Honey (Bal), the third entry in Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s “Yusuf Trilogy” following Egg (Yumurta) and Milk (Süt), won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in January before playing here at the Sydney Film Festival. It deserves its Golden Bear and any other accolades it may receive. It’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.

Well, since the last great Turkish film I saw anyway. In case you don’t know (I didn’t until recently), the Turkish independent film scene is experiencing some kind of remarkable epoch. A fountain of creativity has been harnessed to a pragmatic determination to produce and distribute (often with financial backing from Europe), and the result has been one highly original and personal film after another. The list of awards claimed by Turkish indies in recent years is long.

Let me give an idea of the exuberance of Turkish filmmaking at the moment. Derviş Zaim, one of the founders of the movement, is in the midst of a series of three thrillers, each one thematically inspired by a different medieval Islamic art technique. The most recent one, Dot (Nokta), was one of the best films of last year. Pelin Esmer made a documentary about her uncle, an obsessive collector of junk, then proceeded to reformat it into the brilliant narrative feature 10 to 11 (11’e 10 Kala) — keeping her uncle onboard to play himself. Call me late to the game, but I was so impressed with the consistent high quality of all the films in the Turkish program at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year. It reminds me of what one New York journalist wrote about the glory days of hiphop. A naïve friend asked him which hiphop records were good. His reply was, the black ones, and also the ones that are round — in other words, all of them. If someone asked me what Turkish indies to see, I’d say all of them.

In this atmosphere for Kaplanoğlu to plan a trilogy telling the life story of a young poet in reverse order, with breakfast as a running motif, doesn’t seem so farfetched — and in fact the three installments were completed and released in three successive years. I’ve not seen Egg or Milk, so I can’t comment on the part Honey plays in the “reverse trilogy.” I can only say how much I loved this film and describe its mesmerizing effect.

Honey concerns Yusuf (Bora Altaş) at the age of six, and his relationship with his loving father (Erdal Beşikçioğlu). The plot is mainly just a series of sketches. The boy learns to read. The boy harvests wild honey with his father. The boy has difficulty speaking, and struggles in school. The boy is jealous of his cousin. The boy learns to love poetry. The boy waits for his father to return from a journey. These strands are shaped slowly over the course of the film into a quiet suspense.

Honey depicts a child’s state of mind better than any film I’ve seen. We tend to recall childhood from an adult’s linear perspective. We remember the first time we were stung by a bee — boy did that hurt! Or the time we ate too much ice cream and threw up — that was funny! We’ve taken years of memories and sequenced highlights in convenient and banal ways as if they were TV news.

What we often forget, or won’t admit, is that children live in a different world than we do. It’s a world less complicated, more pure, filled with joy and even ecstasy. But it is also more mysterious and frightening, and to them it can seem dangerous and cruel. Children are not stupid or backwards, but their minds work differently. They perceive relationships between people differently. They perceive time differently. They might stare at a tree or an anthill for hours, or simply stare into space and think. They invent and devoutly follow their own primal belief systems and mythologies to help them understand what’s going on around them. An everyday object or an immediate family member can transform suddenly into a threat.

Once when I was about the same age as Yusuf, I was terrified by a dead wasp in our family’s car. It had died in an upright position so that it looked merely at rest on the panel below the rear window. It sat there, eerily still, not far from where I was sitting, looking enormous to me. I vividly recall its staring eyes. I alerted my parents — and they told me not to worry about it, it wouldn’t hurt me. But I simply couldn’t believe I was asked to endure such a thing. I momentarily lost all trust in my parents as well as my belief in biological death and other laws of nature. The world had ceased to make sense. I was trapped, imprisoned, locked in a seatbelt for a timeless time, with a possibly undead monster lurking close by.

Honey is largely made up of such impressions. Yusuf is the center of the story; he’s onscreen almost every moment. Since he doesn’t speak much, there’s not much dialogue, and much of that is whispered. The film is crafted according to his perspective: the point of view is quite often low to the ground; adults and furniture seem to tower overhead; the objects that so fascinate a child are given prominence (a wooden toy ship, a glass bowl full of ribbons). Mysterious interactions between other people are viewed at a melancholy distance (often through a window).

Time is highly manipulated: it collapses or is stretched depending on what’s on Yusuf’s mind. In one memorable sequence, he gets out of bed in the morning to see whether his father has arrived home; then we see virtually the same thing repeated, and we realize it’s now the next day. Yusuf is only living for that part of each day. In other instances we’re not sure of the order of events, or whether what we’re seeing is a dream. Yusuf’s dreaming life is key to his character — there is some suggestion he’s clairvoyant. In many ways Honey plays like a series of dreams; but it’s not surreal as such. In fact it’s beautifully earthy, with terrific detail of country life in the Black Sea region of Turkey. Bora Altaş’ touching performance is also very grounding. He carries the film with delicate charisma.

Kaplanoğlu’s mise-en-scene and Bariş Özbiçer’s cinematography are masterful. Working with a palette of deep forest greens and rich browns, using lots of shadow and natural sources of light, they’ve made nearly every frame of the film as glowing and sumptuous as a classic Dutch painting. But it’s not static; the tension between stillness and movement is enthralling. In one scene, Yusuf’s father cuts and eats an apple while a kettle behind him comes to a boil. At first our eyes are drawn to the knife and fruit in the room’s dim golden light; we only start to register the blue flame of the stove in the background as the sound of the whistling kettle very slowly rises up into the sound mix. There’s an abundance of such exquisite shots — the skittering of a bee across the pages of a book, the dancing of the moon reflected in a bucket of water. And the visual scheme may be pastoral but it’s not quaint or precious. There’s a freshness in the approach that makes ordinary things appear striking, as in the strange low-angle shot of Yusuf’s uncle making rope, highlighting the rhythm of his activity. One sequence depicting a festival on a plateau frames a large crowd with the detachment and thrilling, abstract beauty of the German photographer Andreas Gursky.

The great sound design is a big part of the total effect, especially in the scenes set in the woods. There is no music at all in the film, but an especially lush and detailed soundtrack of rustling leaves, running water, birds, and animals forms its own ambient music and goes a long way to suggesting Yusuf’s internal condition. This is one indie you’ll want to watch with a good sound system.

The trancelike state created by Honey recalls a very different film, No Country For Old Men. At the peak of their powers, the Coen brothers found a perfect pitch between the unusual stillness of many scenes and the suspense generated by the plot. We might be gazing at a desert landscape, looking for one distant movement in the corner of the frame; or staring at light reflected on a doorknob in the dark, waiting an agonizing time for something to happen. Honey works on such levels. So often indie cinema aims for minimalism: minimal budget, minimal drama or emotion, minimal apparatus. Honey may be quiet and slow, but like the intense ambient music of Brian Eno or Ulf Lohmann, its scope and impact are maximal.

I guess there’s always going to be disussion about whether films like this are “meditative” and “contemplative,” or simply “boring.” I saw a lot of sneering, contemptuous reviews of Honey; one Indiewire critic, frustrated by what he called a substandard Berlinale, dismissed it as “ponderous.” A controversial editorial in Sight & Sound (noted in this blog) skewered Honey as an example of “Slow Cinema,” citing an epidemic of boring, “passive-aggressive” films made by elitist auteurs, supported by a lazy industry.

I’ll never be accused of elitism; I’m more keen to see Iron Man 2 than half the indies released this year. I did not sense it here, unless an original vision presented with great skill is elitist. And I also had an opportunity to compare Honey with other “contemplative” films at SFF, including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which took top honors at Cannes. Unlike that film (which I did admire a great deal), Honey captivated me from start to finish. It’s not just a virtuoso filmmaking exercise; I never stopped wondering what would happen next, never stopped caring about the boy. Kaplanoğlu has marshalled his formidable talents to tell a very human story in an unusual way and the result is a remarkable artifact, as softly dazzling as candlelight on a dark emerald.

Advertisements