Established by Martin Scorsese in 2007, the World Cinema Project expands the horizons of moviegoers everywhere. The mission of the WCP is to preserve and present marginalized and infrequently screened films from regions generally ill equipped to preserve their own cinema history.
Just as the Turkish film industry appeared to be rising through the ranks of international cinema, the very traits that defined the best of what the nation had to offer were swiftly coming under the disparaging eye of skeptical governing bodies. Films distinguished for their raw authenticity and social commentary were challenged by political factions concerned about such unflinching realism, especially compared to the more palatable, commercial and relatively benign films imported from elsewhere. Titles like Law of the Border (Hudutlarin Kanunu, 1966), directed by Ömer Lütfi Akad, and Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, 1964), directed by Metin Erksan, communicated a sometimes brutally honest depiction of individual and national character, often, in the process, engendering condemnation from those who sought to reign in such contentious, potentially provocative works of art.
As a sweltering study of desolation and desire, Dry Summer’s fundamental stress is on the labor and exertion of those who toil an arid landscape, where water is not only valued but coveted and hoarded; amongst the prevailing dust and wind, it’s the “earth’s blood,” a vital resource. It’s understandable, then, why Osman, a tobacco farmer, unleashes the fury of his neighbors when he dams the flow of water to their adjacent land, basing his avaricious resolution on its relative sparseness and the fact the generating spring happens to reside on his property. Forming a confluence of strain with this natural dependency, though, and the more fiery core of the drama, is the aberrant obsession displayed between Osman, played with viciously degenerate gusto by Erol Taş, his younger brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), a markedly more decent man in every regard, and Hasan’s fiancée, Bahar (Hülya Koçyiğit), the embodiment of temptation. The entwined emotions of this tormented trio are, like the brewing violence between the rural population, only intensified by the pervasive heat that sears the region.
Written by Lüfti Akad and Yılmaz Güney, Law of the Border’s cultural concentration is on the friction of famers who struggle to cultivate the land and the smugglers who work in illicit accord to aide their plight. Taking shape as something of a neo-Western, pitting commoners and outlaws against local law enforcement and setting its conflict within a vast frontier, the tropes of livestock and agriculture are similarly prescient, as are the standoffs and shootouts. But the barbed wire partitions and land mines coursing through the Turkish-Syrian border add a particularly volatile element of concentrated tension. Though a brief film, running just 80 minutes, Akad’s picture canvases a rigid sketch of divided factions and political ramifications, its communal rebellion best stated when a village headman tells authorities upon being questioned about a fellow citizen recently killed, “We’re all his kin.” The collective livelihood is heavily reliant on prosperous cultivation, which even the imposing lieutenant acknowledges when he observes that “the land unites those who farm it,” yet the hierarchy of influence and the internal competition threaten that most basic way of life.
Law of the Border does manage to find an optimistic bearing, however, although it is often a fleeting one at best. While it is a gritty and dangerous territory, the area is surrounded by signs of incrementally progressive modernity — established towns, businesses, educational systems and commerce — and the young son of local renegade icon Hidir (Güney) represents the teetering potential for a better way of life. Still, skepticism runs fervently throughout the film, from the obligatory reliance on the land, over which the men have little control, to the naiveté of those who emphasize the importance of taking the straight and narrow, easier said than done at this poor and alienated cultural crossroads. It’s a constant contention between risk and reward — for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners — and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.
A respected filmmaker who had already made some of his country’s most notable features, Akad was first approached with the story of Law of the Border by Güney, who had long admired the director’s work and saw in the project an ideal collaboration. Güney would later become an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right (and arguably Turkey’s most controversial), and he wisely saw the promise of what Law of the Border could promote, not just in its antagonistic storyline, but in the role he eventually assumed. As Hidir, Güney expresses the film’s representative hero as a strong and silent crusader, the quintessence of masculine potency and sovereignty. While Law of the Border does include the significant presence of a modest, encouraging female character, a teacher named Ayşe (Pervin Par), it, like Dry Summer, is essentially assembled from the portrayal of men as the ruling sex: destructive, compulsive and prone to lives of violence.
Co-produced and co-written by Erksan, based on a novel by Necati Cumalı, Dry Summer gives Bahar far more prominence, even if she is habitually relegated to the voyeuristic, penetrating gaze of Osman, his lascivious eyes a widow into the soul of a barbaric man who is crude and carnal and driven to degrading torment. Koçyiğit is certainly an alluring sight in her debut performance, enticing Hasan to comb through the reeds in pursuit of her affections (Dogan, by comparison, would not star in another film after this, his only screen appearance), and theirs is a love that is pure and true. But when Hasan is sent to prison, wrongfully convicted of a murder Osman committed (prompted to accept the guilt by Osman himself), Bahar is left at the mercy of his unrepentantly obstinate older brother, a greedy vessel enamored with his own power. Working with cinematographer Ali Uğur, Erksan generates a simmering sexual tension, imparted by intense close-ups frequently fixated on flesh and sweat and acts of physical contact. Stark imagery is emboldened by the barely suppressed sensuality, and the suggestive framing and posture of the characters is simply audacious, remarkably so in the context of the film’s time and country of origin. Indeed, the begrudging relationship between Bahar and Osman, whatever the reasons for its occasion, is subject to public denunciation within the film and was one of the chief concerns with censorial consultants.
Sexual content aside, Dry Summer is likewise insistent on its caustic depiction of human nature. The antipathy between Osman and his neighbors is instant and fierce (the rivals justly destroy the dam, but also shoot Osman’s dog, perhaps the film’s most unpleasant scene). Hasan is far more sympathetic to their concerns, but the deceitful scheming and intrusiveness of Osman, and the related contempt expressed by Bahar, are the more effective characteristics of this manifold strife. There is also a troubling view of property rights, including the privatization of the land and the ownership of the water (which does face formal litigation), as well as the suggestion that Bahar is but a mere object to lay claim to (“Give her mother money so you can have her,” Osman tells his brother). However successful the film was, and it did win prizes at the Berlin and Venice film festivals, the moral consequences of Dry Summer combined with the adversely perceived association with Turkish society to raise the ire of governmental agencies. It was in many ways, as Bilge Ebiri observes, the beginning of the end. “When news of the Berlin win came,” Ebiri writes for The Criterion Collection, “the government organized the meeting of the first Turkish Cinema Council, inviting filmmakers, producers, exhibitors, and critics. However, as the director Halit Refiğ tells it, the gathering ended in argument and recrimination: exhibitors who wanted to show more foreign films made common cause with critics growing wary of domestic films, which they saw as inferior to Hollywood’s and those of the exciting new cinemas of Europe.”
Law of the Border faced a similar reproach. While Akad tried to scale back the more politically inflammatory material, censors still took issue. According to Ebiri, the shoot was raided by police, who “attempted to seize the footage, claiming that the script had never been approved”; apparently, Güney’s original draft of the script, which was sent before Akad made his revisions, had in fact been rejected by the Central Film Control Commission. This, writes Ebiri, caused “Akad to pause shooting for a week while he sent his own draft of the script, under a different title.” Compared to Dry Summer, the aesthetic of Law of the Border only adds to its renegade image. Owing in part to its poor condition (only a single print survived a 1980 coup d’état, while the rest were seized and destroyed), the film boasts a more visceral, unpolished illustration of immediacy. Akad’s direction is patchy and primitive, and his use of realistic locations, non-actors and distinctive dialects infuse the picture with a bristling validity. Despite the positive impact of such superficial deficits, the film was deemed technically inadequate, and Law of the Border joined a diminishing roster of local titles gradually shunned in favor of more profitable foreign releases, even if they sacrificed personality and passion by doing so. Fortunately, the persistence of vision endorsed by directors such as Ömer Lütfi Akad and Metin Erksan endures, and films like Dry Summer and Law of the Border remain available as fascinating, engaging documents of a national cinema often forgotten.
Watch Dry Summer and Law of the Border at the Criterion Channel.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.
Categories: 1960s, 2020 Film Essays, Crime, Drama, Featured, Film Essays, World Cinema Project by Jeremy Carr