From the mat to the grass, an endless struggle

Mete Gümürhan’s “Genç Pehlivanlar (Young Wrestlers), is a thoughtful documentary showing the lives of wrestling students at a wrestling training school in Amasya.

We first got to know Mete Gumurhan from his work as co-producer with Asli Ozge on films such as “Koprude Bulusmalar”(Meetings on a Bridge) and “Hayat Boyu” (Lifelong). “Genc Pehlivanlar” is Gumurhan’s the first feature length film he directed. The documentary made its worldwide premier at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, in the Generation KPlus Division, and won a Mansiyon Award.  The Turkish-Dutch film was also shown at the 2016 Istanbul Film Festival’s Ulusal Belgesel (National Documentary division). During the same year, it was entered into the Ulusal (National) film category at the Antalya Film Festival, and won the Behlul Dal Jury Award for Best Original film and the Best Editing Award, won by the film’s editor, Ali Aga. This week, it will be shown at the CGV Arthouse Cinmaxium.

“Genc Pehlivanlar” is a documentary, which shows students as they go about their lives. The cameras do not interfere in the daily lives of the students, nor are there any questions asked to interrupt the flow of the movie. This, which gives the viewer the impression that there is no screen while allowing them to be part of the students’ lives, is the movie’s greatest success. 

Mete Gümürhan turns his camera onto the Youth Services and Sports Center and transforms it into the Ibrahim Zengin Wrestling Center, a boarding school. We identify the coach, Ramazan, early on from his interactions with the students during their weigh in. He tells some that they have to eat better to put on weight and tells others to stay away from bread, soda and chips. For wrestlers to compete in their specific categories, their weight must remain stable. Throughout the movie, importance of diet and nutrition is frequently discussed, and Baran, who can’t stay on a diet, is often admonished.

A scene from Mete Gümürhan’s “Genç Pehlivanlar” (Young Wrestlers).

The children’s lives are not that different than at of students at other boarding schools. They shower, eat, brush their teeth, walk to school together in the mornings and attend class. But, whereas in the afternoon, other kids their age play or hang out with friends and family, these young athletes are training hard. Their small bodies are drenched in sweat as they exercise and learn their routines.  The movie shows that one must be incredibly motivated and work hard to become a professional athlete. These boys are in an endless cycle, going from the mat to the grass.

Alongside the dual education and training, the movie also shows the sadness families feel being apart for the first time. It is obvious the boys are from poor families, whose parents want them to have a chance at success. They are all a little sad, no doubt missing their families and have an air of loneliness even in groups. They talk shyly of girls that they like at the school. Unlike other kids who are constantly on their smart phones, listening to music, playing games, most of these children own older phones and infrequently call their parents. We never see them watching television. But, even if they have different issues, just like their counterparts, they do mess around and kid with each other when they have respite from school, studying and training.

When Muhammed is pinned in one of their first competitions, one can’t help but be touched by his sadness and how he tries not to cry by biting his lips. We are torn inside by the cries of “ I want to go home,” coming from a blue-eyed, thin, little boy. He cries even more as his friends and Ramazan try to console him. “I am going to lose,” he says, just so he can be removed from the school. Beytullah, who can’t train or compete for one month due to broken veins in his nose, is incredibly sad when he sends his friends off to a competition.

When we see the young champions in their green shorts at the oiled body wrestling match in Karakecili getting ready to go out on the grass, we get the impression that while the boys want to win, they are also preparing themselves for losing. Mete Gumurhan great success in this movie is his ability to connect the viewer with the young athletes while keeping a distance between the viewer and the personal space of the children.

“Genc Pehlivanlar” is sublime and moves effortlessly with no false notes, except the single one at the end. In the final, Black Key’s Lonely Boy song is played and strikes a negative note, as this song will only have meaning for the producers and more western viewers. But, to that point, the movie is completely natural and doesn’t lose any authenticity.