and belonging through the desperate journeys of three characters from three different generations.
His second film, “Meleğin Düşüşü”/“Angel’s Fall” (2004), a story of incest gained him international recognition with several prestigious awards worldwide. This was the first direct attempt in the country’s cinema to expose a sexual taboo probing into the darkness of the soul when home becomes ‘uncanny’. The film opens with Zeynep wearing layers of baggy clothes and heavy boots climbing a hill slowly. She ties the spool of yellow thread in her hand to a wooden post and pulls it, but the string snaps. The distraught Zeynep descends, re-wraps the thread and begins to climb, but the thread breaks again. Back to the post in tears, she loops the thread around a few times and proceeds up the hill. As she walks off the frame, the screen turns black and then the title appears in bold yellow font. In the next scene, she is on the edge of a precipice above a picturesque landscape, timeless and elusive while in the last scene, she stands naked in front of a high balcony, the cityscape of Istanbul alive with the overpowering Galata Tower in the distance and the waters of the Golden Horn beneath her feet; a flock of birds suggests hope. But between these two elevated spaces, darkness prevails – in the long corridors of the hotel where she cleans the rooms, in her father’s workplace where she brings the lunch daily, in the streets and in the homes – underscoring the psychic tensions of displacement. Important events happen in darkness, such as the violation of Zeynep’s body by her father, or the suicide of Funda, the wife of the unfaithful Selçuk in another part of town.
Home is uncanny for Kaplanoğlu’s characters. Zeynep’s young admirer at the hotel offers a life together in his village, but she is too cautious to expect salvation from a man. She wishes to erase her troubles by changing her identity, but she is shamed
when seen by her father wearing the red negligee of Selçuk’s wife. Changing back to her usual oversized rags and to her prescribed identity, she prepares the dinner for her father who waits until the meal is served and then slaps her. Sexuality is sin when it is visible. As Zeynep rushes out of the room, the camera stays with the father, giving a chance to the spectator to try to decipher his psyche.
The thread Zeynep unspools in the opening sequence is an allusion to a Turkish tradition performed before religious holidays. If the woman reaches the top without breaking the thread, then her wish will be granted. On numerous occasions, Zeynep plays with the spool, unwinding the thread and muttering prayers, an indication of her obsession with the eventual fulfilment of her wish. In fact, the thread or the rope is a central motif in the other films of Kaplanoğlu as well, which he interprets as a wish for stability or belonging.
Weight – arising from the feeling of guilt, helplessness and loneliness – is a strong trope in the film. Just as she pulls her estran- ged body up the slope in the opening scene, Zeynep hauls a dead woman’s luggage up another slope. The luggage promises her a new identity, and with a twist of fate, it is instrumental in her release from the heaviest burden, her incestuous father. Charged but silent, “Angel’s Fall” commences without dialogue until 6 minutes and 18 seconds into the film and then only a single word is heard. The first dialogue is 7 minutes and 18 seconds after the film begins, in a style reminiscent of the films of the Taiwanese Tsai Ming Liang, one of the influences on Kaplanoğlu, for whom the silence in the film is a metaphor for the sufferings of incest victims. Living in shame and denial (the father and the daughter have tea discussing routine matters), they become strangers to their body.
The Yusuf Trilogy, which was inspired by the “Apu Trilogy” of Satyajit Ray, also carries the influences of Turkish poetry. Conceived in reverse chronological order, all three films are about the mother-son relationship. The form recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s freely autobiographical “Zerkalo”/”Mirror” (1975), narrating the life of a character as a child, an adolescent and an adult in his forties. Also evoking Mirror are the free flow of oneiric images; the blending of memories and fantasies; the employment of the sounds of nature; characters appearing and disappearing ; leitmotifs such as the stuttering child (in both cases, the problem resolves at the end when the director’s message becomes clearer), the burlesque fall of the doctor in “Mirror” and the stationmaster (mother’s love interest) in “Milk” and mostly, the construction of a unique sense of time, the past and the present existing instantaneously and informing the future. “Yumurta”/”Egg” (2007) foregrounds the return of the prodigal son (an urban poet running a bookstore) to his rural roots; “Süt”/”Milk” (2008) takes place in a provincial town and presents the same character as an adolescent loner in the process of cutting his ties with his mother, while “Bal”/“Honey” (2010) focuses on the childhood of the character living on the edge of the forest and the unexpected loss of his idolized father. Despite the difference of a certain number of years in between, which is subtly indicated through costumes and objects, each film maintains the present reality. In the absence of the past/present dichotomy, time extends over a flat surface in a Bergsonian sense, past and present existing symbiotically on the same plane in a process of ‘becoming’. Space gradually shifts from the city to the town and to the mysterious forest, bringing another dimension, which Kaplanoğlu defines as ‘spiritual realism’ and the trilogy aims at approaching metaphorically to the spirit of the world, to spirituality that is slowly diminishing and through nature, to reach unspoiled essence. Contrary to the tendency of the contemporary cinema of Turkey to link the provincial with ennui (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Kaplanoğlu asserts that ennui is identified by the exterior gaze when the provincial is regarded with distance. In his films, the province is like the uterus, the point of departure; for the one at the centre, it carries an element of nostalgia, connec- ted with a sense of belonging. Home is the central motif; it appears in a different form in each film, culminating in the natal home of Yusuf.
Kaplanoğlu avoids non-diegetic music/sound. He prefers to establish a relationship with the different sounds of space and nature – sounds that pass unnoticed in daily life. Digital effects do not interest him. He would rather ‘record’ time, at times blurring the screen time with the real time. In “Angel’s Fall”, the influence of Balthus paintings is dominant. For the trilogy, Kaplanoğlu admits that he added elements from the expressionists, in addition to the impressionism of Camille Pissarro and the realism of Gustave Courbet, to expose the rapid change of the Anatolian rural landscape, which is the focus of “Milk”. Religious narratives are used to evoke concepts. Epilepsy (with resonances of Dostoevsky) is employed as a motif (or point of contact according to Kaplanoğlu) that marks critical points of transformation.
In 2017, Kaplanoğlu presented a futuristic film of epic dimensions with Sufi overtones, the dystopian “Buğday”/ “Grain,” inspired by 29 verses in the Koran. An international co-production shot in English in three continents, the film’s monochrome images and key narrative elements carry a remarkable intertextuality with “Stalker” (1979) by Tarkovsky, one of his mentors.
Returning to the intimate films of his earlier career, Kaplanoğlu started another trilogy in 2019 with “Bağlılık Aslı”/ “Commitment Aslı”, a film that interrogates the meaning of motherhood and its possible clashes with the personal identity of a modern urban woman, juxtaposing two mothers of different generations and social and economic backgrounds. “Bağlılık Hasan”/“Commitment Hasan” (2021), the second leg of the trilogy, which was shown as part of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival 2022 focuses on an opportunist farmer’s confrontation with his conscience within the context of the present Muslim Turkish society where self-interests and desire for material gains often clash with the religious faith. The trilogy will be completed with “Bağlılık Fikret”/“Commitment Fikret”, the story of a filmmaker who wants to adapt to screen a novel by the renowned author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. As the novel itself, the film will be an exploration of identity, raising the ever present questions of Turkish identity in terms of belonging to the East or the West, through a love story. Kaplanoğlu promises the city of Istanbul to appear as a prominent character in this film that would be traveling between the 1930 and the present.
The Homage to Semih Kaplanoğlu promises a feast to cinephiles presenting the entire oeuvre of the Poet with a Movie Camera to Vesoul audiences.
Gönül Dönmez-Colin is a researcher and author of “Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging; The Routledge Dictionary of Turkish Cinema”; “Women in the Cinemas of Iran and Turkey: As Images and As Images-Makers and the forthcoming”, “The Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan”, among other books and numerous essays in anthologies.