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There’s an incredibly disturbing scene in Araf – Somewhere in Between. It’s unexpected since for the most part the movie is a well-acted, slow-burning character study about two Turkish working-class teens. Just when you think life couldn’t get any worse for Zehra (Neslihan Atagül), it does. Much, much worse. I’m sure every review of Araf will note this moment since it’s a make-or-break point in the movie.
You wind up wincing and looking away and feeling appalled because everything unfolds in real time. What writer/director Yeşim Ustaoğlu does is gruesome, and it gets downright gratuitous in one shot. (Though I don’t know that omitting that shot would make the scene less excruciating.) It will turn off and offend a lot of people, especially if they find Araf interminable leading up to that scene.
In Turkish, the word “araf” refers to limbo, that space between heaven and hell. At that point in Araf, it’s obvious the characters are no longer in limbo. Welcome to hell — abandon hope. There may be no coming back.
Araf – Somewhere in Between
Director: Yeşim Ustaoğlu
Araf is a portrait of working-class existence in Turkey, and it’s pretty much a dead end. Nothing really happens that’s good, nothing really changes but the weather. I’m not familiar with the social reality of Turkey’s working class, but in Araf there’s little chance for upward mobility. The closest anyone comes is fantasizing about being on television. Olgun (Baris Hacihan) is obsessed with the Turkish version of Deal of No Deal. He thinks he could win it all if he was just given an opportunity. It’s as sad as people who put all their hopes in the lottery, but at least with the lottery you can buy a few tickets twice a week. Olgun wouldn’t have drive or the leftover energy for that.
Olgun and Zehra both work at the same gas station/truck stop. They bus tables and change out steamer trays of food at a buffet. Their shifts last all day and night. They’re so exhausted by the toil that they don’t have time for anything else. This is their Stygian fate — trapped in this raft, no oars, inert water, grey and brackish. Maybe dreaming about television isn’t so bad compared to having no dreams at all. When there’s nothing else to aspire to, what is there to lose? There’s a truck driver (Özcan Deniz), much older than the two leads, who comes between them. He’s a stoic and brooding type, and Zehra feels oddly attracted to him. He leads a modest life at best, but at least he’s mobile. This trucker might be her ticket out of limbo. I don’t remember him saying a word in the entire film.
Hacihan and Atagül, who play Olgun and Zehra, are both virtually unknown actors, which is surprising given how good they are. Hacihan’s got a brooding quality, and you can see a sort of violence bubbling up in his eyes as the movie progresses. His recklessness and frustrations are right there in his home life. Olgun’s dad is a no-good drunk. There’s one scene where he watches his father stumble home, use the bathroom with the door open and the toilet lid down, and crawl into bed. His mother, who has the look of a set-upon librarian, wakes up and cleans the bathroom sobbing. Olgun just watches and nothing registers in him — not anger at his dad, not pity for his mom. That sense of resignation is oddly moving since it’s like an acknowledgment of his miserable adulthood ahead.
Araf mostly belongs to Zehra, and Atagül is remarkable in the role. She’s got an expressive presence. She’s made to do some rather astounding scenes that show her transition from a naive girl to a disenchanted young woman. There’s the disturbing one I mentioned already. The performance here is notable not just for the sensation it causes but because it’s done in very few takes. A lot of times the camera is on Atagül’s face, and the horror comes from her reactions to what’s going on. Her look of absolute disbelief is punctuated by Ustaoğlu’s camera moves and unwillingness to cut away. This must have been one of the most grueling things to film — a major scene of physical suffering, whereas the majority of suffering in Araf is internal.
But this moment I keep coming back to doesn’t have impact unless the rest of the movie can build into it. I think it does since the the Araf ratchets up its darkness as the film progresses. Already at the beginning we have suggestions of hell in images of molten steel. This red-orange slag is slow to pour, however, because the top’s cooled into a crust that needs to get burst open. Then on comes the visual distortions of heat. There’s the harshness of the ice through the winter scenes that eventually gives way to spring and summer. The seduction that goes on between Zehra and the truck driver is slow. Emotional outbursts become more violent and more sudden. When we arrive in hell, the thaw is over. The moment is definitive, and it’s even accompanied by fire.
While Ustaoğlu spends a lot of time in Araf building up a sympathy in these slow and unfortunate lives, the plot is something you might find in a soap opera (a lurid one). It’s high melodrama treated with absolute gravity. This could be intentional on Ustaoğlu’s part. The modest dreams of Olgun and Zehra are fueled by the familiar stories of love and success they see on television. These sorts of narratives only end happily on TV, though. They never work out well in real life. In fact, they wind up being horrible. It’s the very special episode of a daytime talk show, one that’s usually sort of trashy, but there’s an unexpected compassion for the guests. They’re discarded people, but they’re still human.
I’ve seen a lot of movies lately that use long takes and stillness to underline the sense of boredom and slowness in the lives of the characters. In some of those films it was infuriating, but in Araf I didn’t find it frustrating at all. Some of this may be due to Michale Hammon’s cinematography, which is pretty stunning. It could also be due to the quality of Hacihan and Atagül’s performances, which invests some kind of human heart in the stretches of inactivity. Even the supporting characters bring out this sense of sympathy, particularly Derya (Nihal Yalcin). She’s one of Zehra’s co-workers and, seemingly, her only friends. They have a conversation over coffee and tea about the truck driver. They joke about how feeble Zehra’s dream is and laugh — maybe they’re only half-joking.
Mostly what made me interested in the stillness of the film, and I think this is the key, was a sense of something that’s impending. Again, the crust on the molten steel that breaks. When Zehra looks out the window in a teary exhaustion, I got a sense of what she was thinking; and when she gazes out another window in another scene the first thing in the morning, I knew what she felt and wondered if she’d be ready for disappointment. The look on her face the last time we see her in the film, it’s clear there’s another change in who she is.
There’s an odd note that ends Araf. It seems to come out of nowhere. After what audience has been through, after what the characters have been through, it’s silly. But when you process it, this could be Ustaoğlu’s last bitter statement about the nature of feeble dreams and the people who are forced into holding them. Like the dip into hell, the film seems to be coming to this final grimace. Ustaoğlu might only be half-joking here, but no one’s laughing, not even her.
[Araf – Somewhere in Between will screen at the Francesca Beale Theater on October 4th and at Alice Tully Hall on October 13th.]