Neither Reality Nor Fiction: "Men on the Bridge" at the MoMA
Emre Erkmen, Asli Özge and Fabian Massah (from left to right)
(© Adrian Staehli)
Film enables us as viewers to steal a cursory glimpse into places, events and lives we have no connection with by following a narrative pieced together by the film's creator. By its genre we determine the way to understand the film; if it is a documentary, it is limited by the facts; if it is fiction, there is more room to let the imagination run. But what happens when the documentary gets scripted? Turkish director Asli Özge blurred these lines in her "Men on the Bridge," (Köprüdileker), not just blurring fact and fiction, but making them mutually reinforcing.
The MoMA is screening "Men on the Bridge" from June 20-25, with Özge and the film's producer and cinematographer present at the premiere. The film is a Turkish-German-Netherlandish coproduction that traces the lives of an otherwise anonymous segment of Turkish society, with a universality that illuminates the preoccupations of people in nearly every society. Özge says her inspiration for the 2009 film, already screened at several festivals worldwide, was the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, which connects Europe and Asia over the eponymous strait.
While living in the Turkish metropolis, Özge crossed the bridge herself with a certain frequency in visits to her father, who resides on the opposite side of the Bosporus. While sitting in traffic on countless occasions, she had the time to observe the many people loitering on the bridge, not in transit, but trying to sell goods- illegally- to those caught in the jam.
The Bosporus Bridge hangs precariously between the two continents, forming a long and cumbersome path that offers many parallels with Turkey's attempt to exist as a simultaneously European and Asian country while solidifying its stance in Europe, most palpably, by trying to become part of the European Union. Intrigued not only by the contemporary challenges symbolized in this "imaginary border" but by those eking out a living upon it, Özge began photographing them at work.
Photography turned into a deeper interest in the backgrounds and home lives of these subjects. Özge began to conduct interviews and compile information for what would form the basis of a documentary on the lives of those on the bridge. This uncertainty towards the future forms a major part of Özge's presentation of Turkish society, and chose these younger subjects whose futures hang, to varying degrees, in the balance to portray this insecurity.
Her conversations yielded a hybrid of the two forms, a narrative of events that flows unrecognizably between depictions of reality and the imagination performed by the individuals themselves, who provided inspiration for the characters and the anecdotes in the film. Art and life inform each other constantly as the lives of Cemile and Umut, a married couple, Murat, a single police officer, and Fikret, an illiterate, impoverished teenager, unfold.
In her Bosporus microcosm, Özge manages to share personal details about the lives of the non-privileged that evoke both empathy and a sense of concern for the characters. Wider social concerns also enter the frame, some reflecting earlier conversations, and some by coincidence. Enlarge image Men on the Bridge. 2009. Turkey/Germany/The Netherlands. Directed by Asli Ozge (© Men on the Bridge)
"I wish there were a war," blurts out Fikret's friend, as he gawks at the tanks and fighter jets in a shameless display of military might during a Turkish national celebration. Under a spectacular fireworks display, Cemile and Umut share a romantic moment before she mutters, once again, a lamentation about how they have too little money.
In protest against a PKK attack that killed several Turkish soldiers, we see marchers with flags, our taxi driver Umut among them, crying out a call for solidarity. Moments later, the rally takes a surprisingly dark turn, as the speaker brandishes the "West" and "Zionism" for causing disunity among Turks and Kurds. Yet bias and prejudice are not the subject of the film, though they are present as everyday elements of life. These scenes, while more provocative, form only subordinate part of the conversation.
What Özge attempts to show is "chaos," as she terms it, that manifests the "fear of the young people." The only woman in the film is Cemile, the undereducated and financially dependent wife whose restlessness drives a deep wedge between her and her overworked taxi driver husband. Other female characters come in the form of internet chats by a desperate Murat, whose social awkwardness destroys any hope of a second date with the women he invites to tea after an online video chat. There are no women working on the bridge.
Özge shot the film over two years with her interviewees- and the brother of the policeman character, who was not permitted by the Turkish police to portray himself. There is a prevailing sense of disorientation as Cemile explains she hasn't a rudimentary idea of how a computer works, or as Fikret attempts to fill out his name and level of education on a job application at a retail store.
In order to ensure the proper "timing" in the film using first-time actors, Özge read the lines aloud herself, and the actors repeated after her. The proximity to reality, while not entirely decipherable at what point, is always there. There is a feeling that these lines have been, in a sense, more than rehearsed.