Film Destination #6: Turkey.
Something Useful (2017), Dir. Pelin Esmer
Do you have a window?
In this film, a lawyer/poet boards a train to attend her 25th class reunion dinner. She meets a young nurse who is traveling to the same destination, and they get to know each other.
Three-quarters of the film takes place on the train. Filming actually took place on a sitting train, with scenery added post-production. While the actors were given descriptions, it’s an added texture that each actor depended upon their own imagination of that scenery, with no obstruction of reality.
What’s the difference, between looking outside your window, and being outside?
The lawyer/poet Leyla is often staring out the window, and there she, the interior and the view combine. It’s a scene I enjoy living out yet dislike on camera, but it happens again and again, and when there’s so much repetition, it’s hard to get off one’s mind, and I find myself reflecting into it.
I remember riding the DC metro, staring out into a black tunnel through the window, and being shocked when I met eyes with someone, through their reflection. I still am unsure if we truly met eyes—is that possible? Leyla often looks at the nurse, Canan, through the window, and it seems ripe with meaning. Perhaps she sees a young version of herself or therein finds all her curiosities satisfied.
People-watching is much harder during a pandemic. Zoom or social media is inadequate, filled with only the least compelling parts. I reveal unprocessed facial expressions, stutter, and leave sentences unfinished because I need the zoom room to be more authentic. What I miss of pre-influencer internet is the lack of expectation for anything to come from all this effort. I miss the willingness to pour one’s heart out into a silent, echoless void, because that’s what we all did prior, on paper. And those are the best moments of people-watching—when one, two, or several beings are so immersed in a beautiful moment that they have no idea how precious it is. The onlooker is gifted as much as the lived life, without ever touching the fourth wall.
Do you like to move around a window, or for things in the window to move past you?
As the train marches onward, the film reveals a serious plot: Canan is on the way to help with an assisted suicide. And Leyla is now thoroughly preoccupied with Canan’s situation.
The limitations of a moving train help maintain uncomfortable conversations. Canan at times gets off the train and considers fleeing, or returns to her train car, or makes a phone call in the vestibule, but she is tied to this space, and with that, Leyla.
Leyla ends up joining Canan to her destination and meets Yavuz, the man who would like to end his life. Yavuz knows Leyla’s works as a poet, and the atmosphere in the room changes, this is a delightful moment, a wonderful meeting of poet and devoted reader. Leyla recommends that she and Canan come again tomorrow, that the conversations and whatever else resume tomorrow, and Yavuz concurs.
Tensions between Leyla and Canan continue. Is Leyla living in this moment for art? Is it wrong to be intensely engaged in an experience because it is unique and full of humanity? Meanwhile, Canan is motivated to fulfill Yavuz’s request and by the monetary benefit. Who is better? By Leyla stepping in and changing the scenario, was she dropping her artist inclinations to break that fourth wall?
What would you LIKE to see out your window?
This film is difficult to find and watch online, so I will continue to spoil the plot. The ending is unknown. Leyla and Canan return the next day, and then we watch Yavuz look out the window and watch them leave. We continue to people-watch through the window, with occasional hazy frames. Is Yavuz falling into a final sleep? Or are the curtains moving with the wind so as to block our view only temporarily?
When you see things from your window, does it make you want to go outside? When you see windows from outside, does it make you want to go inside?
This is Esmer’s first film that is 100% fictitious. In fact, Esmer’s film-making journey is tied to an interest in real people, culture, events, as she was on her way to being an anthropologist. But an of-the-spur enrollment into a film workshop changed her output slightly, and she assisted with several films and released a short documentary about her uncle. A few years later, she debuted her most famous work thus far, The Play (2005), about a group of women in a mountain village who put on plays. Unafraid to repeat themes, Esmer’s other works include her uncle again for 10 to 11, and Queen Lear, a return to the actresses of before.
She shares in an interview:
We brought together people who would not really come together. They will probably come together only in this film. This was actually an element that helped us to think more like poetry, providing us with a space of freedom from the very beginning. Words that we are not so accustomed to see side by side can come side by side in a poem, but if we see them in prose, we soon think it is irrational, we find it strange, and therefore, separate them.
Later, Esmer quotes the terrific poet Forugh Farrokhzad: "The bird may die / Keep the flight in mind.” Recently, Miryam and I read a chapter of Kierkegaard where he writes, “The secular mind always needs to have decision externalized; otherwise it mistrustfully believes that the decision actually does not exist. But this ground for mistrust is precisely the temptation in which faith shall be tested.” In my own situation, in Japan, spending my days enveloped in memories of my grandmother, who was alive the last time I was here, while also being officially in my mid-20s and thinking constantly about future plans/next steps/goals, I’m grateful for this vagueness, this focus on the journey, and the long gaze out the window.
The words in italic are pulled from a children’s book drafted by a friend and me in 2015.
Next in Switzerland (perhaps),
(Unfortunately, Something Useful is unavailable on most streaming services. However, I recommend another great Turkish film, in fact, the film that inspired me to start this newsletter, Times and Winds, which is available for rent on Amazon Prime. Music composed by Arvo Pärt!)
Where to watch?