Mother and Son. Reflections after ‘Song of My Mother’ by Erol Mintas

Bernardo Piciché – Virginia Commonwealth University

 

Annemin Sarkisi (Song of My Mother) is a movie by director Erol Mintas. It came out in 2014, a Turkish, French, and German co-production. It is collecting prestigious awards, like the Heart of Sarajevo (Bosnia) Film Festival, and the Golden Olive Tree at the Festival del Cinema Europeo (Lecce, Italy). The motivation of the jury conferring the Italian prize highlights “clarity and simplicity of the narration. Through the relation, at times confrontational, between a son city-dweller and his old mother who dreams of going back to the village, the movie is able to communicate with great sensitivity the existential and social conflicts in a country traversed by unstoppable changes and contradiction”[My translation][1]. Multa paucis, as the Latin maxim goes: a lot in a few words. Let us pause on the wording of the motivation. “Clarity and simplicity of the narration”: indeed the plot appears very simple (at a first sight, at least). There is an elderly woman; and there is her adult son. They live together. In the end the mother dies. Yet the words “relation at tracts confrontational” foreshadows a major complexity. The relation can be problematic. Moments of tension do happen between mother and son. Alí (Feyyaz Duman), the son, does not arrive to euthanize his mother out of despair, as it happens conversely in another recent Turkish movie[2]. He is visibly stressed in life, and his mother does not help alleviate his problems. Alí raises his voice against her, once, and the mother reacts with silent tears. Was this the result of authentic grief, or cultural reaction, or passive-aggressive sentimental blackmailing? Each of the three does not exclude the others. The watcher will soon be not too severe in judging Alí. Mrs. Nigar, the mother (Zübeyde Ronahi) is difficult to handle. Her maternal love is intense, but intrusive, and demanding. For instance, once evening, when her son announces that he is going out after dinner, she requests, in rather spiteful tone, to go out, too. Does she not know that Alí is going to see his girlfriend, Zeynep (Nesrin Cavadzade)? The viewer can add this further tessera to the mosaic: Nigar’s latent jealousy towards this young woman with whom she is sharing the attention of “her” Ali. As evidence, in the entire movie, the mother never speaks of Ali’s fiancée. This is not a sign of discretion, but, in Mediterranean cultural terms, it stands as eloquent, disapproval of something. (Sorrow petrified Niobe, as Mount Sypilus in Turkey testifies!) Things that are abominable or cause pain are not spoken, yet this silence operates as a constant reminder to the culprit – Alí in this case – of his alleged fault. To jealousy against a daughter-in-law, one can add the gap between two faces of Turkey as causes of tension: the traditional, rural, low class woman versus the educated, urban, independent, unveiled, and unmarried young woman. On top of this, Alí speaks Turkish with Zeynep, which means that she is not Kurdish; whereas he uses Kurdish with his mum, (the reader can bet that much more is coming out from this last detail). In such a scenario, it should not be a surprise that Alí hides the pregnancy of Zeynep from the old woman. The inner conflict of Ali is tangible. His role of complacent victim of a domineering mother is clear, and somehow makes up for his being a “coward and selfish”, as Zeynap remarks. A son torn between the bond of affection and respect to his mother and the feelings for a woman he loves, also carnally, does not constitute an exceptional story. Mintas is a master at describing this banal family stress with no melodrama. For instance, one initial scene catches the mother closing with ostensible solemnity, a window in the empty room of the flat from which she and her son are moving. Even if we do not know yet what it is going on, we feel the sense of discomfort of this old woman, who had just said good-bye, very theatrically to a neighbor. In perfect anti-climax, Alí rushes into the room urging his mother to get ready and put an end to melodrama. The son may appear insensitive, until one watches the rest of the movie. No side is taken by the director, though. There is no bad-guy and good-guy game here. The mother is also an excellent mother. She is dedicated to Ali, spends her time cleaning the apartment where they live, cooks meals that her son seems to appreciate, and irons his shirts. Very touching is the scene – and very natural in that context – of her covering her son with a blanked, lest he feels cold in his sleep (similar signs of affection are visible in Roberto Rossellini’s Open City,1945, and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief,1948. The mother’s imposing herself is tenacious and, at its core, authoritarian. She knows – presumably for engrained habit – how to affect the life of her son by using headaches, illness, twisting of hands, squinting of eyes, grimaces of disdain, and, when nothing works, tears. Either due to natural stubbornness, or for old age, she seems oblivious of the trouble she causes with her petulant requests, as in particular, a song from her youth (hence the title of the movie) and, much more problematic indeed, her wish to return to her village. This latter, impossible, desire, reconnect us with the statement of the Italian jury: “a son city dweller and his old mother who dreams of going back to the village”. The Italian jury emphasizes the contrast between the city-dweller son and the villager mother. Yet, from this central nucleus, Mintas develops a much more layered plot. The scenes are set mostly in the claustrophobic apartment located in the anonymous periphery of Istanbul (a situation that connotes worldwide industrial and post-industrial era). Moments of daily domesticity, such as cracking open walnuts, folding linen, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, having a cup of tea with a neighbor, speaking via Skype to a son living abroad, etc. indicate psychological states of mind and socio-historical factors. They stand for loneliness, melancholy, nostalgia, irreversibility, and gentrification, along with political struggle of minorities, exile, and resilience. Nothing of this is openly declared; all are allusions. The characters are like paper figures cut out of a larger sheet. It is up to us to imagine the space and history that surrounded them. Thus, a new piece to the mosaic: though the discombobulation of the Nigar, Mintas tackles the themes of gentrification (with the human traumas that it entails for those who cannot adapt to the change), as well as the theme of immigration from the countryside into the big city. These are recurrent topics in the so-called “Third Cinema”[3]. In this specific case, though, the city does not allure and devour both mother and son. Alí seems perfectly integrated in the urban context. He dresses as a modern urban dweller, rides his scooter like a yuppie, has a job that he seems to love, and a charming companion. Moreover, the artistic component of his personality benefits from the intellectual stimuli of the metropolis. He would not feel comfortable probably if he returned to the village, even if he were permitted to do so. Here we add two further dimensions to the plot. Alí is a writer, first. He had some troubles with police (I will linger more on this later), secondly. When an artist portrays another artist, one can reasonable expect a certain amount of autobiographical mirroring. It is legitimate to argue that the neuroses of Alí, his fatigue, and need of peace to create his art, echo Minta’s. If the former hypothesis belongs only to the realm of the possible, a biographical coincidence is certain: Erol Mintas is a Kurd, like Alì.

 

At this point, we need to make a short digression (a disclaimer, perhaps?). No one here is attacking anyone. This is a movie made of silence and feelings. The Kurdish issue appears only in the background. The approach of Mintas is lyrical, not political. So will be my reflection. Rather, with regards of the issue of minorities, I believe that Mintas is sending us a message of reconciliation, embodied by the physical conjunction of Ali and Zeynep. To stretch our interpretation a bit, we could say that the baby represents the new Turkey, fruit of the love between its different ethnic components. The death of the mother, who is an obstacle to this union, might symbolize, then, a mentality that must go. Love and respect for tradition notwithstanding, the page must be turned. (As far as past events concerning the minorities in Turkey, I would recommend the lucid, non-partisan, analysis by Arnold Toynbee. The argument of pathological deviation from a cultural tradition of coexistence that occurs when foreign forces stir discordance among social groups, valid at the time in which the book was published, 1922, is applicable to other realities in the world of past and present time. Two issues from Toynbee’s essay are still very poignant: first, in events of such a bearing, nobody is entirely either at fault or innocent. Second, the Western powers, their economic interests and imposed ideologies, constitute a central part of the problem, since the time when the Turks “have become exponents of the political nationalism of the West”[4]. This reticence in dealing with this topic from Turkish part is understandable, in my opinion, because the matter is very complex and cannot be treated lightheartedly simply by pointing fingers. Especially, if these fingers come from Europeans or North Americans, nations who too easily forget their centuries of genocides, ethnic cleansing, genius loci, “exceptionalism”, and xenophobia, pursued when the Ottoman empire was a harbor of multiculturalism.) I deemed this digression necessary, knowing how sensitive the topic of minorities is in Turkey nowadays.

These things being said, The Song of My Mother, however, cannot be seen only as the description of an intense relation mother-son with all the consequences that this entails. It is also a movie on exile and estrangement. The no longer existing village re-enacts the tale of Troy, the epitome of a destroyed city. Ali, like Aeneas can no longer move back. Exile and nostalgia are eternal themes in the Mediterranean literature, at least in the Homeric, Virgilian, Biblical, and Arabic narrations. In this case, nevertheless, the “epic” is enacted by an old begrudging veiled woman and her son. The peripateia goes from a living room to a kitchen, and to the room of her son. The search for an old tape (domestic counterpart of Saint Graal) becomes symbol for the impossibility of recreating a past long gone. The tape is lost, with no hopes of recuperating it. Like the village, and the society. It is thus undeniable that the social component is present in its multifarious facets.

The Kurdish issue does not occupy the main place, yet it appears here and there, as a discreet leit-motif. Definitely, the scene of Alì abducted from his classroom is powerful. A police car takes him away while he is narrating a story to his pupils in a barrack located in the middle of nowhere Anatolia. The scene is dramatized by the screaming and fear of the children. No act of brutality is shown, though. Was Alí imprisoned? Tortured? We can imagine all of that, but the director does not tell. If we recollect the pieces at the end of the movie, we can presume that Alì was questioned because of the behavior of his brother, who at present lives in France and appears in the movie only as a voice heard via Skype. The other son of Nigar resides in France. Probably he is a political refugee, a beneficiary of the century-old French custom of offering asylum to all those who define themselves as political refugees. (Already in the mid XIX century, the French government provided hospitality and a modicum stipend to the refugees!) Even this bleak part of the story, however, is not deprived of a sense of hope. The mother keeps repeating to her son that many expatriate are coming back. From the context, one can imagine that these “many” are not just economic emigrants. Is this perhaps in reference to a softening of the governmental policy? Anyway, the fact that the movie is spoken in Kurdish and Turkish should reconnect us to the most genuine Turkish tradition of multiculturalism. (A tradition that the poet Rumi, a Persian with a Greek-Byzantine mother, embodies in his own persona and literary production.) Finally, the sense of nostalgia for the past, the adaption to a huge conurbation, the difficulties of handling old parents, the choices related to the birth of a child – these, themes, too, populate the movie – are universal and transcend the contingency of any political discourse.

 

Let us go back to Mrs. Nigar and her son. If Alí seems to fare well in the metropolis, his mother is not. The insistence of the camera on the huge expanse of buildings, anonymous and apparently lifeless, is a recurrent correlative-objective of the state of mind of the old woman. Worst, these buildings are not lifeless: indeed each of those behaves hid personal tragedies that nobody will ever record. Who was the woman next door, of whom we hear the lamentation, contemporary version of the Mediterranean myth of Echo, whose voice only could be heard, while she is hiding away in her grotto? We will never know. Like Echo in the myth of Narcissus, she is just a voice of sadness. It is probably a concession to oleography the juxtaposition of the cityscape with the dreamy vision of a cavalier riding alone in a wild plane. Who is he? Nigar’s love of youth? Her father? The symbol of the indomitable population from which she comes (a population saved by “stubbornness”, as an elderly akin comments?). Nigar is introduced to the spectator already enrobed in her melancholy, while staring at old photos to be stored in boxes to be moved in the new apartment. The deracination from the area Tarlabasi, a part of the city with a strong concentration of Kurds is a second experience of exile. The movie does not recount however when or why so many Kurds lived in that area. We do not even receive an explanation whether the village exists anymore. Is the son is concocting a pious lie to persuade the mother to desist? For long part of the movie the sensation is that a tragic destiny crashed the village. Towards the end, doubts come that this was not the case. Otherwise why Alí would be thinking of taking his mum on her “journey to Ithaca”? To make her mourn over the ruins of her village, like a heroine in Arabic odes? Perhaps, the mother truly cannot live on her own, despite her claims, due to faltering mental health. The vaporous vagueness on trivial details contributes to the poetical value of the movie.

The jury grasped the intertwining of micro and macro-history when they noticed “the existential and social conflicts in a country crossed by unstoppable changes and contradiction”. No question that social changes are highlighted continuously by Mintas. I have already mentioned Zeynep, but it is time to go back to this young woman. Zeynep is polite and gracefully, but not submissive. Once again, the director does not give details. The spectator is free to envision a destiny for the couple, for instance that things will settle down after the death of the mother, and Ali and Zeynep will stay together and keep the baby. One fact Mintas depicts with no ambiguity: Zeynep represents a new Turkish woman. She does not accept being walked on by her self-absorbed (and overwhelmed by his mother) man, no matter how much she loves him. Symptomatic appears to me the scene in which she objurgates vehemently to the idea of abortion, if it comes as a unilateral decision taken by the man. The title of the movie itself is synecdoche of the changes crossing Turkish society. As aforementioned, the mother is obstinately seeking a lost music tape with the recording of a song. Since she cannot find the tape among her stuff, her son must peruse the city from top to bottom, in search of a new copy. The song seems having shared the same destiny of the phantom village. It is a champion of an old-fashioned genre, the Dengbêy, sung by Seydoye Silo. The choice of Mintas to convey attention during the entire movie of something that will never materialize constitutes a quintessential cinematic tool. The “MacGuffin”, as Hitchcock popularized it in his movie 39 Steps (1935), is a device that allows the plot to entangle, without ever appearing in the movie, and with no apparent importance for the sake of narration. It is a way to create suspense and interest. The quest for the song occupies a major part of the movie and is instrumental to the introduction of more themes. First, it brings old melodies of yore in the story. This cannot be due to chance in a work by an author who charges with sense every single word of the screenplay he authored and each frame he directs. Far from being ridiculed, these past melodies seem to be looked at with benevolent gratitude for the dreams – perhaps naïve – they were able to generate. They too constitute fragments of a world that is disappearing (“into trash”: so the old uncle of Ali forecasts the destiny of his own collection of music after his death). Minta’s attitude for these relics of the past – Nagar, her relative, their music, the village, the Kurdish community, is similar to the one that more than one century ago, a Sicilian writer nurtured towards those that he called the “vanquished by the wave of progress”. It a mixture feeling of sympathy (in the etymological sense of “feeling with”, from Ancient Greek) and resignation. Mintas does not mythicize the past, of which he perceives all the inanities and burdens, but he calls for a respectful epoké, or suspension of judgment. He invokes comprehension for – not alignment with – the old woman, when she rants against rock music. In this indulgence towards the other, the Song epitomizes the civilization of the Mediterranean, in which the factors of homogeneity surpass by far any alleged “clash of civilizations” (to put it in the terminology made famous – infamous, I daresay- by Samuel Huntington)[5]. To find a confirmation for what I am saying, it suffices to observe the social mannerisms in the movie. One can easily recognize a common Mediterranean denominator. I pick randomly two: the insistence in offering something to eat or drink, to which corresponds the obligation of accepting (consequently, Ali apologizes for not having the time to accept anything) and the facility in caressing children and placing them on the lap of a stranger. Mintas balances the tragic with the comic. The scene of Nigar sitting behind her son who is riding the scooter – the lights of Istanbul in the background – is unforgettable. Delightfully is the initiation of Nigar to the use of a mobile phone. Refreshing is the teenager who, as a guest, snatches another pastry, while Nigar and her friend are reminiscing with the usual querimonious tone. The youngster’s gesture mitigates the gravitas of the conversation by reminding us that there is not one story only – the one of the village longed for – but that human life is made of so many points of view as human beings. The pastry, in that moment, for the adolescent was more important than an entire community of Kurds. The director bestows no moralistic judgment, just a benevolent smile on the reality of things.

The final scene of the movie opens up to hope. The schoolteacher goes back to a classroom, and performs once again his pantomime to ecstatic children. Nor his dead mother will be resurrected – and probably this is a good thing. When a director chooses to close a movie with a final sequence filled with children, he is usually using an archetypical message of hope (see the aforementioned Open City, and PierPaolo Pasolini’s Salò, 1975). Mintas chooses a message of hope: children will continue the cycle of life. They will probably create a society with no dictators, at least not the ones in power at present time. One can even auspice that these laughing children will end up forming happy families, with no fear of police knocking at their home- door. In their families a new coming baby will be welcomed as a gift, and not seen as another problem like in the case of Ali, who is able to make his pupils dream, nevertheless is too overwhelmed by personal worries to consider the arrival of his own child as a joy.

The close of the movie offer a rare moment of serenity not only for the content of the narrative, but also because it exalts pure recitation. So doing, it stands out as a homage to the art of performance. Like the arias in opera, it freezes the narration and casts light on the ability of the performer. Feyyaz Duman is up to par to the importance of the moment. He displays his marvelous skills of actor, by mimicking the story of the crow that wanted to act like peacocks. Has this story a meaning related to the plot of the movie? Does it hide a metaphorical significance? I attempted some interpretation, but then I decided to enjoy the scene as it is, and admire the perfect circularity – in accordance with a narrative technique that reached perfection in Middle-Eastern literature – of a récit that begins and ends on the same note. It is pure joy of the métier. As any work of art, the Song of My Mother can be considered for its immediate literal meaning – but this is just the surface – or can be appreciated in the light of the others spheres of meaning that the audience are able to add, based on their knowledge of the context. As I said, the director does not explain much of the context. Like Michael Haneke, Francesco Rosi, and most auteurs, Mintas urges his watchers to interact actively with the plot, to the point of integrating it.If the final pantomime does not constitute evasion from the heavy themes tackled in the movie, yet it comes to remind us that cinema is first and foremost art. And, art is also dreaming. It is not due to chance, in my opinion, that Mintas include a meta-textual cinematic element, when he inserts a movie into the movie. Thus, we watch mother and son laughing together while viewing Charlie Chaplin. Cinema is offering the sole truly relaxed connection between mother and son. When they are both enjoying a great movie, all chagrin is dissipated. What better way to pay homage to the cinematic art, from the part of this young director that, at age 33, has already produced a masterpiece?

[1] “Per la limpidezza e l’apparente semplicità con cui si svolge il racconto. Attraverso il confronto tra un figlio urbanizzato e un’anziana madre che sogna di tornare alla vita del villaggio, il film riesce a comunicare con grande sensibilità i conflitti esistenziali e sociali in un paese percorso da inarrestabili cambiamenti e contraddizioni”. Motivation of Award, Festival del Cinema Europeo, Lecce (Italy), 2015.

 

[2] Nergis Hanim (2014), by Görkem Şarkan. A cinematic gem. Four characters (two of which quite marginal), one single scenario (the interior of a small apartment in Istanbul), and the magisterial acting of Zerrin Sümer, as the mother.

[3] John Hill & Pamela Gibson. World Cinema. Critical Approaches. Oxford: Oxford UP 2000, p.33-34.

[4] Toynbee, A. The Western Question in Greece and Turkey. A Study in the Contact of Civilizations. Boston & New York Houghton Mifflin Company: 1922, page vii. (Originally published: London: Constable & Co, 1922. The copy used here is a facsimile of the Houghton Mifflin edition, published by Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre, CT, 2009, part of the Library of Congress Collection D 465.T6 2009.)

[5] Huntington Samuel. Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order. New York: Simon and Shuster 1996. Unlike the analysis of Toynbee, this one is a rather myopic study that tends to ignore the role of entities such as the oil companies, banks and big corporations in the international scenario.

Viewed 860