Detectives and dystopias: Alef and Karanlık Bölge

At a time when many of us turn to fictional narratives to make sense of the mess that is our world, the detective show Alef and the podcast series Karanlık Bölge (The Dark Zone) provide just what the doctor ordered.

At a time when many of us turn to fictional narratives to make sense of the mess that is our world, the detective show Alef and the podcast series Karanlık Bölge (The Dark Zone) provide just what the doctor ordered. 

On April 10, the first episodes of Alef were released. Those series successfully combines artistic vision with popular appeal. The show has sparked a buzz, as its director is the art-house filmmaker Emin Alper. Alper is famous for his atmospheric, political and parabolic films. Trained as a historian, Alper made his directorial debut in 2012 with Beyond the Hill, which won a prize at the 62nd Berlinale. 

His second film, Frenzy, debuted to great fanfare at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015. A Tale of Three Sisters (2019), with its Anatolian setting and story focused on women’s lives, was a successful change of pace for the director.

It is no easy feat for an independent filmmaker used to writing and directing his own films to move to the television sector, where big money dominates and viewer expectations are narrow. It seems Alper was able to leverage his fame to gain artistic control, for the colors and atmosphere in Alef are recognizable as his own. 

Alper worked with screenwriter Emre Kayış to create a series that is both intellectually stimulating and bingeworthy. While only two episodes have been released so far, the series is poised to earn its place among local detective series like Masum and Şahsiyet that compete in quality with their more famous European or North American counterparts, like the Scandinavian show The Bridge or HBO’s True Detective

Alef has an all-star cast. Settar (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) is a hardened detective from the Istanbul Homicide Bureau who is used to doing things his own way. Though Settar is only months from retirement, he insists on pissing off his superiors. His partner is Kemal (Kenan İmirzalıoğlu), a younger man freshly returned to Istanbul after years living in England and working as a detective for Scotland Yard. In interviews, Alper states that one unavoidable aspect of making a TV show is having to bow to certain generic clichés. The relationship between the two main characters is one of these clichés. While Settar listens to Turkish classical music and likes drinking rakı in tavernas with his old friends, Kemal sips whiskey at home to the accompaniment of jazz. Settar is more impulsive and forceful in his detective work while Kemal is more reserved and cerebral. The East-West parable could not be more obvious. 

But what makes the story interesting is the mysterious nature of the crimes they attempt to solve. The series starts off with two murders, a trans woman working at a pavyon and a rich, best-selling novelist. The murderer leaves clues for the detectives that contain a mystical subtext. To understand these illusions, Settar and Kemal enlist the help of Yaşar (Melisa Sözen), a professor of theology who specializes in Islamic mystics and heretics. She helps the detectives understand why the killer refers to an obscure serialized novel about Sufism titled The Rainbow

At a time when Ottomania dominates Turkish television, it hard not to roll one’s eyes when whirling dervishes and ancient symbols appear even in supposedly experimental productions like Alef. Still, if there’s anyone who can bring out what is compelling about the Ottoman past without falling into nationalist chauvinism, it is hopefully Alper. While these themes remain undeveloped in the first two episodes, we’ll have to take his word on where the show is going. According to Alper, “One of the major concerns of the show is how the intellectual and cultural richness of these lands were cruelly suppressed for years by the ruling powers; the series is a silent protest against this.” 

Though the show seems like it will maintain the oppositional politics that prevail in Alper’s films, it is also marked by the same gendered and sexual blind-spots of that early work. Alef  is rife with instances of casual sexism, as when Billur (Ayşegül Uraz), the only woman on the detective team, is presented as an over-achiever who cannot tolerate bad language used around her. Similarly, Settar and Kemal offensively describe the name of the serial killer’s trans victim, Merve, as a “nickname.” While it is unclear whether Alef is trying to thematize misogyny/transphobia or else just uncritically reproducing it, at a time when mainstream series are so bad on these topics, it is not unreasonable to expect better from Alper and his team. 

The podcast Dark Zone (written by Özge Satman B.) is the second promising though flawed media event of recent days. For the last couple of years, the global boom in podcast production has also taken root in Turkey. Like Rami Malek’s podcast Blackout or the award-winning Homecoming series, Dark Zone is a fictional podcast. While it superficially resembles the old radio theater of Turkish state broadcaster TRT, Dark Zone is less a play and more like a TV series—but without the visual component. 

Dark Zone uses television and film celebrities as voice actors, rich sound design, and a well-thought-out fictional narrative to create an immersive fictional world. The story follows detective Yaz (Tülin Özen) as she enters the Dark Zone Rehabilitation Center to investigate whether the former automobile executive Kuzey (Tansu Biçer) has truly changed his ways. Through Yaz’s eyes, we see a future world equal parts dystopian and utopian. 

Dark Zone takes place at a time when climate change has changed the face of the planet. While the sun now burns so hot that it is impossible to go out in the sunlight in most parts of the world, humanity has successfully averted further catastrophe through various social and technological evolutions. One important change is that criminals— including white-collar criminals like Kuzey who commit ecological crimes in the name of corporate profits—are no longer sent to prisons. Instead, they temporarily reside in rehabilitation centers with the choice of having their memories wiped. 

Through this utopian/dystopian frame, Dark Zone offers political commentary on climate change, technology, social media, and gender. Yet as much as the podcast tries to offer the vision of a new society, it is surprising how much their world resembles our own. The existence of those automobile corporations like the one Kuzey worked for (but are more careful about their ecological footprint) shows that capitalism remains unscathed by climate catastrophe. 

As Marxist thinkers interested in the pitfalls of popular science fiction have long remarked, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The fact that Dark Zone was partially funded through the sponsorship of BMW and the navigation company Yandex just further reveals how current realities stifle our imagination of future worlds, however well-intentioned.  

September 27, 2021 A fight for housing and joy