Dir: Umit Unal. Turkey. 2002. 94mins.
Preceded by a quote from Franz Kafka's In The Penal Colony about the invisible workings of the system, 9 presents a grim portrait of the way in which religious bigotry and social malaise have a direct and poisonous impact on people's everyday behaviour. Chosen, surprisingly, as Turkey's Oscar candidate in preference to Zeki Demirkubuz's Fate and its sequel, Confession (both of which have cut a higher profile on the world festival circuit), this bears all the hallmarks of a writer's piece. In his first outing as a director, Umit Unal, the author of numerous screenplays as well as two novels and a collection of stories creates sharp dialogue and lively characters, drawing excellent performances from his cast.
However, 9 (the title is written as a numeral) also comes across as highly literary, with a dominant visual device (the restless cross-cutting between conflicting testimonies) which soon outstays its welcome to end up feeling like something of a gimmick. While the film's honesty and intelligence are admirable, and its inventive qualities augur well for Unal's future as a director, the bleak vision and formal intransigence will severely limit its international audience outside the most specialised locations.
In a poor, apparently respectable neighbourhood of Istanbul, a murder has been committed. The victim: young homeless girl who might or might not be a prostitute from Russia and might or might not be Jewish. This sense of uncertainty hangs over the film as a whole, which consists of the questioning of six witnesses and suspects in a gloomy basement cell by unseen - but clearly none too friendly - police interrogators.
Salim is an elderly bookseller and former left wing activist, who remembers being tortured in this very building for his political views and is still held in deep suspicion by his neighbours. Tunc, a yobbish butcher, hangs out with handsome Kaya, who's the prime suspect. Saliha, Kaya's mother, seems a nice old lady at first but soon reveals her fanaticism and ignorance. Firuz is a photographer and family man with a guilty secret. The sextet is completed by an old drop-out who's a dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway and is known simply as "the American" (though he's actually Turkish).
As the inquiry unfolds, the witness contradict themselves as well as each other, and reveal their complex hidden relationships. But, while the digital to 35mm transfer looked fine, the frantic editing and use of mirrors, screens and other multiple imagery is cumulatively hard on the eye. A further problem is that much of the film consists of the characters in close-up talking about events, rather than - with odd exceptions - these actually being dramatised on screen.
The ending is left highly ambiguous, down to the number of that mysterious cell, 9 - or possibly an upside-down '6'. The significance of this, as of much else, is left murky - perhaps Unil is a fan of the classic Jimi Hendrix number, If Six Was Nine. In any case, he creates a compelling portrait of an uneasy world where the truth is constantly being turned upside down.
Prod co: PTT Film
Int'l sales: Sera Film
Exec prod: Haluk Bener
Prod: Bener, Aydin Sarioglu, Unal
Prod des: Bener
Ed: Ismail "Niko" Canlisoy
Main cast: Ali Poyrazoglu, Cezmi Baskin, Serra Yilmaz, Firket Kuskan, Ozan Guven, Rafa Radomisli, Esin Pervane