Thursday, October 02, 2008

NYTFF: Bliss

The UN estimates 5,000 Muslim women are murdered each year by their families in so-called “honor killings.” Their perceived crimes range from simple flirtation with a man the family deems inappropriate, to being the innocent victims of rape. The latter is the case in Abdullah Oğuz’s Bliss (Turkish trailer here), a bold examination of honor killings in provincial Turkey, screening this Sunday at the Anthology Film Archives as part of this year’s New York Turkish Film Festival.

As the film opens, a shepherd finds young Meryem badly beaten and violated, lying unconscious near a lake outside her remote village. He carries her home not to a sympathetic family, but a cruel step-mother and weak father, who automatically blame her for her condition. The village Agha, her father’s cousin, decrees that Meryem must die for the dishonor she allegedly brought upon the family. When she refuses to do the job for them, the Agha charges his son Cemal, recently discharged from the army, with the horrific task.

Though a dutiful son, Cemal has no taste for cold-blooded murder. Although he is conflicted, uncertain whether he is truly doing the right thing, Cemal spares Meryem. As they take flight from their wrathful family, Meryem and Cemal must turn their backs on their family and former village lives. On the run, they find refuge as crew members on the yacht of Irfan, a sociology professor who dropped out of academic life, hoping to find peace of mind through life on the water.

Clearly, Irfan represents the secular modernist impulse of Turkey. He is an educated man, who can talk to a former student wearing a bikini without thinking anything of it. Cemal by contrast, nearly goes into shock. A bit free-spirited, but no idiot, Irfan starts to suspect the rough outline of his young crew’s troubles and does his best to help them find their way.

The three main characters of Bliss are sharply drawn and well nuanced, raising it above the level of a mere issue film. Özgü Namal gives an understated, but moving performance as Meryem, a woman abused all her life, only now starting to assert herself after suffering an unspeakable trauma. Murat Han brings seething intensity to the role of Cemal, conveying the bitterness and resentment of a man forced to confront the injustice of traditions he had always uncritically accepted. As the silver-maned professor, Talat Bulut comes across as realistically flawed but deeply humane, rather than a caricature of nobility.

Oğuz and Bosnian cinematographer Mirsad Heroviç use their isolated locations to create some striking visuals. Well paced, the tension is quite acute at times, growing organically out of the story. Bliss is a film that needs to be seen by a wide audience for honestly addressing the peril faced by far too many Muslim women in world today. Even discounting the importance of its subject matter, it holds up well as a film in pure cinematic terms.

Seeing Bliss when it screens at the NYTFF on Sunday the 5th is highly recommended. The Fest runs from Friday the 3rd to Saturday the 11th at the Anthology Film Archives. On Friday the 10th, Ümit Ünal and Selen Uçer, the director and star of Ara, will appear in-person to introduce and discuss their film. They will be followed by a screening of Riza featuring a Q&A with director Tayfun Pirselimoğlu. Look for further NYTFF postings here in the coming days.