The lives of four characters intersect in a crumbling neighborhood of Istanbul. The teenage Didem gets fired from her job cleaning hotel rooms and dreams of winning a hip-hop dance competition. Middle-aged İffet tries to borrow money for her son in jail and ends up peddling drugs. Raşit spends the day renting overpriced rooms to Syrian refugees and the night illegally demolishing historic buildings on behalf of a shady construction company. Experimental artist and feminist activist Ela moves between offering video workshops to neighborhood children and attending queer underground parties.
The action of Azra Deniz Okyay’s first full-length film Ghosts (Hayaletler) takes place on a single day in October 2020 in an Istanbul that is both like, and unlike, our own. The film begins with the sound of a radio bulletin declaring that “Istanbul has turned into a war zone.” After a power cut cripples the city, riots and looting break out. There are police checkpoints across the city and omnipresent helicopters surveying from above. This semi-dystopian setting provides the perfect background for exploring the anxious reality behind what government rhetoric describes as the “New Turkey.”
Ghosts has already made waves both internationally and nationally. In September, the film was awarded the International Film Critics’ Week Grand Prize at the Venice Festival. The jury described it as “a vivid portrayal of the tensions currently tearing apart Turkish society; the film boldly explores the intersection of public and private anxiety”. On Oct. 10, the film made its Turkish premiere at the annual Golden Orange Film Festival in Antalya. At this 57th meeting of Turkey’s most prestigious award ceremony, Ghosts won Best Film and Best Editing while 37-year-old Okyay was awarded Best Director. And just last week the film won a special jury award at the Warsaw Film Festival.
Ghosts is set to be an influential representative of the New Turkey’s new cinema. According to Okyay, the narrative is laid out in a “spiral” shape in order to provide a more complete picture of contemporary life. The same events are shown from different perspectives. For example, we see the artist-activist Ela preparing for a women’s rights protest while the slumlord Raşit films the protesters with his telephone so he can report them to the police. Similarly, both teenager Didem and sanitation worker İffet are in desperate need of money and use overlapping means to acquire it. The four strands of the narrative finally come together at the end of the film but in a somewhat anticlimactic manner.
The film is strongest in its presentation of more minor details. As the characters walk around the city, conversations are drowned out by the ubiquitous police helicopters in a subtle depiction of surveillance. At another point, we see everyday conservatism when Didem is sitting outside chatting with her boyfriend and an irate neighbor comes to tell them off for “having sex in public” and destroying the neighborhood’s honor. The situation of Syrian refugees is presented through a snippet of a conversation in Arabic where one man says to his friends that he’s been in Istanbul for six years but won’t stay a minute longer once the war ends back home.
While each of these details is resonant on its own, when combined the effect is a little heavy-handed. In touching on Syrian refugees, conservatism, the police state, the women’s movement, poverty, gentrification, and LGBTQI+ rights, the film is like a potpourri of all the hot issues of the moment. A film can certainly have a political message and still be successful as cinema, but a little subtlety goes a long way. At one point in the film, the character Raşit describes a dream he had of selling luxury apartment complexes because he wants the “New Turkey” to be strong. Moments like this are just a little too on the nose to be credible.
The film seems to switch back and forth between realism and something a bit more fantastical. The dystopian dimension of Ghosts, with its alternate reality of contemporary Istanbul, could have been developed more. Similarly, the theme of dancing is powerful but left incomplete. Didem dreams of getting famous by winning a hip-hop dance competition with her friends. In one particularly resonant moment, the amateur dance troupe practices in an open field between apartment buildings. A group of men gather to ogle them. A head-scarved “auntie” from one of the buildings shouts at the girls to stop dancing before calling the police on them. This contrast between dance’s ability to emotionally transport these girls to a place beyond their everyday circumstances could have been used as a reflection on the utopian power of art as a window into a different way of living.
This spark of something a little less didactic can also be spotted in the film’s final scene. Didem, wearing her baggy hoody and headphones, dances her way down a pitch-black, graffiti-lined street lighted by nothing but the flashlight of her telephone. If art is to capture something about the realities of Turkey today, it must dive deep into these radical contrasts between dark and light, grittiness and beauty.