Standout feature is set in a boy’s boarding school in Turkey
Dir. Ferit Karahan. Turkey, Romania. 2021. 85 mins
The sudden illness of an 11 year-old boy in a boarding school in Eastern Anatolia is the catalyst which reveals the inner workings of this authoritarian institution in Ferit Karahan’s superb second feature. There’s a crystalline precision and angularity to the plotting, which grows more compelling with each layer of culpability that is unpeeled. This is supremely assured filmmaking from Karahan, whose debut, The Fall from Heaven, won prizes at Ankara and Antalya Film Festivals. Following its premiere at Berlin, the film should enjoy a warm reception on the festival circuit and will likely find a home with a quality arthouse distributor.
Supremely assured filmmaking
There’s a chill to the atmosphere in this school, a monolithic slab of foreboding run by Turkish authorities for Kurdish boys from the region, even before the heating system breaks down and a blizzard rolls in from the mountains. In an institution governed by a culture of fear, there’s a pecking order of cruelty, and boys like Yusef (Samet Yildiz) and his best friend Memo (Nurullah Alaca) are accustomed to harsh treatment.
Scrawny, with hair shorn and jutting shoulder blades, the boys file into the shower room for their weekly permitted bath. Like everything else in the day-to-day grind of life in the school, it is rigorously policed. Even so, a bout of bickering breaks out in one cubicle. Yusef’s eyes – thickly-lashed, expressive and used to soulful effect throughout the film – dart warily across to where his friend Memo argues for possession of the shared pitcher. The commotion attracts the attention of one of the teachers, who orders them to take the rest of their shower with cold water as a punishment. It seems draconian – the temperature outside is ferociously cold and the kids sleep in their clothes for warmth – but then this is an unforgiving environment in which teachers casually slap the kids for minor indiscretions and more serious transgressions result in the ritual humiliation of a shaved strip across the crown of the head. Karahan conveys the atmosphere brilliantly with a severe monochrome colour palette and camera work which hums with nervous tension.
The following morning, Memo is unwell. Barely responsive, he complains of a headache and nausea. Yusef hauls his friend to the sick room – a sad, sparse little box which is barely more than an outhouse, with a lock which has frozen shut overnight. But as Memo’s condition deteriorates, Yusef is forced to navigate the indifference and self-interest of the staff in order to secure help for his friend – thematically, there are similarities with Cristi Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, although Brother’s Keeper is a leaner and more propulsive piece of storytelling.
The gradual reveal of the events of the night before Memo’s illness works as a tantalising drip feed of suspicion. By the time the gravity of Memo’s condition becomes clear, many of the staff have been implicated. They smoke mutinously as fat flakes of snow continue to fall, blaming each other and the headmaster’s taste for luxury items – the only vehicle with chains on its tyres was sent to the village to buy cheese earlier in the day. And Yusef’s fearful eyes grow wider as the teachers stumble blindly towards the truth of the matter.
Production Company: Asteros Film
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Producer: Kanat Dogramacı
Screenplay: Ferit Karahan, Gulistan Acet
Editing: Sercan Sezgin, Hayedeh Safiyari, Ferit Karahan
Cinematography: Turksoy Golebeyi
Production Design: Tolunay Turkoz
Main cast: Samet Yildiz, Ekin Koc, Mahir Ipek, Melih Selcuk, Cansu Fırıncı, Nurullah Alaca