The Long Way Home (2013) 57th BFI London Film Festival
Dir.: Alphan Eseli; Cast: Ugur Polat, Nergis Ozturk, Serdar Orcin;
Turkey 2013, 112 min. Turkish with English Subtitles Drama
More anti-war sentiments in this year’s LFF: Alphan Eseli’s debut film THE LONG WAY HOME, a gruelling masterpiece centring on the aftermath of the battle of Sarikamis in Eastern Anatolia, in which 90, 000 Turkish soldiers were killed in the WWI battle with Russian soldiers in 1915. Eseli’s heart-felt narrative is based on long stories which his late Grandfather (a survivor of said battle) told him when he was a child. The film is dedicated to him.
Long panoramic shots open over a snowy landscape: a man tries to coax a horse who is pulling a carriage up a mountain, but the horse expires of exhaustion. A symbolic beginning of a film which will test the audience’s sensitivity to the limit – and sometimes beyond. The man mentioned is Saci Bey, an officer wearing civil clothes. He is trying to find a way to the city of Erzerum, where he is to deliver Gul Hanim and her daughter Nihan (relatives of a high ranking politician) to the authorities. The trio has now to walk on foot, and Saci Bey, always the gentleman, carries the girl for long periods of their arduous snowbound trecks. When all seems lost, they reach a village which has been set on fire and hide in one of few habitable places. Later they are joined by Coban Ali, who survived the plundering of the village, and a teenage girl from a neighbouring village.
After the glaring shots of endless snow the images change to a claustrophobic existence, only a meagre fire lightens the room, where the survivors huddle. Hunger is the worst enemy, and Coban Ali tries to convince Saci Bey to start the walk to Erzerum. But the officer is reluctant: he once lost his soldiers, because he didn’t prepare them enough for a snow battle. The class distinction between villagers and the three members of the upper-class are subtle but always obvious, no more so, when Nihan gives the peasant girl her gloves, and Coban Ali tells the latter off “for having airs, because the lady gave you gloves”.
Still, a certain equilibrium sets in, which is totally ruined, when two soldiers arrive with a dying officer. One of the soldiers kills the officer (after criticising Saci Bey for feeding him), setting up a delirious finale of cannibalism and murder, where Nihans mother has to face the last survivor with a sickle, having a pistol pointed at her.
Eseli’s camera work is near perfection, the framing is excellent and the outdoor scenes are lively, the long panning shots always broken up with intimate POVs. The haunting music is by Mihaly Vig, a regular composer for Bela Tarr. Whilst the grimness of the topic is always virulent, Eseli never resorts to pure realism, but creates a poetic, disturbing atmosphere. ANDRE SIMONOWEICZ