“Hey There!” turns pandemic into dark comedy gold

It was only a matter of time before COVID-19 made its way into cinema. Turkish director Reha Erdem’s latest film “Seni Buldum Ya!” (released in English as “Hey There!”) deals with the pandemic in the best of ways: by letting it shape the film’s form rather than dominating its content.

It was only a matter of time before COVID-19 made its way into cinema. Director Reha Erdem’s latest film “Seni Buldum Ya!” (released in English as “Hey There!”) deals with the pandemic in the best of ways: by letting it shape the film’s form rather than dominating its content. That is, “Seni Buldum Ya!” is less about the pandemic and more a film whose very shape and style exists thanks to it. 
 
Reha Erdem’s optimism with regards to the pandemic (he calls himself a “pandemic Pollyanna”) is infectious. Of course, the period we’re going through is grim and deadly. Yet with “Seni Buldum Ya!” Erdem has aimed to show that it is still possible to create things. The limits to filmmaking (being unable to gather in big sets, for example) that the pandemic has imposed can be treated as an opportunity rather than just a liability. At a time when those of us with the privilege to work from home are sick to death of the online meeting platform Zoom, Erdem has brought us a film almost entirely recorded on the website. 
 
“Seni Buldum Ya!” was released on March 13, not in cinemas (closed since this time last year) but on MUBI. This is a digital streaming platform. Think “Netflix” but for classic and contemporary arthouse cinema. The company’s founder and CEO, Efe Çakarel, is actually from Turkey. Though MUBI has already established itself internationally (with 10 million subscribers in 200 countries), in the last couple of years, it has been working double-time to edge into the Turkish market, both with advertising campaigns to entice local subscribers and collaborations with big names in the Turkish cinema scene. In that sense, teaming up with respected director Erdem and gaining exclusive distributor rights to “Seni Buldum Ya!” fits right into their strategy.
 
Fittingly for pandemic times, the film is a black comedy. It centers on the lives of nine characters, with Ali Felek (played by famous actor Serkan Keskin) at the center. Taking advantage of the fact that many people are stuck at home while Istanbul is in lockdown, Felek hacks into people’s computers and pretends to be calling from a government bureau (the “4th Department”). Using information funneled to him by his sketchy partner-in-crime Kerim (Bülent Emin Yarar), he scares people with a list of the crimes, acts of corruption, or other moral infelicities that they have supposedly committed. After threatening them with the full weight of the state, he tells them that they can have their record cleared if they just pay a certain fee (to be sent directly to his partner Kerim’s bank account). 
 
Of course, none of this is real. There is no such thing as the 4th Department. It’s just one man in his apartment with a fake logo hung on the wall behind him and a bookcase with some menacing-looking legal books and heavy binders. Yet there are more than enough unsuspecting dupes. Felek’s first victim is the middle-aged, white-haired Cemil (Taner Birsel), who is more than willing to wire money if it means he will be absolved of his wrongdoings. Often the “crimes” committed by the characters do not exactly fit under the legal definition of what is prosecutable. In a raucous performance, the disgraced university professor Tuba (Esra Bezen Bilgin) admits to plagiarism, as well as indiscretions with some of her male students. But rather than sending the money Felek had demanded, she serenades him with a performance of Brenda Lee’s 1960 jazz number “I’m Sorry.” 
 
Other of Felek’s would-be victims take the idea of “crimes” a little too metaphorically. Seçkin (played by film and TV mega-star Ezgi Mola) turns these confessional conversations into actual therapy sessions, even offering to pay Felek for a weekly Zoom meeting. Hilariously, she uses these sessions as a chance to complain about her relationship with her sister. While Felek is skilled at getting into people’s heads, it is his talent as a listener and the extremely personal nature of the questions he asks that encourages some of his victims to forge an emotional connection with him. For example, in the middle of shaking people down for money, he asks things like: “What would you not do for money?” “Do you ever wish you had never been born?” “Is there anyone whose death would make you happy?” This is less a government trial than a priest’s confession and absolution of sins. Felek knows that we all have something we feel guilty about and given the right conditions we all enjoy speaking about our mistakes. It also doesn’t hurt that people are stuck at home thanks to coronavirus and so are dying to talk to someone, anyone. 
 
Yet for all his focus on crimes and redemption, Felek doesn’t realize until much too late that he can be just as vulnerable as his victims. At one point, he tries to scare Ceren (Ecem Uzun), a young girl who has run away from home, into paying a fine. She not only makes fun of him but begins actively terrorizing him, hacking into his computer the same way he hacked into hers. She even watches him while he is in the bath. When it comes to Nurperi (played by famous actress Nihal Yalçın), she not only sees through Felek’s scam, she gets him to confess to it and chat about what the work is like. Her goal is not to turn Felek into the police but rather to win his trust. Acting as if she is falling in love with him, Felek eventually decides to start using her bank account for his victims’ deposits. Yet the scammer ends up becoming the scammed when Nurperi uses the money to open her own hairdresser shop. Because of the pandemic, she never even met Felek face-to-face but carried out the whole affair online. 
 
In this sense, COVID-19 is present in the background of the film (as the subtext for everyone being stuck at home) but isn’t discussed in an overly direct manner. The only clear reminder of when and where the film is located is the occasional scenes of Istanbul under lockdown. Shot from the front window of a car back in spring of 2020 when curfews transformed the city into a ghost town, these scenes show masked police manning checkpoints and the eerily empty streets of Cihangir, Kurtuluş, and Beşiktaş. It is significant too that the film was released in March 2021, just over a year since the pandemic began transforming the city and our lives beyond recognition. 
 
Perhaps because the present is so difficult to grapple with, the dark humor of the film also contains a heavy dose of nostalgia thanks to its soundtrack. The film gets its title from 1960s singer Neşe Karaböcek’s performance of “Seni Buldum Ya,” originally written by Orhan Gencebay. The song “Hayat Berbat” (”Life is Terrible”), performed by arabesk legend Müslüm Gürses in his later years, is actually a Turkish-language cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The lyrics cry out to “felek” (”fate” or “destiny” in Turkish, and also the name of the film’s protagonist): “Oh fate, tell me what I need to do / Life is terrible, come let’s not count this hand / Oh fate, tell me what I need to do / Life is terrible, let’s start again.” 
 
A happy tune with depressing lyrics, it is a fitting anthem for Reha Erdem’s both dark and optimistic approach to the pandemic. 

April 02, 2021 Aegean off-season