Venice Film Fest 2020 Review: When a City Burns, Azra Deniz Okyay Summons the Fire Within in the Fierce “Hayaletler”

For those who catch “Hayaletler (Ghosts)” at the Venice Film Festival, it will take place in the not-so-distant future with writer/director Azra Deniz Okyay’s invigorating feature debut time-stamped for October 26, 2020, though by the time it reaches its native Turkey, it will unfold right in the moment, an immediacy that is interrogated as thoroughly by Okyay in narrative terms as the writer/director looks into how her home country is being thrust into a new era in which it threatens to leave many behind. An ensemble drama that doesn’t attach itself too tightly to any one of the four characters it follows, Okyay bring a fresh eye to a story of cultural loss, loosening the framing of her characters aesthetically and creating an elusive sense of time where the past can unexpectedly break its way into the present that becomes gripping by the end.

It feels right that when we meet Didem (Dilayda Günes), she’s in a place that resembles home but can never fully be, fooling around in a luxury hotel room, trying on lipstick and dancing around. The fact that she wears a nametag is a giveaway that she’s an employee rather than a guest, and the dancing gets her in trouble with her boss who informs her it’s her last day on the job, an increasing commonality in Istanbul where power outages are happening with increasing frequency and developers are eager to take over buildings that have been foreclosed on or fallen into disrepair. While Didem would rather spend her time practicing dancing, she finds new work pretty quickly when she runs into Iffet (Nalan Kuruçim), a neighbor who is barely making ends meet as it is when her son asks for $2000 for protection in prison while he waits to stand trial for a crime that his mother is sure he didn’t commit.

At least some of this is covered in the prelude to “Hayaletler,” where Didem and Iffet can be seen in a car on a mission in the dead of night that surely involves some illegal activity, but Okyay employs the time-shifting trope of presenting a moment from the climax first in a genuinely intriguing way when their perilous journey is revisited only after taking a tour of the city that shows all the small ways that the roads there have become more treacherous, following two others — Rasit (Emrah Ozdemir), a local who hopes to get in on the real estate boom through his connection to a politician and sticking around a Syrian market to poach refugees looking for low-income housing, and Ela (Beril Kayar), an activist friend of Didem who has moved largely underground to find ways to undermine the changes above it that are displacing longtime residents. With ads on the radio for new apartments touting “traditional values with a modern touch,” a fifth central character emerges in the omnipresence of conservative strictures that have been built into the chintzy new architecture where the influx of housing is closing doors rather than opening them up.

Thankfully, Okyay is able to create a satisfying climax without resorting to some contrived intersection of her characters, driving towards a make-or-break moment for their city more so than for themselves. While some storylines are stronger than others — Ela is less a fully realized character than someone who cracks open doors to the city’s arts community and risks seeming interchangeable with Didem at times, the writer/director offers up an impressively panoramic view of contemporary Istanbul where ideas old and new collide to give a clear view of the future at a moment when it may seem murky, and no matter what that ends up looking like for Turkey, it surely looks bright for the filmmaker.

“Hayaletler (Ghosts)” will screen at Venice International Film Critics’ Week on September 8th at 7:15 pm at Hall Astra 1 and 7:30 pm at Hall Astra 2.

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