Thursday, December 02, 2010

NY Turkish Film Fest ’10: On the Way to School

Can someone make a positive difference in the lives of others without really caring? It is a question viewers might ask when a reluctant Turkish school teacher assumes his post in a desperately poor Kurdish village. It quickly becomes apparent Emre Aydin did not bargain for the challenges facing him in Ozgür Dogan and Orhan Eskikoy’s scrupulously unfiltered documentary On the Way to School (trailer here), which screens this Saturday as part of the 12th New York Turkish Film Festival.

Presumably, Aydin became a teacher with the noblest intentions and he is certainly dutiful throughout On the Way. Arriving in the remote village he is less than thrilled to find his living quarters lack running water. Yet, like a Turkish version of Northern Exposure’s Dr. Joel Fleischman, he is committed to his post-graduation term of service, so after a bit of cajoling, he rounds up his pupils to begin the new term.

Aydin is surely correct when he tells his class they can never prosper in Turkey if they do not speak Turkish. Forsaking other subjects, he concentrates on remedial language lessons, refusing to acknowledge any Kurdish in class, not that he knows much in the first place. His immersion technique might be producing results, but whether he really forges a connection with his pupils is difficult to tell.

Arguably, class differences play as great a role in On the Way as culture clashes. Throughout the film, the implications of Turkey’s attitudes towards its Kurdish population are inescapable. Indeed, for these villagers, class and ethnicity are essentially the same. Though we see him more-or-less getting along with his neighbors, it is hard to judge how Aydin processes all the meanness of life surrounding him. Regardless, though “disadvantaged” by any standard, his students seem bright and willing to learn.

Given its unvarnished depiction of Kurdish life in Turkey, On the Way is quite a bold selection for the New York Turkish Film Festival. However, it is honest filmmaking, eschewing talking heads and manufactured sentiment in favor of fly-on-the-wall observation in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman. A challenging film, On the Way is sure to spark debate when it screens this Saturday (12/4) at the SVA Theater as part of the 2010 New York Turkish Film Festival.