Ibrahim and Ismail revisited in Anatolia

The cast of Ataman's fifth feature includes the wonderful child actor Mert Tastan, as "Mert."

BERLIN: After years focusing on his visual arts career, Turkey’s Kutlug Ataman has returned to feature filmmaking with a touching portrait of the pressures and hypocrisy of village life in northeastern Anatolia, where he grew up.

“Kuzu” (The Lamb) uses the occasion of the circumcision of a young boy, Mert, to explore relations in his desperately poor family, and how his parents behave under the weight of the social expectation to roast a lamb for a celebration feast.

The vast, desolate beauty of Erzincan province’s snow-covered landscapes seems to muffle the emotions characters struggle to express. The ancient scriptural theme of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac hangs ominous in the air.

Mert’s mother Medine is determined to find and serve a lamb to win the respect of the village. Mert’s jealous sister tortures her brother with tales that, if their parents cannot afford a lamb, they’ll roast and serve up him instead.

The terrified boy spends most of the film in flight, at one point cowering in the tandir – the pit oven in the ground where the lamb is traditionally roasted.

Ataman’s video and photographic narratives of the personal and political are in the collections of London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Though he has backed the ruling AK Party, which is rooted in political Islam, the openly gay Ataman has criticized the Erdogan’s government’s stance on homosexuality, as well as the treatment of other minorities.

Some Turkish artists criticized him for failing to support anti-government protests that broke out last summer in Istanbul.

When the Turkish army seized power in a 1980 coup, Ataman was arrested and tortured because of his ties to a left-leaning youth group and films he made of street protests.

He fled to the U.S., where he studied film at UCLA.

“I always start with an image,” said Ataman, who wrote and directed “Kuzu.” “The image I had was walking in the empty frozen fields. I had a vision of the sky opening and the archangel Gabriel bringing a ram. It’s the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament or Ibrahim and Ismail from the Quran.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a contemporary film from this image, taking place in contemporary Turkey and dealing with contemporary Turkish problems.’”

The problems are many, particularly for Medine, whose bumbling husband is unable to bear his responsibilities as a father. Viewers see betrayal and extortion, an alcoholic circumciser and a hypocritical village elder.

The arrival of vocalist-prostitute Safiye sees modern life collide with village mores, leaving Medine to teach her community a lesson about the traditions it espouses but does nothing to help individuals uphold.

“Our country is changing at an extremely fast rate,” said Ataman, a keen observer of how social conventions can stifle the people who follow them. “It is an amazing terrain of social change. A lot of the villages and cities in eastern Turkey, which were traditionally very poor, are now extremely sophisticated.

“Obviously that finds its reflection in traditional values, family values. In many ways modernisation is good but it can create a lot of stress on the social level, family level and personal level.”

As the film progresses, change comes to the broken village up in the mountains. “What the wife wants is to participate in that change ... but the husband doesn’t know how ... He is like a moth, sees a woman and the city with fluorescent lights and he falls for it.”

After a series of twists, the celebration feast takes place. The villagers get their lamb, served up with a surprising lesson about their prejudices.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 14, 2014, on page 16.




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