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Cannes 2018. Correspondences #11: The Dead, the Kyrgyz, and the Writer

As the Cannes Film Festival winds down, we report on Sergey Dvortsevoy’s first film in 10 years and Ceylan’s follow-up to “Winter Sleep”.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman.
Dear Lawrence,
You’ve delved into one of the more bravura and impressive films that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a film whose considerable vision and ambition has prompted some to question why it wasn’t in the main competition. A far more modest film but one that also appears as a surprise in this too-often blasé section was a patient and immersive ethnographic fiction, The Dead and the Others. Shooting in the verdant northeastern Brazil in the village of Pedro Branch, the two filmmakers, João Salaviza and Renee Nader Messora, have collaborated with the indigenous Kraho people there to fashion a discreet fable whose pleasures lay more in its observations than its drama. The film begins with a fantastic nocturnal encounter, between Ihjac (Henrique Ihjac Kraho) and the voice of his father, who recently died, who appears bodiless from the pool underneath a waterfall. Ihjac fears to join this spectral, speaking water, and returns to the village to prepare the final mourning feast which will allow him and the rest of the community to forget his father and the past. Married—the young couple are greatly charismatic in their natural chemistry—and with a young child, Ihjac seems to fear the future: Starting to feel ill, an elder diagnoses him as a man who may one day become a shaman—“I don’t want to become a shaman,” he weakly protests—and they send him far away into the local town to get a scientific diagnosis. Humorously informed by doctors that he is suffering from hypochondria, Injac indecisively lingers in the arid and ugly town, unwilling to return to face his father’s death and his ascendancy to greater adulthood.
More poetically titled in Brazilian Rain Is Singing in the Village of the Dead, Salaviza and Messora shot on 16mm to accentuate the earthy tactility of the village life, negating exoticizing pictorialism and staying far away from trying to summarize a life and a culture clearly existing with great fragility on the outskirts modern Brazil. There is next to no tension or dynamism in Ihjac’s limbo now that his father has died, but this bare framework allows the film its humane contrast of village and town life, and its obvious attraction to the more rarefied but hardly alien lifestyle of the Kraho. Hamstrung somewhat by having its extreme modestly drawn out for too long, The Dead and the Others nevertheless is a breath of fresh air at the festival, a relaxed, attentive and caring film with admirably little desire to claim itself for greater things.
Next door in the official selection’s main competition, on the final days of the festival many were avidly waiting to see just how exactly director Sergey Dvortsevoy would follow up his last feature, 2008’s Tulpan. Rumors abounded at the festival that his new film, Ayka, was accepted after the selection committee had only seen some incomplete footage and that it was being finished up until the last minute. This happened last year, too, with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which screened on one of the last days with no final credits. As with the Jean-Luc Godard and Lars von Trier films that premiered here earlier in the festival, part of the fervor at Cannes is the first-ever encounter with a movie from which few know what to expect. It’s a cherished sensation to have that when the lights go down in the cinema, anything can happen. (In the case of Godard and von Trier’s movies, we have that phenomena for better and for worse.)
In this sense, Dvortsevoy’s Ayka might register as a disappointment to some: By the end of the first reel, it is clear that the Russian director is following the path set out by the social realist movies of the Dardenne brothers in order to follow a few desperate days in Moscow in the life of illegal Kyrgyz worker Ayka (Samal Yeslyamova). Introduced as she flees a hospital through a broken window just after giving birth, the film with impressive immersion keeps up with the desperate perseverance of this lone woman as she antically searches for any kind of job to pay a vague but dangerously pressing debt, all the while increasingly suffering from post-pregnancy complications. Tearing around Moscow in her vivid blue parka during an apocalyptic blizzard, the world seem to be fighting her at every step and yet she won’t stop. Her brief moments at rest to gather her breath—collapsed momentarily on her flophouse cot, or taking over briefly for another Kyrgyz at a veterinary clinic—seem like ecstatic relief by mere comparison.
As resolute and grim as its heroine, Dvortsevoy’s wrenching drama is a bastion of empathy and concern. The people in Moscow are casually uncaring, whether fellow Kyrgyz looking out just for themselves or more moneyed Russians who do not take the time to see this young woman’s implacable effort or her obvious intelligence, buried as it is in the eyes hidden behind a head bowed by extreme exhaustion and pain. The camera, forever following this woman during her travails, often seems her only friend. But Ayka is no saint, she also effects the blinkered approach to survival that many of the Kyrgyz women she encounters—several veritable doppelgängers, one of whom advantageously took over her job while she was hospitalized—often cruelly exhibit. When she first returns to her curtained cot at the tenement for illegal immigrants, the camera pans down to a series of photographs that we assume is explicating her family and suggesting her humanity: No, a moment later Ayka sweeps them all away, yelling at an off-screen woman that "this is my shelf!" She then collapses for but a few minutes behind pinned curtains in the only semblance to privacy she has beyond stolen moments in public bathrooms. Shooting in 35mm, the film’s exteriors are assaulted by the blizzard while the interiors—basements, unlit stairwells, anonymous hallways, janitor closets—have the pallor of the city’s dirtiest snow.
Ayka’s single focus unfortunately also means it presents a drama of limited complexity. But that single focus is powerful: The film precisely evokes the fact that for many the effort to survive is as laborious as any job, and one ruthlessly unrewarded. With her debts mounting and her health failing, we are with this bedraggled but unfailing 25-year-old Kyrgyz at a moment when that labor—the labor of living—takes its toll economically, socially, and bodily. She frantically circulates among her poor network of connections, trying for service sector jobs, but with only an expired work permit as documentation, all are to no avail. Ayka changes SIM cards to avoid debt collection, and in her one call home to her family explains she doesn’t want to be poor like them, as “there’s no life” for the poor.  How she defines her life at that very moment, between debt and death, is impossible to say, and most films of this type might present her character in pure opacity, but in Yeslyamova’s face, radiating Ayka’s fervid nature as well as her extreme fatigue, we see life defined as extreme pertinacity. As familiar as it may seem, Ayka is a bracing dose of the kind of allegiance cinema can have with those for whom simply existing at all is never a simple matter.
At a film festival, where one film viewing follows another with an eye only to the logistics of schedules rather than resonance between experiences, the only rationale for following the grueling vision of Ayka with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s three-hour-long new film was simply that it premiered next. In fact, it premiered last: The Wild Pear Tree is the final competition title to show at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, which has not opted for a closing night film this year. Ideally such a slot in the schedule might be filled with something fun or at least easy-going, seeing as the press corps is at their most weary by this point, and if one knows the slow, solemn cinema of this Turkish master—whose last film, Winter Sleep, won the Palme d’Or—this placement almost seems a provocation on the part of the programmers.
Yet The Wild Pear Tree proved immediately engrossing, like that wonderful experience of starting a hefty book late at night and finding oneself reading until dawn. Expanding upon Winter Sleep's conversation-heavy approach that signaled a shift in Ceylan's style towards discourse, his new film tells a story that one is more likely to find in American independent cinema, that of a young man transitioning from youth to adulthood in the limbo between school and life. After graduating college, Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), an aspiring writer, returns to his family home to Çanakkale (where Troy is thought to have been located) to try to publish his book of observations about the region's lifestyle and take a exam to determine where in the country he can teach. His father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is an inveterate gambler supposedly in recovery, but it isn’t one minute after Sinan gets off the bus in the town square that a local starts pestering him about his father’s debts. It turns out few have respect for Idris—his wife (Bennu Yıldırımlar) and children included—a man of affably obsequious manner, ingratiatingly asking for favors and making excuses with a wry, twinkling eye. But Sinan is hardly better: There is no less likable protagonist in a film I saw here in Cannes. Arrogant, opinionated and outspoken, Sinan seems to practically heckle anyone he talks to with a snide smirk and passive aggressive sarcasm. He’s a young man trying to be a young artist, stumbling professionally, ashamed of his family, and irritated by the others around him who he engages in conversations that often tip over into arguments: An old crush of his from high school, a local writer Sinan clearly thinks is a hack, a patriotic businessman who is a patron of the arts ("Education is great, but this is Turkey—you have to adapt"), two young imams of differing opinions, and, of course, his parents. These long, drawn-out and sometimes spellbinding conversations, which, make up the bulk of Ceylan's drama rather than a straightforward story, all revolve around frustration over progress, and whether things have the possibility of change: feelings for other people, habits and vices, the old generation and the new, and the purpose of art and religion in Turkey at this moment.
To all of these conversations Sinan brings a quietly seething rage, yet as he wanders around town he disdainfully implies that it is those around him who should do something, change things, about this rather than he. Describing his creative work as “free of faith, ideology, and allegiances,” Sinan pompously sees his own existence as the righteous ideal others should bend to, a progressive. He claims to be searching for life’s secrets in his prose, but in Çanakkale he mostly comes off as unforgiving, misogynist, and frequently cruel—and for all we know, a mediocre writer. His dreams are fearful and leaden with symbolism of his rural family origins; and in his waking life, his main action is to pester and judge. In Sinan, Ceylan gives us an impressively detailed, if occasionally ponderous portrait of a new generation of young men in Turkey, one unmoored from established positions and instead exhibiting a contradictory blend of impulses and beliefs. His is a rich, difficult character,  and even after three hours of observing and listening to him, I’m still not quite sure what he stands for, where all his anger comes from, or what he desires to love in life. While not a film with much deep mystery, Ceylan has left us with a hero who is one himself.
That's a mystery I'll take back home with me, Lawrence, along with those proposed by The Image Book, Asako I & II, Ash Is Purest White, In My Room, and the other movies we've found here that thankfully ask more questions about this world than answer. You're lucky enough to get one more day in Cannes, and so as I take off, I will look forward to your final thoughts on the festival.
Warmly,
Danny

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