Somersault in a Coffin has attracted enough serious critical interest that it can now be found in graduate school seminars on the cinematic city, which is where I first saw it. The film’s visual and aural landscape – a dead man in a boat beside the Bosphorus, the unearthly sound of a peacock’s cry – have remained with me ever since, as has its distinctively hued version of Istanbul. It would be impossible to conceive of a City to City Istanbul focus without Dervis Zaim’s portrait of mid-nineties disadvantage and compulsion in his singular city.
Cinematically, Somersault in a Coffin was a rare product of Turkish filmmaking at the time: a non-commercial, gritty portrait of urban disenfranchisement. Socially, it captured a mood of malaise and frustration. The narrative follows Mahsun (Ahmet Ugurlu), an indigent, weather-beaten hanger-on in the fringes of Istanbul life, and a sometimes car thief. The film unfolds during the city’s winter, and Mahsun and his homeless peers attempt to survive the gnawing cold of the nights in moored boats or empty construction sites. One of the film’s great strengths is the way in which Mahsun’s frequent late-night appropriations of other people’s vehicles come without preamble. We see him in the cold and, after a cut, we see him cruising along in a car. We quickly understand that his crimes are ones of necessity.
While the film is mostly empathetic towards Mahsun, the city’s authorities are not, and his run-ins with the law often leave him battered. As the winter wears him down, he becomes obsessed with stealing a peacock from a local tourist attraction, compulsively attracted to this symbol of the prosperity and privilege that will forever remain out of his reach. Ironically, it’s these moments of humour that reveal the real desperation of Mahsun’s plight. Somersault in a Coffin – a title that suggests being asked to do the impossible when your fate is already sealed – marks an early start to the more recent cycle of Istanbul films that fearlessly explore the city’s margins and the lives lived therein. –TIFF
Derviş Zaim (born Derviş Zaimağaoğlu in 1964 in Famagusta, Cyprus) is a Turkish Cypriot filmmaker and novelist, who has twice won the Golden Orange for Best Director for Elephants and Grass (2000) and Dot (2008); Golden Oranges for Best Film and Best Screenplay for Somersault in a Coffin (1996); and the Yunus Nadi literary prize for his debut novel Ares in Wonderland (1995).
Derviş Zaim was educated at Namik Kemal Lyceé and graduated in Business Administration from Boğaziçi University in 1988. He attended a course in independent film production in London and made experimental video Hang the Camera (1991). He subsequently wrote, produced and directed numerous television programs starting with the documentary Rock around the Mosque (1993). He completed his masters degree in Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick in 1994. His first novel, Ares in Wonderland (1995), won the prestigious Yunus Nadi literary prize in Turkey.
Somersault in a Coffin (1996) was his debut… read more