'The Watchtower': a probe into conscience
Pelin Esmer is indisputably one of the most talented of the new generation of directors in Turkey. Her first feature-length documentary, "Oyun" (The Play), was an outstanding creative documentary that followed the lives of a group of women in a southern Mediterranean village who were preparing a theatre play on women's rights. Her first feature-length fiction, "11'e 10 Kala" (10 to 11), was a meditative study on old age, memory and class conflict through the daily life of an old man who collected practically anything and everything.

"Gözetleme Kulesi" (Watchtower), Esmer's second feature-length fiction, but which should be considered her third feature, shows that the female director has harnessed and chiseled her directing style even further in what is a delicate character study that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats from start to finish. And that's not to mention that the film received several awards at the 2012 Adana Altın Koza (Golden Boll) Film Festival, including best director and best actress.

Set in northern Anatolia, close to the Black Sea region, the film starts with an overnight bus trip. We see the young Seher (Nilay Erdönmez), the bus hostess, as she moves from one passenger to the next, robotically asking at which town they will depart. Seher stays in a small, decrepit room at the bus station from which her bus line takes off. Inhabiting the same space is the owner of the bus line and a bus driver, two older men who try to take her under their wings. Seher is a literature student at a university but has taken a break from her studies and seems direly bored as she goes on one bus trip after another. So, what is this young woman, who has higher aspirations in life, doing here in the middle of nowhere all by herself?

Then there is someone else, too, who has chosen a life of isolation: Nihat (Olgun Şimşek), a silent but soft-natured man, arrives in the town to take the post of forest guard, which will require him to stay in a watchtower atop the highest hill in the forest. There is something in Nihat's face and an occasional abruptness that tell us he has some deep-seeded demons of his own.

It isn't long before these two lost souls run into each other, but Esmer allows due time for us to explore each of them separately and, through parallel editing, insinuates that these two characters may not be so different from each other. It is Seher, though, who is the most interesting character of the two and who experiences a literal and figurative transformation that leads us follow her actions with compassion and empathy.

I do not want to reveal a very important plot point but, suffice it to say, Seher's self-induced isolation is not arbitrary and has much to do with a recent traumatic event that will eventually lead her to become ostracized from her family and community even though she was the victim. In the very conservative society of this country, it is not difficult to understand that the right over her own body does not and cannot belong to her. When Seher finally does decide to make her own choices and defiantly takes control over her life, it will not be at all easy, because even though she may choose to make her own well-being her priority in life, she will have to carry the burden of knowing this choice was made over the well-being of another. This is where Nihat comes in, as he confronts her and cajoles her about "making the right choice" after he takes Seher into his secluded watchtower. Nihat may think that he is doing the right thing, but perhaps it is his tragic personal past that selfishly pushes him to meddle in Seher's life.

The ensuing sequences of the two characters in the watchtower confirm there is a capable and meticulous director behind the camera who sensitively sews a multilayered universe in which emotions of guilt, disgust, compassion and catharsis mold together through the dynamics of these two individuals. Esmer's style manages not only to explore these issues on a human scale, but her visual choices make it clear how these two people, despite the unique nature of their shelter, far away physically from the clutches of other people, are still trapped within the confines of a society that judges and scrutinizes human actions and reduces complex situations to black-and-white judgments. Hence, it is not at all a surprise that the watchtower they take refuge in, despite its initial comfort, is, lo and behold, a metaphor for a big brother societal morality planted on a citadel looking down on human beings as if they were only small, inconsequential spots in an endless landscape.

"The Watchtower" is a beautiful film that is intensely acted and directed and which succeeds in exploring the complexities of human nature without ever pointing a judging finger. Instead, it craftily protests absolutist moral judgment. Furthermore, its determined choice to stand by its female character is one of the most subtle yet empowering acts of activism that have come out in recent Turkish cinema.

(Cihan/Today's Zaman) CİHAN
Last Modified: 2012-11-15 18:00:04
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