Love, spells, and all that

Amid rising homophobia and social inequality in Turkey, the latest film from director Ümit Ünal is a timely reflection on how love unites people and society rips them apart.

Two women cross paths on the streets of Büyükada, the Istanbul island where bougainvillea blooms and stray cats roam. As teenagers, the two women were lovers. However, 20 years have passed since they have seen each other. What is the mysterious force that binds them together after all these years? And what can they do about it? 

Thus begins Love, Spells and All That (Aşk, Büyü vs), the latest film from director Ümit Ünal. Amid rising homophobia and social inequality in Turkey, this film is a timely reflection on how love unites people and society rips them apart. 

Ece Dizdar plays Eren, the daughter of a government minister. Reyhan’s (Selen Uçer) family work as gardeners and caretakers of the minister’s summer villa on Büyükada. While they are teenagers, these two girls from very different backgrounds fall in love. Everything is idyllic until Eren’s mother walks in on her and Reyhan in bed together. Reyhan is disowned by her family and effectively blacklisted from holding a job due to the intervention of Eren’s powerful father. Reyhan eventually returns to Büyükada to live when she’s certain that no one recognizes her anymore. Eren, in contrast, is sent to boarding schools abroad and eventually settles in Paris. 

Two decades pass. Eren returns to Turkey and decides to find Reyhan, with whom she is still in love. Eren asks Reyhan to run away with her. Reyhan, who has settled into a precarious but stable enough life on the island living with a boyfriend, is shocked to see her teenage lover again. Reyhan tries to convince Eren that she is not smitten but rather the victim of a love spell she paid an old woman to perform when they were first separated as teenagers. 

The film centers on a day filled with Reyhan and Eren’s conversations. These range from hostile and accusing to intimate and flirtatious. The powerfully written dialog reveals the complexity of their feelings for each other and the weight of all the years spent apart. The viewer watches the two women as they wander the picturesque streets and hills of the island, trying to process the past and figure out what’s next. Though neither fully believes in magic and superstition, they set off to undo the love spell. In the process, they discover more about themselves and each other than they reckoned for. 

Director Ümit Ünal started his career working for Yeşilçam, Turkey’s classic film industry known for its nostalgic black-and-white melodramas. Love, Spells and All That reworks some of the Yeşilçam cliches for the present. As Reyhan puts it in the film, ““Rich girl falls for a poor... girl. A perfect melodrama!”

This is how Ünal describes why he decided to play with this cinematic tradition to create a film about love between two women:

“As a screenwriter-director who honed his craft in the 1980s, this is my contemporary response to the conventional Turkish cinema and my country's climate getting more oppressive by the day. It is a combination of my formative years in Yeşilçam and my recent independent, small scale films with big questions behind them. Love, Spells and All That challenges and queers a genre that has long been heteronormative. It is a heart-breaking modern melodrama, an absurd conflation of the secular and the superstitious, and a queer nostalgia commenting on today’s Turkey.”

What is refreshing about Love, Spells and All That is how it treats lesbian love as a non-issue. While it is clear that the characters have had their lives ruined because of how society sees them, the film is more focused on the specific dynamics of their relationship as well how social class affects it. While Reyhan had to abandon her plans to go to college and experienced poverty after the affair was discovered, Eren went to France to study Lacanian psychoanalysis. While they have both longed for each other, the specific ways they experienced homophobia and sexism cannot be the same while the financial resources at their disposal are so different. 

In this way, the love between Reyhan and Eren is presented as fully human, which also means flawed. There are few precedents for a film of this kind, presenting a lesbian relationship in all its complexity, in Turkey.

For her portrayal of Reyhan, Selen Uçer won the award for Best Actress at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in 2019. In her acceptance speech she commented on what the film shows about love:

“[It is] a love story. The love story that all of us know, actually. But different…not of the model that we are taught. It’s the story of two people who actualize themselves in a world that treats those who are different or new as strange—judging and transforming them into the ‘Other.’” 

If there is a spell in this film, it is the ability to immerse ourselves in the love and conflict between two extraordinary characters. It is the magic of a good film to allow us to inhabit another’s world, even if only for an hour and a half. 

October 31, 2020 'Ghosts' of the New Turkey