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Chasing Shadows: The Films of Zeki Demirkubuz

Above: Destiny (2006).

Born in 1964 in the provincial town of Isparta in southwest Turkey, Zeki Demirkubuz's life was indelibly marked by the 1980 military coup—a formative phase in the country's difficult transition towards democracy that not only lead to his imprisonment for three years at the age of seventeen for leftist agitation, but also ushered a cultural liberalization that introduced Western literature to his generation. In a way, this convergence continues to shape Demirkubuz's cinema, manifested through the recurring theme of spiritual captivity that runs through his work, as well as a realist dramaturgy that infuses social observation with a psychological dimension to explore the darker recesses of the human soul.

Indeed, Demirkubuz's first film, Block C (1994), titled after the address of a fashionable, high-rise apartment building in Istanbul that provides the film's setting, is also a reference to his former prison cell block, drawing an implicit connection between the image of middle-class comfortability and the neglected wife, Tülay's (Serap Aksoy) figurative imprisonment from her privileged, yet unfulfilled life. Demirkubuz further expounds on this connection in his next film, Innocence (1997) in the parallel lives of recently—if reluctantly—paroled drifter, Yusuf (Güven Kiraç) and his boarding house neighbor, Bekir (Haluk Bilginer) whose consuming obsession with troubled dance hall singer, Uğur (Derya Alabora) would lead him to a life on the proverbial road to nowhere, compelled to follow her from one anonymous town to the next by a sense of fated destiny.

The theme of unrequited love also forms the consciousness—or rather, delirium—of The Third Page (1999), a titular reference to the section of Turkish newspapers that features pulp, stranger than fiction articles published under the guise of human interest stories. Centering on a struggling actor, Asa's (Ruhi Sari) relationship with his next door neighbor, Meryem (Başak Köklükaya) in the aftermath of their landlord's murder, the film evokes Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in its exposition on guilt, fate, and morality. As with Bekir's extended monologue on his intertwined history with Uğur in Innocence, Demirkubuz reinforces his literary roots by incorporating a confessional that reframes the dynamics of the relationship between the characters.

Following in the vein of the Dostoevsky-themed The Third Page, Demirkubuz again turns to literature for inspiration in Fate (2001), the first installment in his Tales of Darkness trilogy that delves into the shadows of the subconscious.  A loose reworking of Albert Camus's The Stranger—in this case, a cipher, Musa (Serder Orçin) whose unwavering deference to the workings of fate leads to a Kafkaesque prosecution following his mother's death—the film serves as a social interrogation on conformity, values, and the meaning of guilt. Similarly, the second film in the trilogy, the chamber drama The Confession (2001), is also an exploration of guilt—a chronicle of a disintegrating marriage between a professional couple, Harun (Taner Birsel) and Nilgün (Başak Köklükaya) that had been set in motion years earlier with the trauma of mutual loss.

Rather than the idea of life elevated to the realm of drama in his previous films (most notably, The Third Page), the final film in the trilogy, The Waiting Room (2004) represents its converse. Shot from the perspective of a filmmaker, Ahmed (Demirkubuz) who is struggling to adapt Crime and Punishment to the screen as his life falls apart around him, The Waiting Room reflects on the paradoxical impossibility of translating fiction into the realm of real life, even as it provides the grist for creating art.

With the completion of Tales of Darkness, Demirkubuz takes an inspired turn by revisiting Uğur and Bekir's perforated love story in the sublime Destiny (2006), tracing the genesis of their tempestuous, dysfunctional relationship some twenty years earlier (but set in the present day), this time, with actors Ufuk Bayraktar and Vildan Atasever in the lead roles. Equally intimate and epic in its portrait of frustrated love, Destiny incisively reexamines Bekir's plight from the perspective of his safe and predictable, if passionless home life (not unlike Tülay's ennui in Block C), revealing an overarching fatedness and captivity in his existential pursuit of the elusive. In retrospect, it is this sense of coming full circle, yet moving forward that also ultimately captures the spirit of Demirkubuz's probing cinema, illuminating human truths within the prism of life as art, diffracted by the forces of inescapable destiny.

In terms of his reception in Turkey, today Demirkubuz seems to be largely overshadowed by Ceylan (Three Monkeys) and Kaplanoğlu (Honey). I guess he is too dark, too profane for the audiences – I’m not sure if his films were screened on TV, but I wouldn’t expect it, they contain as many swear words as a whole season of Sopranos. His latest, Envy (2009), which you forgot to mention, was a period piece, an adaptation of a novel of the same name, published in 1946; the novel remains largely unknown in Turkey and it has not been translated. The film was generally ill received, still it’s one of the few films that sheds light on the effects of the project of Westernization in the early days of the Republic and also sexuality (both seem to be on the verge of taboo). At least, lead actress Nergis Ozturk’s performance is brilliant. The DVD has been released with optional English subtitles.

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