Being a good person and doing the right thing
“Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both to Gods and men; and he who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted; but he is not to be trusted who loves voluntary falsehood, and he who loves involuntary falsehood is a fool.” Laws of Plato, Book 5
Vuslat Saraçoğlu’s film Borç (Debt) has finally reached theatres. Winner of Best Picture in the national competition section of the 2017 Istanbul Film Festival, this film has also taken prizes at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia and the Kerala Film Festival in India. The film arrives to Turkey amid two controversies overshadowing its cinematic attributes.
The first controversy followed the announcement that Borç had been chosen for the Istanbul Film Festival, when the team revealed that a crow with a small role in the movie had died from exhaustion during filming. Animal rights groups got involved, and it was later announced that one crow had attacked and killed the other.
The other debate was sparked immediately after the film won Best Picture, when a male film writer criticized it for being the competition’s weakest entry, and he insulted the festival’s jury president Pelin Esmer for giving it the award. Filmmakers everywhere were outraged at his sexist comments. I won’t repeat here the nasty remarks made by the two sides in both events, though I do have some personal views about both situations. What’s important now is how critics and audiences will react to Borç.
Vuslat Saraçoğlu, a mainstay of Turkish arthouse cinema, has made a film that is both realist and minimalist. Borç takes is strength from its authenticity, and it embraces a documentary-like reality. In a very natural way, the film tells the story of a middle-class family and the people in their lives in Eskişehir, Central Turkey; it’s like they set up a camera in a real family’s home and just started filming their lives. The authentic environment created in the film is largely due to Saraçoğlu’s spot-on casting choices and the actors’ excellent performances.
There is no doubt that Saraçoğlu is a keen observer. She accurately reflects her characters’ mentalities, behaviours, ways of speaking, social lives, and how they relate to shopkeepers, neighbours, and friends. Most of us, especially those of us living in small towns, will find that the world Saraçoğlu has wrought overlaps with many of our own experiences. The director’s background in sociology helps to explain why she is so successful at interpreting her observations and passing them along to us.
Borç explores the concept of goodness, and its narrative is somewhat monotonous until near the end. Saraçoğlu draws the landscape of a normal lower-middle-class family and describes a few things that disrupt the everyday flow of their lives: a car purchased on an instalment plan, a boss who’s late with the wages, a baby crow falling out of its nest, a sick neighbour staying with them because there’s no one else to look after her… Tufan (Serdar Orçin), Mukaddes (İpek Türktan), and their daughters, friends, and acquaintances all just carry on with their lives.
Their circumstances are apolitical and completely removed from current events, and they are ensconced in their own little world. Mukaddes (called Muko) does the housework, learns some belly-dancing moves from TV, and spends her days at home... Tufan works at a printing house and meets up with his co-workers to go to the movies... Some close family friends come to visit from out of town… The film lacks humour and sharp criticism. There is none of the psychological depth or darkness of the human spirit found in Zeki Demirkubuz’s films.
However, Borç deals with the ancient concepts of goodness and duty straight from the Ten Commandments and Plato’s fifth book of laws: thou shalt honour thy mother and thy father, thou shalt not steal, bear false witness, or envy thy neighbour. Plato’s notions of filling the soul by eschewing physical and material pleasures, being kind to strangers and those seeking refuge, and being fair all come into play as well; the film reveals the paradox of modern life and the struggle to always be just.
You can almost see Plato’s words written in the air: “And he who deems the services which his friends and acquaintances do for him, greater and more important than they themselves deem them, and his own favours to them less than theirs to him, will have their good-will in the intercourse of life.”
Tufan seems to be a physical manifestation of goodness and understanding. He takes the baby crow to the vet and decides to look after it at home until it gets better. His elderly neighbour (Rüçhan Çalışkur) comes to their door very sick, and Tufan takes her to the hospital. She needs to be cared for until her daughter Dilek arrives, so he invites her to stay at his house. However, Dilek is a singer and wants to continue her tour rather than nurse her sick mother. When the printing house where Tufan is working gets robbed, his boss (Feridun Koç) falls onto hard times but doesn’t get upset with Tufan and instead thanks him for his hard work and support.
Saraçoğlu uses a detailed mise-en-scène to convey the realities Tufan doesn’t notice while he’s being understanding towards his boss and judging Dilek. After the printing house robbery, the scene where Tufan comes back from work (made together with cinematographer Meryem Yavuz) is noteworthy for the amount of tension it creates. However, the film has an unpleasant epilogue that I found pointless after the striking finale; it seems the director didn’t want to leave us hanging about Dilek and her mother…
Tufan has a sense of duty similar to what Kant wrote about, and this is what drives all of his actions. But is Tufan truly “moral,” or does he just behave this way out of self-interest, ignoring the morality of Kant? Do people take advantage of his goodness because he helps others with no expectation of anything in return? Borç is vague about these conflicts. Tufan’s character arc develops very slowly, but it takes the viewer from everyday life to a place where the flow of ordinary events drains away. Serdar Orçin, İpek Türktan, and Rüçhan Çalışkur’s minimalist and natural performances are highly effective and believable.
Considering the director’s amateurish film from five years ago, a documentary called Müslüm Baba’nın Çocukları (Müslüm Baba’s Children, about fans of the late folk singer Müslüm Gürses), you can see she’s come a long way in a short time, and who knows what great things from her we’ll witness five years from now!