It’s almost a decade since Ümit Ünal appeared at the Istanbul Film Festival of 2002 with his debut feature, and a hard punch to pack. If the title 9 is sparing, so too is the production of this low- or, as Ünal said at the time, no-budget film; but the elegance of its dramatic structure would be hard to surpass. 9, the first Turkish feature to be shot entirely in digital format, is a high-tension whodunit, a superlative montage of six police interrogations. A young female foreigner is murdered in an ostensibly quiet Istanbul neighbourhood. As the residents are questioned by turn, so their inner feelings come spilling out: a toxic brew of resentment, hatred, secret desires. Here, the limitations of the digital medium work perfectly in giving visual form to the film’s theme: narrowness and bigotry, hidden obsessions and sinister events from the past define the social climate of the neighbourhood. As for the police, who provide our perspective in the interrogations--the witnesses talk straight to the camera--neither do they come out well in the film: using physical violence, they force one of the suspects into a confession. But conclusive evidence pointing to the real murderer, which isn’t presented until the very end and only then in passing, tells another story.
Yet 9 is also a portrait of the Istanbul Metropolis and its mixed bag of residents. The film’s protagonists epitomize specific social backgrounds. There’s the ordinary, working-class woman, blinded by maternal love and loath to see that her son has long escaped her clutches. There’s the son himself, a cosseted, weak good-for-nothing who has fallen defencelessly into bad company; and his friend who resorts to arrogance and conspiratorial appeals to camaraderie among men in a bid to win the sympathies of the police. There’s the old book seller, a communist who has survived worse interrogations than this and retreated into his shell long ago; the ‘American’, a boozer who spent years in the USA and was a good friend of the murder victim; and finally the photographer and family man whose assiduous honesty is meant to conceal the double life he leads. The victim herself gradually acquires form from the accounts of the witnesses and an amateur video by the photographer, inserted between statements. The young woman stands as a symbol of marooned foreigners, foundering individuals who have fallen by the wayside in pursuit of their dreams, as are to be found in all cities of mythical repute.
That the city is no place to cling to illusions is a theme that also finds resonance in Istanbul Tales. Written by Ünal, the film comprises five loosely connected episodes, each directed by a different director and featuring common protagonists whose paths keep crossing. Fairy tale motifs are vaguely observed, but transferred to the present day. In contrast to the closed structure and sets of 9, Istanbul Tales is a homage to the streets, above all of Beyoğlu. The camera revels in the colourful muddle of crowds on İstiklal Street, delights in the hysterically blinking neon signs, in the crumbling historical buildings and the seclusion of an urban mansion. Superficially the film seems the complete antithesis of 9. But on a deeper level there are, of course, parallels: along with his team of directors, Ünal defines Istanbul once more as a melting pot, and it’s almost as if the social demands that define his protagonists are an effect of the relentless sensory overload of the city. Anyone seeking the tightness of form and concept that marked out 9 was likely disappointed by Istanbul Tales: at the time, the episodes seemed too confused and arbitrary; they weren’t connected in an entirely plausible way; and shots of the city were consciously chosen to look spectacular. Yet today, if Ünal’s oeuvre of six films is considered as a whole, it’s clear that the films contain references to one another, they complement one another and frequently return to the same themes.
A case in point is the moustachioed man, a stock character emblematic of the patriarchal order, who revisits Ünal’s films time and again. My young intellectual colleagues in Istanbul have sometimes complained that their own social class is at best underrepresented in film stories. And although Ünal once argued that this male archetype was still ubiquitous, so should also be portrayed, he seemed to meet the critics’ challenge to a T with Ara in 2007. Born in 1965, Ünal is one of the few younger directors to have thought seriously about his own generation and transposed the results to the screen. The sole location used in Ara–-again, the sense of economy is strongly reminiscent of 9--is a rambling old apartment in Beyoğlu, rented out to film productions by the woman who owns it and used partly as private living space. Here, two couples meet up again after an interval of 10 years, together or in different combinations of pairs. Their discussions and altercations, betrayals, deceptions and despair, their affairs and personal crises are symptomatic of any 40-year-old having to handle life’s disappointments. Of course, the film is also about the clash of gender role clichés with living reality and the possibilities of changing--but without recourse to the violence endorsing the ‘maganda’ within them.
Violence, however, is a leitmotif in Ünal’s next film The Shadowless, an adaptation of Hasan Ali Toptaş’s eponymous novel. This is a grim tale of incest set in a nameless village outside of time. Only when a stranger turns up do the sinister secrets come to light. Symbolizing the dominant male culture is a bear that has evidently impregnated a missing young woman. In the background of the story are the village head, a man ensnared in a Kafkaesque-like jungle of bureaucracy, and an intellectual outsider who gets blamed for every disaster. The aesthetic composition of the film, which tells a universal story despite its moustachioed men, is defined by a muddy palette and dim light, against which a powerful red alone stands out--a symbol of the blood that has been shed over centuries. In this film, too, there are further echoes of 9, but this time dramaturgical and stylistic. Ünal’s DoP on the film, Gökhan Atılmış (who also shot Ara), worked with colour filters to create a monochrome effect, a strategy already applied in 9.
Ümit Ünal has many talents: he can write incisive dialogue and direct his actors with precision. He can make good films with extremely low budgets, and he has mastered the rules of different genres. But it’s almost as if his many strengths sometimes get in the way or compete with one another, as is manifested in the exaggerated hysteria of Istanbul Tales or the laboured symbolism of his psycho-thriller The Voice (2009). This is also a film about identities colliding with role clichés and the multiplicity of Istanbul lives--here Ünal remains true to himself--but The Voice comes across as rather wishy-washy, aesthetically too.
Ünal is a master of the small, closed form, a wizard with claustrophobic sets, an exceptionally gifted innovator of elegant structures. At times, though, he suddenly seems to think it’s high time he got out. And who could blame him, so long as he makes it back to the magical twilight of his constrictive spaces?