Yesim Ustaoglu is not a politician, nor a journalist. She is a film director but her latest work “Journey to the Sun” could hardly be more topical. Released after the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish armed rebellion in Turkey, and before his show trial at Imrali island, “Journey to the Sun” tells the fascinating, if improbable, story of an intense friendship between a Kurd and a Turk.

Based on a story written by Tayfun Pirselimoglu, Yesim Ustaoglu’s former husband,  “Journey to the Sun” (Gunese Yolculuk) begins with an event that marks a young Turk, Mehmet, for life. At the end of a day spent happily in Istanbul and after making a new friend, Berzan, Mehmet is travelling home by bus to keep a date with his girlfriend, Arzu. But within the space of a few seconds, life, as he knows it, collapses. Stopped and arrested at a routine police check point, he is accused of being the owner of a pistol left in a bag by another passenger, and taken off to an interrogation centre.

Yesim Ustaoglu

While held in custody, Mehmet is savagely tortured  because he is “marked” out by a dark skin; although he is a Turk, born near Izmir in western Turkey, because of his skin tone he is suspected of being a Kurd and treated accordingly. When finally released by the police, Mehmet discovers that through no fault of his own, his life has changed. A red X has been painted by the authorities on the door of the miserable dormitory he shares with other workers. Fearing reprisals  his frightened roommates tell him to leave. Shortly afterwards, he is fired from his job at the water department.

Arzu, his girlfriend, who works in a laundromat, tries to help him out, but ultimately it is Berzan, Mehmet’s friend, who finds a new job and a new lodging for the wretched Mehmet. After a long while — and this clever twist in the scenario makes the film all the more interesting — the spectator discovers that Mehmet is not the real hero of this tragic story, but Berzan, a Kurd who sells music cassettes from a push cart on Fatih square, one of Istanbul’s major tourist areas. Active in an illegal Kurdish organisation, Berzan plays hide and seek with the police until the day when Mehmet, by chance watching television, witnesses his friend being killed during a demonstration.

Yesim Ustaoglu

Remembering what Berzan told him about Zorduc, his village,  “somewhere in the East” (the word used by Turks when they refer to Kurdistan) near the Iraqi border, a village where Shirvan, his girlfriend, was waiting for him, Mehmet decides to retrieve his friend’s body and to take him home for burial. Thus Mehmet embarks on his journey to the East — to the sun — with his friend’s coffin. This second part of Yesim Ustaoglu’s film is not a “road movie” as some critics have written, but rather an exploration of the world of the dead Kurdish hero lying inside his coffin by his young Turkish friend. Berzan is dead, but he is taking us to his country — Kurdistan. What do we see? Pictures of a poor country, devastated by a hidden war. Yesim Ustaoglu mixes beautiful pictures of Kurdistan — the director of photography is Jacek Petrycky, who worked with the famous  Polish film director Kislowski — with terrible scenes of destroyed villages, intertwined with archive video newsreels of tanks patrolling the streets of Kurdish towns.

By seeing the devastations of the war-torn nation, one can never forget the impact of war.  The mighty hands of war tear the life of numerous people into pieces.  It shatters the dreams of children and the youth about their future.  It burns the romance of so many couples.  Check out this site to know more about this movie.  See what Mehmet does next.

On his way east, Mehmet stops near Hasankeyf, a very famous old Kurdish town which is doomed to disappear under the water of a dam. Finally, when Mehmet reaches Zorduc, the place where he hopes to bury his friend Berzan, there is no village left,  only a few ruins rising eerily from the waters of an endless lake: the whole region has disappeared under water, and with it all memory of the heroic Berzan and Shirvan, the girl friend he longed for when living in the slums of Istanbul. The past has been obliterated. Mehmet silently unloads his friend’s coffin and watches it descend beneath the shores of the lake.

Yesim Ustaoglu was born in 1960 near Kars, in an area where most of the population is Kurdish, not far from Turkey’s border with Armenia, and went to university in Trabzon, on the Black Sea. After studying architecture, and working as an architect for ten years, she decided she wanted to make films. In 1984 her first film, a 15-minute short, “To catch a moment”, tells of the relationship of a girl, her father and her authoritarian mother over the course of a week-end. Her efforts won her a prize which included the free use of a 16 mm camera, and three boxes of 16 mm negative film. With her prize she produced her second short film, “Big Fantasy”, in 1986, about the dreams of two eight-years old children. The film was shown in children’s film festivals in Chicago and Germany.

Yesim Ustaoglu shot two more short films, “Duet” (1990) and “Hotel” (1992) before shooting her first long film, “The Trace” (Iz) (1994) — the story of a policeman who was a torturer, and had plastic surgery to start a new life. “I liked to shoot short films”, says Yesim Ustaoglu. “When you make short films, you are free; with longer films, you get involved in money problems”.

Yesim Ustaoglu is a woman who values freedom highly. For a few years she made a living running a cafe, the “Trapez”, in Beyoglu, Istanbul. And she proves her love of freedom again in “Journey to the Sun”, by far her best work. Avoiding melodrama, she shows the miserable life of Mehmet, Berzan and all their like, poor migrants from the west and the east of Turkey who flock to Istanbul, the city of their dreams, only to see their dreams of a better life shattered.  Yesim Ustaoglu has spent years walking around Istanbul, and has come to know the city better than most; she knows the slums and the garbage dumps as well as the capital’s many splendours.

“Journey to the Sun” was awarded the “Blue Angel “ prize for the best European film at the Berlin festival last February, and the “Best Film” and “Best Director” prizes at Istanbul festival in April; it also passed the keen eye of the film censor in Turkey, and consequently can be shown there.

Paradoxically, despite winning the approval of the censor, it appears Turkish distributors are scared of showing the film, especially after the upsurge of Turkish nationalism that followed Ocalan’s death sentence. And, despite the fact that visitors to the Istanbul Film Festival queued to watch the film, described as the biggest event of the entire festival, several of Turkey’s best known critics have consistently failed to review it.

(The Middle East magazine, October 1999)