Young Critics review: Ghosts

Review 23 Oct 2020
Along with Cinea and photogénie, each year Film Fest Ghent organizes the Young Critics Workshop where upcoming talent in film criticism from around the world gathers to report on the festival.

Ghosts makes it abundantly clear that it is set on a specific day, the 26th of October, 2020—there is a sense of urgency involved. Writer-director Azra Deniz Okyay follows the young Turkish woman Dilem’s (Dilayda Günes) one-day journey through Istanbul; allowing the near future to hover in the back of our minds, Okyay makes us ready, because this—this is real. Right?

She isn’t so sure about it either. Trying to evoke reality at all cost, Okyay ignores the inherent friction between fact and fiction that lies within cinema’s documentary image; instead, she works with directorial gimmicks that should trick us into accepting their ability to approximate reality. Narratively, she does this by condensing a number of intersecting character perspectives into the limited time span of a 12-hour day. The myriad of experiences present in real life, she seems to argue, is best represented through a complex network of narratives. Dilem’s journey is told in fragments, her story interspersed with other characters’ time lines. Events return, seen from a different perspective; characters meet each other along the way, separate again. But rather than enhancing the narrative experience, Okyay loses grip on her characters, and touches only superficially on the political issues in contemporary Turkey that they are confronted with. Dilem, for example, moves in progressive, homosocial communities, yet feminism is a topic that the film addresses but fails to solidify throughout. Feminist emancipation is referenced to, but Dilem’s actions aren’t really provoking social change; she rightfully bemoans misogynist culture, but doesn’t reach beyond that. When she discovers her boyfriend Kaan’s (Baran Çakmak) infidelity, for example, she automatically questions the other girl’s motives—not his. An understandable, flawed reaction, and therefore completely relatable, but it weakens Okyay’s radical premise.

Dilem’s love for Kaan is first presented through lush close-ups of facial details, smiles, and gentle caresses. Adopting an awkward and exhausted vocabulary of romantic gestures, the cinematography doesn’t add anything to the representation of emotion. Okyay wants to guide us into Delim’s emotional perception of the world through obvious audiovisual parallels—close-ups for intimacy, shaky camerawork to frame the dance scenes, high pitched sound when taken aback by a catcaller—but by employing these clichés, she undermines her attempts at picturing truthfulness.

Still, in rare moments, Okyay succeeds in touching on a full use of the medium’s potential. In a desperate search for funds to pay for her son’s survival in prison, Dilem’s neighbor Iffet (Nalam Kuruçim) passes from neighbors to colleagues and boss to beg for money. The scene is unjudgmental in its straightforward framing— Kuruçim briefly echoes Marion Cotillard in the Dardennes’ Deux jours, une nuit (2014), temporarily bringing Ghost close to the Belgian duo’s social-realist style and spirit. In another scene, dodgy slumlord Rasit (Emrah Ozdemir) invites a friend into his car. The camera’s gaze is fixed on the front mirror, focusing on Istanbul’s high-rise buildings passing by as the car continues its route. Rasit and the anonymous friend talk, but the tone is reticent; when his friend eventually criticizes Rasit’s ethically reprehensible practices and asks him to stop the car to let him out, the camera shifts focus to Rasit’s startled eyes. There hasn’t been a cut, only a delicate alteration in the expression of a gaze, allowing us for a moment to invest thoroughly, without any pregiven judgment, in Okyay’s intricate set-up of Turkey’s turmoil of moral standpoints. This is the strongest moment of cinematic realism in Ghost. If only there were more.