Nicolas Cheviron, Telegraph, 21 December 2009
With no fewer than 2.4 million viewers in two months, Nefes: Vatan Sağolsun – or “Breath: Long Live the Motherland” – ranks third at the 2009 Turkish box office, far ahead of major new releases like 2012 or the sixth “Harry Potter” film.
It is part of a passionate debate in Turkey about what went wrong and how the bloodshed takig place in its streets should be stopped.
“Nefes is “the first truly anti-war movie in Turkish cinema,” for film critic Attila Dorsay.
“People went to see what their children, cousins and parents went through in the army. The film touched them directly,” he said.
Directed by a first-time director, Levent Semerci, the film tells about the anguished life at a garrison in remote mountains in the 1990s, at the peak of the conflict between the army and separatist Kurdish rebels.
The conflict has claimed 45,000 lives since 1984, led to gross rights violations on both sides and dealt a huge blow to the south-east region’s already meager economy.
In a country where public opinion is usually sharply polarised, the film has won applause from the army and pacifists.
Praising its focus on the hardship of military duty, army chief Ilker Başbuğ said it was “one of the best films ever made on the struggle against terrorism”, while the anti-military daily Taraf hailed it as a masterpiece that “places the beauty of life against war”.
“Nefes’s” power lies in its realism as the creators abandon the image of the invincible soldier to depict the fears haunting fragile youths in the line of fire, their yearning for happiness and their deaths without glory.
In one memorable episode, a soldier daydreaming about his girlfriend whispers: “My motherland is you.”
The two directors followed the life of Emre, a young Turkish teacher, for a year during his first appointment in a Kurdish village where none of the students spoke Turkish and his efforts to teach them the language bore little fruit.
“After two months, Emre started to turn inwards, isolated from the village and the whole world… We realised he was becoming more and more nationalist,” said co-director, Özgür Doğan.
“There was a problem in that class and both children and teacher were victims. We think the Kurdish problem starts there in the classroom,” he said.
A third film recounting the dramatic story of a Kurdish family torn apart by the conflict was recently selected as Turkey’s submission for the Academy Awards’ best foreign film.
Güneşi Gördüm, or I Saw the Sun, is an emotional appeal against discrimination and prejudice by a popular Kurdish singer and director, Mahsun Kırmızıgül. It is currently second at the box office list with nearly 2.5 million viewers since March.
But street violence flared again over the past month, taking three lives, as Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader, claimed that his prison conditions had deteriorated and the country’s main Kurdish party was banned in court. Kurdish militants responded by killing seven soldiers in an ambush.
Still Doğan believes that a honest look at the conflict will not be in vain.
“It would be presumptuous to think movies can change things,” he said. “But when people start to understand each other, they overcome their prejudices and political convictions. And then they become capable of empathy.”
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