A little film about decay

Emre Yeksan’s first full-length fictional film Körfez (The Gulf) is a nightmare, a dystopia, an allegory, a portrayal of a dark world and a Generation Y militant.

Selim (played by Ulaş Tuna Astepe) is divorced, unemployed, and homeless. He leaves Istanbul to return to his family in Izmir, and puts his old things into the basement for storage. His father has gone bankrupt, and has given up running the family’s carpentry shop to keep it from closing. To save the house from foreclosure, Selim’s father has divorced his mother, but they’re still secretly living together in the same house.

His mother does the everyday chores and passes the rest of the time with her friends. His older sister and her husband continue their comfortable routine. The workers at the carpentry shop continue working without pay.

Everyone is understanding towards Selim. They leave him to himself to decide what he is going to do next, but neither him nor his family nor the workers actually care about anything.

While wandering aimlessly around Izmir, Selim runs into Cihan (played by Ahmet Melih Yılmaz), who claims to be his friend from military service. Like Selim, Cihan is young, well-read, and unconventional. Even though they’ve never met before, they become friends and pass the time together.

One night, a ship catches fire in the Gulf of Izmir, and afterwards, the city is filled with an unbearable stench. People with summer houses leave the city. Rising mud levels make some neighbourhoods unlivable. The police start dealing with increasing acts of violence. The city is gradually becoming impossible to stay in.

With its decay and stench, Izmir represents Turkey.

Emre Yeksan also made the films Süt (Milk), Unutma Beni İstanbul (Don’t Forget Me, Istanbul), Sesime Gel (Come to my Voice), and the documentary Hoşgeldin Lenin (Welcome, Lenin), but this is the first full-length film he has written and directed. Körfez is an allegory of today’s Turkey – a place on fire, a decaying and stench-filled swamp with an apathetic middle class.

Through the heroes of Selim and Cihan, who represent the age group called Generation Y, Echo Boomers, or Millennials, class divisions will fade away. Every part of this dystopian film, including its utopian ending, dreams of a “soft revolution.”

Körfez is as revolutionary as the story of an aimless and loveless young man wandering around his own city like a tourist. Through Selim’s eyes, we see the working-class slums, the narrow streets, and the general atmosphere of the jobless loafing around.

As bourgeois homes and trappings become worthless and people are escaping, the film focuses on those left behind in a city that is rotting like a corpse.

Like in the film, Izmir was once enveloped in a stench so strong that ferry windows had to stay closed even in the summer heat. Selim’s generation would remember this, however vaguely.

Although it was never discovered whether the ship was set on fire by terrorists, the event is reminiscent of the fire in Istanbul caused by two ships colliding in the Bosporus. The terrifying memories from the end of the 70s – bad smells, fires, street clashes, and taboos about sexuality – are reflected as the collapse is again reconstructed in Körfez, which moves along like a Jungian nightmare.

A scene from Körfez (The Gulf). Twitter / @KorfezFilm
A scene from Körfez (The Gulf). Twitter / @KorfezFilm

Everything in the film is real and as it seems, but at the same time everything is like a fantastical dream. Since each element of the film is a metaphor, Körfez becomes an exercise in semiotics. Until Selim sinks into the mud, everything is clear and understandable – these are metaphors that can be understood directly.

This film wears out the viewer watching it. The slow pace, the melancholy, the intensity of the metaphors… Right in the beginning, Selim is in the family’s shop watching the workers tap the walls with a giant branch looking for bedbugs, but in his head, he hears the sounds of the forest. It is magical scenes like these that make Körfez extraordinary.

There are scenes in the film that are as obtrusive as the officers who take Selim into custody for burning his old things on a deserted beach, such as the scene in the police car, where two officers beat Selim and leave him in the middle of the road. Körfez is among the first films in a flurry of productions with similar subject matter.

By depicting Izmir as a provincial little town, Körfez shatters the myth of this city that many Turks believe in. While in films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterpiece Mayıs Sıkıntısı (Clouds of May), where everyone is left to their own thoughts, the focus on a man aimlessly wandering the streets like a foreign tourist brings his troubles to the forefront.

Körfez’s potential has not been fully appreciated, but this interesting first film should encourage filmmakers everywhere.

The world premier will take place at during the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week.

Film poster for Körfez (The Gulf). Twitter / @KorfezFilm
Film poster for Körfez (The Gulf). Twitter / @KorfezFilm