Screen Grab: Istanbul’s eye

You’ve got to hand it to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: the man had copywriting game. “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene!” (“How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!”), declared the founder of modern Turkey back in 1933. In the nine decades since, those four words became a condensation of the nationalist-secularist-militarist dream that Ataturk sold to his compatriots. 

But all along, the true stock of Turkish happiness was overstated — and, right now, it’s hard to find. Turkey’s southern coastline, democracy and economy are all ablaze. And behind the smoke, more than ever, Turks can’t agree on what it means to say, “I am a Turk.” 

The complexity of that old and deepening discord — between the country’s secular, westward-looking minority and its religious, eastward-looking majority, now in the political ascendancy — is masterfully explored in the Netflix series Ethos (Bir Başkadır in Turkish). 

The series, written and directed by Berkun Oya, has caused a massive stir in Turkey, partly because it feels like nothing less than a narrative psychoanalysis of the nation. It figures, then, that the plot is anchored in the therapy room of a psychiatrist, Peri (Defne Kalayar). 

Peri is a tight-jawed, pastel-clad, yoga-addicted grump; a lonely daughter of elite Istanbul who grew up in a Bosphorus-facing villa. She tells her own shrink that she feels more at home on holiday in Peru than she does in today’s Istanbul. Like her cosmopolitan mother, she is repulsed by the hijab worn by observant Muslim women — in her eyes, these bolts of soft cloth are lurid flags of gender oppression and backwardness.  

Enter a hijab — on the head of Peri’s new patient, Meryem (Öykü Karayel). She is an unmarried house cleaner who commutes into Istanbul from a village on the edge of the Anatolian hinterland, and she has been referred to Peri because of her mysterious fainting attacks. Meryem is as clever as she is provincial; in her exchanges with the shrink, she zigzags between half-feigned naivete and a withering disdain for Peri’s worldview. Peri and Meryem confront each other through mists of fear and fascination; the class-inflected comedy of their relationship is not a million miles from the relationship between Tony Soprano and his shrink, Jennifer Melfi.

But Meryem is no mob boss. She is a pious follower of her local hodja (religious teacher) and her only vice is taking the piss out of Peri. But as the plot expands, we watch Meryem’s inner world overlapping with much darker ones: her sister-in-law Ruhiye’s traumatic memory of sexual violence’ her brother Yasin’s desperate confusion in the face of Ruhiye’s crisis’ the flailing depression of Meryem’s rich, promiscuous employer Sinan; the quiet queer defiance of the hodja’s daughter, Hairünisa; Sinan’s lover Gülbin’s bitter feud with her reactionary sister. This circle of loosely connected meltdowns serve to intensify each other, building a slow centrifuge of pain and black comedy. The binding thread is a failure to speak and listen. 

Slowness can be a drag in the wrong hands, but Oya has the right ones. He designs his scenes with a wonderfully madcap, auteurish eye — he and cinematographer Yagiz Yavru use defiantly static, panoramic shots for dialogue scenes, intercut with obsessive close-ups of emotionally loaded objects, from hijabs to slippers to coffee plungers. The meditative pace gives space for masterfully intricate performances by all the actors.  

You may find the music score disorienting: it is dominated by schmaltzy 1970s orchestral pop, which presumably adds a layer of nostalgic irony for Turkish viewers. The effect might be a variation of a distinctly Istanbulite sensation that Orhan Pamuk called hüzün: a melancholy mourning for lost empire, lost possibilities, lost certainties. 

Depending on their politics, Turkish critics have either celebrated Ethos as a deeply empathetic bridge across cultural divides, or panned it as a contraption of Orientalist stereotypes or an evasive apologia for Erdoganism. But we know you can’t keep all the Turks happy. 

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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