Araf—Somewhere in Between

As self described online, the Filmmor Women’s Cooperative was established in 2003 “to make movies, to raise objections, to produce, to dream, and to realize for women together with women” (“About Us”).

Although the Turkish cinema scene is booming—after all, six of the top 10 grossing films last year were made in Turkey (Neel)—no hit films were spearheaded by women. That being said, women have slowly made their way onto the scene—however, think slower than molasses—since the first Turkish female director, Cahide Sonku, came onto the scene during the 1950s. This is what makes Filmmor Women’s Festival on Wheels, the film festival derived from the aforementioned cooperative, of paramount importance in Turkey’s patriarchal film industry. This year’s festival, which occurred from March 15th to 23rd, featured films of 19 different origins and gave female directors an opportunity to disseminate their work to a wide audience.

This year’s festival honors women who are violated, silenced, and ignored. As part of this year’s structure, the six-day festival is split into five categories: “Women’s Cinema,” “Our Body is Ours,”  “A Purse of Her Own,” “ Sex-ual-ity,” “Women Make Movies”.

I had the opportunity to attend the film festival during my last few days in Istanbul earlier this month, and despite only having been in Turkey for a short two weeks, the issues facing female directors—and women in general—quickly became apparent. The political climate in Turkey is not conducive for women to pursue a career in the movie business. First, the government’s social policies perpetuate a societal structure that is a stratification system ranking men above women. From this, there is a culture in which sexual assault, crime, murders, and honor killings have become normalized. Turkey has reinforced the glass ceiling in many ways: the gender wage gap shows no sign of stopping; women face difficulties raising funds; and the stigma of working outside of the home, rather than doing nontraditional female duties, remains. Above all, men still run the industry—and because of this, what they say goes.

Even so, critically acclaimed female directors, like Yesim Ustaoglu, are on the scene. Ustaoglu’s film Araf (Somewhere in Between) won awards at the 45th Turkish Cinema Award and will be showcased at multiple other festivals around the world, including this year’s Filmmor Festival. Ustaoglu is clearing doing something right. Not only has she fought, but also sacrificed—and she hasn’t shied away from tough issues.

“Araf” is Turkish for “limbo.” It follows Zehra and Olgun, who work together in a cafeteria, and is an accurate portrait of Turkish working-class. There is little chance for upward mobility. Olgun isn’t shy about his attraction to Zehra, but their relationship has yet to exceed anything but friendship. Zehra then meets Mahur, a trucker, at a wedding and the two begin an affair. Mahur, who, for the majority of his appearance in the film, is characterless, disappears and leaves a pregnant Zehra to deal with the consequences by herself.  Not only does Zehra have to conceal the pregnancy from her conservative family, but she also has to deal with a drunken father who abuses her mother.

Her evolution from child to woman is evident in Araf. Atagul, the unknown Turkish actress portraying her, soars in the role. Many scenes focus directly on her face; the emotions portrayed, and, hence, the reaction elicited by the audience, is real and raw. Ustaoglu demonstrates her aversion to cutting away from the protagonist’s expressions, which brings a sense of brutality and gruesomeness to the film.  The film builds the plot of each character’s unfortunate path.

I wouldn’t necessarily qualify this film as any of the genres of film we have watched in class. That being said, I did find similarities between Araf and previous queer and feminist films we have viewed. To start, Araf is a visually dark movie, very much like a film noir. At the same time, this comparison has its shortcomings: Araf isn’t a thriller (though there are suspenseful moments) or gangster film.  What stood out to me, particularly when the movie began was that the lighting was dim (Hayward 149). Just like film noirs, this lack of light is linked to dark political themes that the film discusses. I think it is also notable pointing of the femme fatale. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Zehra is a femme fatale, but both men in the film, Olgun and Mahur, are “over-invested in his construction of her sexuality at the expense of his own subjectivity” (151).

I also found Araf comparable to Benshoff and Griffin’s article. Again, this comparison has its obvious shortcomings: the film at hand doesn’t address AIDS. However, this film does have an element of activism, just as a female-directed film at a feminist film festival naturally should. Just like Benshoff and Griffin talk about a matter of life and death regarding AIDS, Zehra is faced with unwedded pregnancy in a culture that demonizing sex before marriage. The context in which Araf exists is analogous to the culture of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic: the religious right has political power and prejudices against those that do not conform to its norms (Benshoff 204).

Having seen this film while in Istanbul surely provided me with a completely different experience than if had I viewed Araf in my own home. This was because I was tried to submerse myself into Turkish culture as much as possible: I was surrounded by Turks in the audience, little of whom spoke any English; I interviewed women (including the cited Aly Neel) and survivors of sexual assault, whose stories broke my heart; above all, I saw the patriarchal culture in action.

The festival, while showing in Istanbul, was located in a few different areas. When I saw this film, it was being shown in the neighborhood of Galatasaray, down the road from Taksim Sqaure. This is interesting to point out because Taksim is known to be a more progressive area of Istanbul. It is home to many feminist, anarchist, and LGBT advocacy groups. At night, Taksim is vibrant and live with its social scene (including gay bars).

The audience was, simply put, interesting to observe during the film. It was clear that the film festival had gathered together feminist and progressive-thinking men from all over, who have dedicated their lives to addressing the tough, taboo issues. At the same time, it was clear that there were moments when people were upset (Mahur leaving Zehra), became tense (Zehra finding out she is pregnant), and could relate (Zehra’s drunk father beating her mother). Had I watched this home, I am sure I would have been moved by the storyline, but the realness of Zehra’s plight would not have had the same effect on me.

I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Filmmor. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the Turkish film industry in the next few years (especially film directed by female artists) and will continue to stand in solidarity against a system of patriarchal oppression.

Works Cited

“About Us.” Filmmor. 27 Mar 2013.

Araf. Yesim Ustaoglu (Dir). 2012.

Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffen. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.

Hayward, Susan. “Film Noir.” Cinema Studies, The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Neel, Alyson. “Focus on female filmmakers.” Time Out Istanbul. 27 Mar 2013.