Ferit Karahan set his second feature film, Brother’s Keeper, in a boarding school in Eastern Anatolia. In this isolated environment, the director carries out a reflection about the increasing authoritarianism of Turkish policy and repression the Kurds. Built around the sight of its two protagonists, the film mixes the hardness of the setting and tenderness in order to show the bond that comes from the warmth of childhood.
Both this film and your previous one, The Fall From Heaven, deal with fear. Why is it important for you to explore this feeling?
Fear is contagious, that’s why. In an atmosphere full of fear, people want to yawn to breathe. If they don’t yawn, they would break down. They mostly do this with lies and small tricks. The lie stemming from fear creates a Foucauldian focus of resistance. But sometimes a seemingly innocent little lie can cause havoc. I can say that we built the whole movie on this idea.
Brother’s Keeper is inspired in your personal experiences from six years spent in a boarding school. How have you managed to keep personal distance to the story?
There are not many resources on boarding schools. The ones that are, were either built entirely on the hatred of the boarding school, or had a view that was engaged in official ideology, seeing education as a gift. When I wrote the first version in 2009, I had more of a point of view of the former one. My hatred of teachers and boarding school cast a veil over everything. Then, from 2014 to 2017, we wrote many versions with Gulistan (Acet). I had the experience of six years of studying at a boarding school. Although almost 20 years have passed, I find not only some of my habits but also my roots there; but my memory remembers a nebular and slippery ground without gravity. I wanted to address my school traumas that left a deep impression on me. I felt the need to be as close to reality as possible facing this but I didn’t want to make a documentary of my own childhood. At this point, I realized the fact that teachers are actually victims of the system. Details, humanized aspects of the story and the atmosphere were revealed. We realized that we can use the details of this atmosphere that I have comprehensive knowledge of, both to bring the matter closer to reality and to distract from the reality of the documentary as a form.
Has the educational system changed nowadays from how it was then?
It may seem strange to those who don’t know, but at that time the schools looked like military posts. We would wake up around 4:45 in the morning. Morning study, eat, queue, lesson, eat again, queue, lesson, study… There was a very intensive training organization. We were trained in the military fashion as you know it. I haven’t witnessed that even the slightest mistake was pardoned. It was an institution that asked for total “obedience” and raised individuals accordingly.
But it is useful to mention that I am amongst the lucky ones who could attend a boarding school. The school was like a resting place for me, as I spent all my summers working in the field until the end of the university. Because life was not that easy with our families either. Staying with them required being a shepherd or a farmer in economic difficulties.
We were caught between an oppressive system on the one hand and the uncertainty of our future on the other. This is a bit like the fly caught in a spider web. If the fly flutters and leaves its wings to the web, it can be free; but it cannot fly. If not, it will fall prey to the spider.
Before scouting for the locations, I wasn’t feeling mentally ready for shooting. I was constantly stalling the crew. Our struggle to overcome the challenges of production during the location research was like taking Yusuf’s friend to the hospital, and the people we encountered on the road were almost the same. Teachers, Principal, highway officer, hospital… At that time the roads were closed and we, as a team, were stuck in a small town. That night I knew I was on the right track and I decided to make the movie.
The young actor Samet Yıldız is a remarkable presence, how did you cast him?
We were casting while we were scouting for locations. I can easily say I’ve seen more than a thousand kids. Then we decided on a location and started casting. Even though we had the permissions from the governorship of the county, the Provincial Director of National Education wouldn’t give us the permission. We were presenting the endorsements of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Eurimages and such as evidence. Still, no permission. Nevertheless, we had alternative locations. As time grew shorter, my colleagues started to worry about the cast and the location. The character of Yusuf was very important and he had to carry the movie. I always thought it was pointless to search for Yusuf, as he would find us when we searched for location. The kids in my other movies came forward like this. Samet (Yusuf) came during casting and we spoke for almost an hour. Then we couldn’t get the permit to shoot on that location and we had to film at a different location. However, I was adamant on casting Samet. We sent two of our friends to Yusuf’s family and we managed to convince them. We’ve already decided on almost all the other child actors while we were looking for Yusuf, or he was looking for us.
While creating the character of Yusuf, I tried to liken him to Marcel Proust’s “apprentice”. A non-dominant, mostly passive character, who usually has a judgment about every situation and often turns out to be wrong.
What were the difficulties of working with 500 young boys in an isolated location in such weather conditions?
I had worked with child actors before, and my teammates thought I was talented in directing the kids in a movie. But it was not that easy on this one. Maybe it would be relatively easy to work with one or two child actors; but controlling hundreds of children at the same time was a matter of patience. Each had to have a different character, and what they saw on TV had manipulated them enough over time.
There were too many children, and the slightest relaxation could become a lump of problems that I cannot tackle. The main area I was dealing with was an established outlook on acting left over from TV series and heroic films. The kids were like mafia members with guns in their waist when they walked, talked, or kept silent. I can say that it was difficult to break this down. Because what you’re actually putting in is being themselves, which doesn’t seem very interesting to them. Each time I had to explain to them that this is the most important virtue and comfort in life.
The film shows discipline and violence as the public way to educate children, showing how they’re not only unheard but either taken into account. I guess that you directed them in opposition to the treatment they receive in real life, didn’t you?
Working with people, especially in small towns, has great dangers. In general, film crews behave very close to children during shooting. This behavior, which seems good and innocent at first, can affect negatively those who stay behind. You get into their lives and constantly manipulate them. That’s why it’s a situation you need to be careful. I often emphasized that filming was a temporary and a normal situation. We were going to leave here eventually and they would be left alone. That’s why, on the first day of the shooting, I took a serious attitude towards the children and treated them the way I treat other people. At some point, a form of communication develops and the film moves in the right direction. Well, if the casting is right. My advantage is that I know these kids really well. Because they all were going through what I had already gone through and I immediately understood their mood. I felt where I needed to soften up and where to harden. I would say that you have to rely a little on their intelligence. Children have character and when they know that their ideas are important and they’re seen, they can understand everything that is said and give back exceedingly.
The film reminds of Abbas Kiarostami’s depictions of childhood, Kafka’s annoying bureaucracy and the dark humor of the Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Where the three of them influential in your script and film approach?
While writing the script, we were reading Herta Müller’s books, a lot. Müller lived during Ceausescu era and felt similar feelings as I did at school. Maybe that’s why you compare it to the Romanian new wave. Because we live in similar geographies; but there is not a movie that I took as reference. I prefer not to watch movies while writing a script.
I can say that I was more meticulous while creating the visual world of the film. I used the academy ratio not only for its contribution to the claustrophobic atmosphere, but also because I was exploring with a character I wanted to keep close to, and to show the narrow mentality of the system. In my early short films, the use of a shoulder camera was born as an obligation. We never had the budget to rent tools such as dolly, Jimmy Jib. The shoulder camera later turned into my style.
In this film, I tried to use a moving camera to follow-up my leading character who is constantly on the move and because of its contribution to the thrilling elements in the film. Since I thought it wasn’t meaningful to color a darkness that the whiteness of the snow couldn’t illuminate, I opted for a narrow color scale, and I felt that in a place there is no music other than a bell, even a note we could hear from the outside would be too much, so I shouldn’t use music.
The blame game between the head, the teachers, the janitors and the students looks like a trial film. Were you thinking of any specific film of this genre?
I thought of the movie more like a detective movie, where everybody turns into a cop in their turn. This genre transforms the narrative, which also originates from the content, into a tense and dark structure. However, the fact that some of those involved are children and their fears form the entire boundary of the story. In this movie, I wanted to immerse the audience in that atmosphere from the first frame and ensure that they were there until the end of the movie. That’s why at the table, before I started the shooting, I had designed the plans and how to shoot in which scene. When I was on set, everyone knew what plans I was going to shoot that day.
Was your intention to imply that Kurdish oppression begins in school?
Almost all around the world, education systems have been set up to breed obedient, compliant lambs that do what they’re told. All the exams, the assignments, the rules are a wheel set up to choose the “obedient” one. Because you have to overcome them in order to move on to the next level, otherwise the system will deem you unsuccessful and eliminate you. There are very few education systems that promote creativity and independence. You need individuals who question, and this doesn’t seem likely with the current education system. A contradiction arises here. You cannot be libertarian and independent and expect individuals to be obedient at the same time. Because obedient individuals could be good workers, but they can never advance science. They mostly copy other people’s ideas.
Boarding schools are systems that impose obedience on students not only in classes but also as a way of life. As they are built on “normalizing” people, they’re also working as assimilation centers in Turkey. The number of boarding schools exceeds thousands, especially in regions where Kurds are densely populated.