Encounters Film Festival, normally based in Bristol, is the UK’s biggest short film festival, showcasing the best of short films from both the UK and the wider world. This year, as with so many other festivals, it’s entirely digital. With approximately 250 films playing, it would be a disservice to the films to give a brief run-down of what’s good and what’s not, as so many festival reports do. Instead, these reports will be covering just one film a week, aiming to give each film the critical time and space it deserves.
It’s hard to think of many films that open with a shot from a donkey’s point-of-view. But The Heavy Burden does exactly that, as Bozo’s owners give the old boy a wash-down in the opening minutes. Yilmaz Özdil’s film takes place in Mardin, a 5,000-year-old city in Turkish Kurdistan, right on the border with Syria, where donkeys are still used on the narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways of the historic centre for menial tasks like garbage collection — which is the occupation of the protagonists, Avdel (Adil Abdurrahman) and his nephew Salih (Saman Mustafa), with Avdel’s grandson Jiro (Mehmet Ali Arpa) often tagging along. It’s revealed that Salih’s half of the family are refugees from Syrian Kurdistan, and they manage to survive on the outskirts of Mardin.
Unfortunately, an announcement from the city council proclaims that donkeys over a certain age are to be retired, Bozo included, with no other income available for the family. In a few short scenes, The Heavy Burden, or Barê Giran in Kurdish, sets itself up as an excellent entry into the long and rich history of neorealist cinema. Like the best neorealism, it doesn’t sink into miserabilism, but finds the right balance between observing the basic mundanities and gnawing pains of daily life, and the wider societal implications of those pains.
After the proclamation retiring Bozo is read out, Özdil cuts to the city mayor, sitting in his air-conditioned, blandly bureaucratic office, beckoning Avdel to drink his tea before it gets cold and offering him what sounds like an olive branch but is realistically a Kafka-esque impossibility — find a new donkey in a few days and you can keep your job. Of course, Avdel cannot afford nor find a good donkey in that short time, even less so find a donkey that will fit the city’s stringent criteria, a side-effect of its burgeoning touristic reputation (it is one of the most visited cities in Turkey amongst domestic visitor).
By setting up its characters with a “quest,” Özdil is able to present the living conditions of those living in Turkey’s margins, particular Kurds and refugees (and Kurdish refugees), who still face human rights abuses in the country, through the simple prism of finding a new donkey. In spite of the many hoops laid down by the city council — which gives directives in Turkish to a waste collection workforce that, as the subtitles helpfully show is mostly Kurdish or Arabic-speaking — the humble donkey still manages to persevere, unaware of the world around it, with human nature an entirely alien concept. There’s more than a hint of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
The film’s quest-like structure immediately recalls the neorealist classics of Vittorio De Sica and his screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, as each of Sciuscià, The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. are focused on a particular quest for their protagonists. The first of those films, Sciuscià, also focuses on the importance of an equine friend amidst the poor, opening with two orphans whose dream it is to save enough money to buy a horse. Although the quest is a common storytelling template, when it focuses on an animal as simple as the donkey, it becomes an altogether different proposition.
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Just as Sciuscià’s horse (and the bicycle in The Bicycle Thieves) represents a ticket to monetary income and employability, so too does the donkey in The Heavy Burden. There is a recurring theme in Encounters this year of the value of specific possessions (or in some cases animals) to life on the margins. Beyond the donkey, there’s the eponymous coat in Werner Vivier’s Winter Coat, the dog in Julietta Korbel’s Still Working and the bike in Tomer Shushan’s White Eye. In each of these cases, the value of this possession is beyond simple monetary value, but a sole beacon of hope in what is an often depressed existence for these protagonists, including for those in The Heavy Burden. Neither the coat, nor the bike, nor the dog, nor the donkey is aware of the importance of its existence, but they are all essential to the continued survival, whether emotional or economical, of each film’s protagonists, and each film builds drama out of the importance of such objects.
Beyond the donkey POV shots, Özdil keeps the style simple, slipping viewers through Mardin’s narrow streets at dawn and at dusk, outside of tourist hours. There are patient wide-angle shots of the city itself and the surrounding hinterlands and valleys. The economic activity happens in the city, whilst the majority of Mardin’s poor live on the outskirts or in the surrounding villages, accentuating the director’s interest in marginalised living. Whether it is economic, ethnic or geopolitical, The Heavy Burden keeps finding new ways to frame the marginal life of its protagonists.
With the quest for a donkey at a frustrating dead-end, Salih suggests going back to his village in Syria and retrieving his old donkey there, to which his uncle responds curtly “are you a donkey?”Salih, not the smartest guy in the room, is undeterred, and ends up going anyway. The film’s final scenes see Avdel finding Salih on the border, stuck in a minefield with his donkey. Salih, already excluded as a Kurdish refugee, finds himself in a no man’s land, in a field demarcated by the margins of borders and land mines. The final shot, again returning to the donkey’s POV, ends with Salih pleading for the poor thing not to lift its hoof. The donkey remains blissfully ignorant of where it stands.
Perhaps I’ve made it sound like The Heavy Burden is a slow-going, misery-guts of a film. The brilliance of Özdil’s direction is that is not. Just as Avdel and his family find themselves in a Kafka-esque Catch-22, they also find themselves resigned to a Kafka-esque passivity, punctuated with the black humour and absurdity that comes with that. Mustafa gives Salih a wide-eyed charming eagerness to please, married to blissful ignorance. He’s a holy fool to Avdel’s world-weary haggardness; Salih’s persistence and belief that things will get better gives a bitter, ironic levity to the film.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.