TIFF 2021 Review: History is a Wily Creature in Emre Kayis’ Poignant “Anatolian Leopard”

There’s a bar adjoined to a skating rink where Fikret (Uğur Polat) takes his coffee in the morning and as one realizes as time wears on in “Anatolian Leopard,” where he ends the night with a stiff cocktail as well. Surely this routine has been in place for years, though the chemical elements of both drinks are more necessary now than ever when the day itself is filled by one depressing moment after another after the zoo that he’s maintained for decades in Ankara has recently been shuttered after interest has been shown by a collection of Middle Eastern sheikhs proposing a theme park on the property, and beyond bidding farewell to employees whose futures look uncertain, he is tasked with one curious task before being shown the door himself, finding a home for a leopard, the one animal of any import to the local government as a long acknowledged “an indigenous cultural asset.”

Facilitating a rescue effort for the leopard while leaving the zoo to be destroyed is a bit like seeing the forest for the trees in Emre Kayis’ first-rate feature debut in which the once-proud Fikret, known only to most as Mr. Director for the amount of respect he’s commanded from others, begins to have no respect for himself. Like one of the caged creatures he presided over, he mulls about the premises with a permanent grimace across his face, listening to plans for the construction of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp and venturing outside only to attend a birthday party for his grown daughter, whose mother can afford to give her a far better present than he can. Fikret’s own fate is clearly tied to the state of affairs in his native Turkey, where his friends still debate the merits of socialism versus nationalism though the country’s fate now appears to be set in stone, with private investment seen as a life raft, yet with it goes any cultural currency the country had built up over centuries and as Kayis finds, there is a rather universal story at the film’s core of a man who is about to go into his golden years feeling as if he’s achieved nothing when his life’s work is literally about to be destroyed.

The gloomy premise of “Anatolian Leopard” is leavened with a sly sense of humor throughout, most pointedly in the fact that the leopard dies before Fikret can properly reassign it to a new home, creating a mad scramble for himself and his loyal assistant Gamze (Ipek Türktan) to delay delivering the bad news for as long as possible to the countless bureaucrats that live in fear of their immediate superior. The cleverly constructed house of cards built by Kayis comes to outline a chain of command that isn’t in search of justice so much as maintaining the limited amount of power that each is thought to have as Fikret can remember a time of stronger institutions and wonders what his own role might’ve been in weakening them. History is shown to be fragile in the dark comedy, but Kayis shows the strength required to bring it to light.

“Anatolian Leopard” does not yet have U.S. distribution.