Once upon a time in Artvin / Emine Yıldırım

Today’s Zaman, 2011.05.13

Selim Güneş’s adaptation of Sabahattin Ali’s short story offers an enthralling visual journey with minimal dialogue. This is a work of pure cinema, prioritizing the essential over the trivial and transforming the trivial into the essential.

One of my favorite films at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival this past year was Selim Güneş’s debut “Kar Beyaz” (White as Snow), adapted from acclaimed 20th century writer Sabahattin Ali’s short story “Ayran.” Finally, the film comes out in Turkish theaters this week after a waiting period of some nine months since its premiere.

There is something about this film which is pleasantly fresh and unusual; it is minimalist yet at the same time extremely visually rich in a very straightforward way.

In “Kar Beyaz,” shot on location in the snowy Black Sea mountains of Artvin, director Güneş and cinematographer Serdar Özdemir create a fairytale-like atmosphere straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale.

It is the late ‘70s and life is not easy for little Hasan (Hakan Korkmaz). His father is behind bars and his mother tries to make ends meet by working as a cleaning lady in the nearby township. Hasan, his two little siblings and his mother live in a small wooden house perched up on a desolate hilltop far far away. Living in dire poverty is harsh, especially in the cruel winter.

Hasan, at his tender age, must also work. Every day he carries a jug of ayran to the closest tea house (closest as in two hours away) with the hope of selling it to random passersby and passengers of a minibus. Not that the tea house is crowded with customers, but this is Hasan’s only chance at earning his bread.

First, we watch him desperately walk through the dangerous forest to reach his destination amidst the howls of wolves all around. When he finally reaches the place, we are introduced to the other characters of this strange and lonely landscape. There is Recep, the owner of the tea house, an isolated man who laments the loss of his sweetheart, and Kadir, whose situation is similar to Hasan’s, trying to sell his winter pears. How people make ends meet in this forgotten place is a question of its own.

The minibus arrives and it is finally everyone’s big chance. At that point the film chooses to become a work of social realism for the following 10 minutes. But it pulls it off successfully and does not steer away from its Aesop-esque skeleton. Watch how Hasan desperately tries to sell his ayran to a middle-class bureaucratic type. This small scene is so powerful, summing up so many things. The man does in fact want to buy the ayran and asks for a cup. Hasan hands over the cup only to realize that the man does not have any change, but he gulps it down anyway without paying, “After all, it’s just a cup of ayran,” he thinks. Hasan remains silent as he watches with the most forlorn expression on his face, an expression summarizing the fact that he’s lost his wage for the day.

Then there is the journey back home. Night is falling and the wolves are howling louder. The boy walks and walks but will he be able to escape the ravenous wolves? His siblings are anxiously waiting for him and so is his poor mother, who has no idea what Hasan went through that day.

“Kar Beyaz” is a very simple tale and some critics may ponder whether Sabahattin Ali’s short story would have been a better fit for a short film. But at 80 minutes, Güneş’s adaptation offers an astoundingly enthralling visual journey with minimal dialogue at just the right places.

This is a work of pure cinema, prioritizing the essential over the trivial and transforming the trivial into the essential.

The images speak for themselves; they are arresting in every way possible, in framing and composition. It is a joy to watch a Turkish film that does not have the ambition of making existential statements in dialogue and allows its actors perform without the imposition of prophetic dialogue.

The music of the film is composed by Mircan. Her award-winning work elevates the film to an even more luscious cinematic level while it complements the story without overpowering it. The soundtrack, almost organically woven into the film, puts the viewer in a magical place.

Watch “Kar Beyaz.” It is of too much importance to be put aside and forgotten. If there is ever a cinematic style called magical socialist realism, this film is its forbearer.