September 12, 2013
Journey to the Sun – Turkey, 1999
Yesim Ustaoglu’s Journey to the Sun is the story of one young man’s awakening. When the film begins, the young man, Mehmet Kara (Newroz Baz), is full of the kind of naiveté that generally accompanies youth and immigration. He has made his way to the big city from an area of Turkey called Tire, gotten what he considers to be a good job, and met a young lady he loves and who loves him back. In his eyes, he has made it. He doesn’t yet realize how much there is working against him. Ignorance is bliss this way.
Towards the beginning of the film, Mehmet assists a man named Berzan (Nazmi Kirik), whose life is being threatened by a group of excited soccer fans, upset that he hasn’t taken part in their enthusiastic celebration. He should at least be honking his horn, one tells him. Before attacking the man’s car, someone can be heard asking if he is a Kurd, as if that would justify the assault that is about to be attempted. Mehmet and Berzan quickly become close friends. However, in many ways, Berzan is the opposite of Mehmet. He is informed, much more jaded, and politically active. He is a frequent protester at a prison where the inmates have gone on a hunger strike, and he is involved in some sort of smuggling ring, although the purpose of the ring is left unsaid. He’s the kind of friend everyone should have and the kind of person your mother might warn you not to get involved with.
The film does an exceptional job of showing viewers the conditions that many people in modern Turkey deal with on a daily basis - from the police asking for identification papers at every turn to cramped, uncomfortable living quarters that are packed with five or six people at a time. We also see the kinds of jobs that many migrant workers have to resort to just to eke out a living. Berzan, for example, operates a small portable stand selling audio cassettes, and his is just one of the many makeshift stands wheeled out in public every day.
The film also includes eye-opening incidents of classism, as well as realistic clashes between traditionalism and modernism. In one scene, we see older women wearing what would be considered traditional outfits on the same bus as two younger women who represent varying degrees of modernity. One wears silk stalkings in public and is adamant that she can, while the other would only wear them at home and would only put them on when her boyfriend is not watching.
Early in the film, Mehmet is falsely accused of being a terrorist, and the police officers that question him do quite a number on him. It is not the only sign of human rights abuses in the film. Later, upon his release, Mehmet is publicly stigmatized in a way reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and the majority of those that know him quickly cast him aside. As we see throughout the film, he is not the only one that this has happened to, and each X we see painted on a doorway is a calling card, a sign that someone was neither welcome nor safe. Just what happened to them is one of the film’s many mysteries.
The film was clearly shot without a Hollywood-style production crew, and many scenes are rather dark and grainy. This may frustrate some viewers, but to me, it gave the film a very realistic feel, as if it were a documentary. At times, Ustaoglu even employs black-and-white images of protests and carnage that have the authenticity of actual newsreel footage. However, little we see in these moments matches the visuals in the latter half of the film, for in this part of the film, Mehmet sets out of a journey to return his friend to a home that no longer exists. In fact, it more closely resembles a journey into hell than the joyful homecoming of a returning son and loved one. It has to be seen to be believed.
I’ve seen movies like Journey to the Sun before, yet I’ve rarely seen one that offers up so bleak a picture as this one does. However, despite the film’s increasingly hopeless tone, it remains a very involving film. I cared about these characters, and I found myself hoping that life would somehow turn around for them. Looking at the film now, in light of the recent protests and crackdown that took place in Turkey, I wonder if anything has really changed there. Just how many protesters have woken up to find their doors marked with a scarlet X? (on DVD)
*Journey to the Sun is in Turkish, Kurdish, and Dutch with English subtitles.