by Paola Cesarini
Netflix's latest Turkish original “Bir Başkadır” (“Ethos,”) comes as a complete and welcome surprise. After a flurry of Ottoman-related, fantastic and teen-age series, the global digital platform is unexpectedly treating audiences around the world with an artful, bold, complex, and very distinctively Turkish story characterized by rich cinematography and outstanding performances.
Set in Istanbul, “Bir Başkadır’s” elaborate narrative illustrates the intersecting lives of several of its residents, who are so different from one another that they may as well live on different planets. In the process, the series explores several challenging themes (such as prejudice, social conflict, cultural clash, destiny, chance, human interconnectedness, trauma, healing, and Jungian psychology) in both in-depth and intellectually ambitious fashion.
The acclaimed movie “Crash” is a clear source of inspiration for “Bir Başkadır.” In 2004, the multiple-Oscar winning film probed the adverse impact of prejudice – especially racial prejudice -- on a varied group of individuals living in contemporary Los Angeles. The title "Crash" stood as a metaphor for the inevitable, but often conflictual, interconnectedness among strangers in a big city. In his review of the movie, the renowned film critic Roger Ebert claimed that “Crash” illustrated how
‘peoples' assumptions prevent them from seeing the actual person standing before them… As they “crash” into one another, the characters learn things, mostly about themselves… and are better people because of what has happened to them.’
Following in “Crash’s” footsteps, “Bir Başkadır” seeks to show that prejudice is not limited to ignorant and/or evil people. Even those, who consider themselves free of prejudice, can often be insensitive, cruel, and even violent as a result of their unconscious bias. In so doing, it sheds light on tensions within Turkey, which bear unexpected resemblance to the internal conflicts that currently plague many Western societies (e.g. the United States.) Finally, the series suggests employing empathy and careful listening to overcome divisions or, at least, start looking at the world from someone else's perspective.
The series opens as Meryem (Öykü Karayel,) a traditional Muslim girl from a rural village transplanted into the big city, visits Peri (Defne Kayalar,) a fully westernized psychiatrist, to seek help for her recurring fainting spells. During their first meeting, the girl evokes strong contradictory emotions in Peri and brings her face-to-face with her bias against “covered” (i.e. conservative Muslim) women, which she inherited from her mother. At the same time, it is evident that Meryem too harbors prejudice towards those, who do not outwardly conform to her way of life.
Meryem lives with her brother Yasın (Fatih Artman) and his family, which include his beautiful but suicidal wife Rühiye (Funda Eryiğit) and two kids. As a former elite soldier, who recently experienced bankruptcy, Yasın is irascible, frustrated, deeply unhappy, and borderline abusive. However, he also sincerely cares for his family and others around him, and tries his best to provide for them by working as a bouncer in a nightclub. Meryem too works hard at home to keep the family running during Rühiye’s disability, and cleans houses to contribute to the meager family budget.
Peri quickly diagnoses Meryem’s fainting episodes as a manifestation of the emotional disconnect/repression that the girl experiences as a result of having unconsciously fallen in love with one of her employers -- Sinan (Alican Yücesoy.) The handsome man is fully westernized and quite the philanderer and, hence, completely inappropriate as a potential mate. Moreover, Sinan appears hardly aware of Meryem’s existence above and beyond the household service she provides.
While her repressed feelings for Sinan may have initially led Meryem to Peri’s practice, she continues to visit the psychiatrist because, for the first time in her life, she has found someone with whom she can share her most recondite feelings without fear of being judged. Peri, on the other hand, grows increasingly agitated about the potential for “countertransference.” To relieve her concern, she recounts her sessions with Meryem to her professional “supervisor” Gülbin (Tülin Özen), who coincidentally happens to be having an affair with Sinan – i.e. Meryem’s employer.
Their close connection notwithstanding, Gülbin does not have a high opinion of Peri, whom she believes to be a “closet fascist”. Interestingly, Gülbin comes from a conservative middle-class Kurdish family. Her personal background is therefore not entirely dissimilar to Meryem’s. And while she clearly abandoned her family’s traditional ways, Gülbin still resents Peri’s superior attitude towards people like Meryem. Nevertheless, she continues to hold weekly sessions with Peri without ever sharing any of her true feelings. It is thus abundantly clear that Peri and Gülbin practice their profession according to widely different ethical standards. While the former agonizes over the mere prospect that her prejudice towards Meryem might be an obstacle to the young woman’s healing, Gülbin sees no problem in continuing to provide psychological support to Peri, while secretly despising her.
Enter Melisa (Nesrin Cavadzade,) a beautiful actress starring in a popular dizi. We first meet her when she strikes a friendship with Peri during a Yoga class. Later on, we witness her disparage her current TV engagement as “a series for the common people of Anatolia” before none other than Sinan – again, Meryem’s employer. A moment later, however, the camera quickly switches to Meryem, who is intently watching Melisa on TV at that very same time. Nevertheless, Melisa is anything but a one-dimensional character. When Peri shares her concerns about Meryem, the actress offers the kind of constructive criticism that Gülbin should have provided. Free of Gülbin’s resentment and motivated by a sincere desire to help, Melisa can be frank with Peri. She thus encourages her new friend to let people just be who they are and, in so doing, open herself up to new experiences. A piece of advice that Peri eventually follows to the benefit of both herself and Meryem.
“Bir Başkadır” further explores the tension between religion and secularism in contemporary Turkey through the interesting juxtaposition of Ali Sadi Hoca (Settar Tanriögen) and Peri. Both the Muslim teacher and the psychiatrist sincerely seek to help Meryem deal with her fainting spells. Coming from entirely different backgrounds, however, they offer opposite solutions. Peri advises Meryem to engage in what Carl Jung defined as “shadow work” – i.e. in ‘making the unconscious conscious’ (more on this later) -- so that she can achieve a more fulfilling life. Ali Sadi Hoca, on the other hand, encourages her to accept the status quo. When he uses the same plastic flower metaphor with Meryem’s brother Yasın, however, it becomes clear that Ali Sadi Hoca’s advice is rooted more in routine than conviction. This ends up being a good thing when, later on, his beloved adopted daughter Hayrunnisa (Bige Önal) powerfully questions some of his most fundamental values.
Meryem’s keen intelligence leads her to follow Peri’s advice. Confronting her own repressed emotions and unconscious biases, she opens herself up to new experiences. Along the way, she meets Himli (Gökhan Yıkılkan.) While neither handsome nor rich as Sinan, Himli shares Meryem’s intelligence and intellectual curiosity. Consequently, he harbors the promise of a better life but still within the traditional boundaries that she is comfortable with.
Meryem’s story provides the central focus of “Bir Başkadır’s” narrative. The series, however, touches on several additional characters, whose lives intersect with Meryem’s. While not as detailed, these other stories follow a similar psychological pattern. Peri manages to free herself from her mother’s prejudicial legacy and comes in touch with her own authentic feelings. Rühiye overcomes her suicidal tendencies when she confronts the trauma of her rape and, in so doing, realizes the full extent of her husband’s love. The Hoca accepts Hayrunnisa’s desire to embrace the modern world and, in turn, his own aspiration to a different life. On the other hand, Gülbin and Sinan do not fare as well. The former never fully confronts her ambivalence towards her family. Consequently, she remains stuck in a vicious cycle of conflict with her more traditional and infinitely more aggressive sister. Sinan too is ultimately unable to face his family-related traumas, and thus remains trapped in a deep well of loneliness and despair.
Successfully weaving such a complex web of intersecting tales solely through intense dialogue is an immense feat. And “Bir Başkadır’s” script unquestionably offers a smart example of the so-called “network narrative.” The latter is defined as a non-linear approach to storytelling from various interconnected viewpoints, which emphasizes fate, the contingency of life, and the preponderant influence of social structures over individual perspectives. Besides "Crash, “network narrative” characterizes several other acclaimed cinematic productions such as “The Hours,” “Traffic,” “Babel,” and “Syriana.”
"Bir Başkadır’s” script also implicitly embraces the notion of “six degrees of separation,” which claims that people on average are only a handful of social connections away from each other and, thus, far more intimately related than meets the eye.
The brilliance of “Bir Başkadır” does not end here. Through the characters of Peri, Gülbin, and Himli, the series is chock-full of references to Jungian (or analytic) psychology. Jung believed that an individual’s repressed emotions and memories, in combination with the “collective unconscious” (which includes natural or socially derived traits,) may result in an imbalance between conscious awareness of the self and the unconscious mind. Such imbalance, in turn, is likely to affect one’s emotional life and trigger adverse psychological symptoms (such as Meryem's fainting spells.) During analysis, therapists should therefore encourage patients to explore the deep-rooted causes of their problems, and embark on “individuation”. The latter indicates a process, whereby a person attempts to access the unconscious -- including the collective unconscious -- aspects of his/her personality, and integrate them with his/her conscious self into a well-balanced whole.
In addition to the brilliant and erudite script by acclaimed TV writer and director Berkun Oya, “Bir Başkadır” showcases several extraordinary performances that can only be characterized as “deep” acting. Öykü Karayel is remarkably convincing as a traditional, uneducated, but extremely intelligent village girl -- accent included! This is not only quite a different role than any of her previous ones, but it is also a surprising one for her to take on. And yet, Öykü delivers a brilliantly understated performance, which also manages to convey glimmers of humor in the midst of a sea of despair.
Fatih Artman is known for consistently delivering good performances (see "Vatamın Sensin" and "Menajerimi Ara.") As Yasın, however, he interprets his most challenging role thus far. One in which he must walk a fine line between despicable and compassionate, abusive and vulnerable, callous and sensitive, and credulous and judicious. His performance is nothing short of amazing in this regard.
Defne Kayalar too offers a beautifully nuanced interpretation as Peri. The inner agony, which she experiences upon meeting Meryem, is painful to watch -- especially when she tries in vain to convince herself that the young woman is just like any other patient. Once they acknowledge and embrace each other’s influence, however, their relationship brings mutual healing in ways that neither could have ever imagined.
Funda Eryiğit too is quite powerful in her portrayal of a woman in a profound, almost catatonic, state of depression. It is thus somewhat unfortunate that the script has Rühiye shake off her clearly severe condition with somewhat unrealistic ease.
Last, but not least, “Bir Başkadır” offers stylistic cinematography and an exceptionally accurate selection of locations. The color palette, the lighting, the costumes, the camera angles, and the evocative soundtrack contribute to building a precise atmosphere, which keeps the audience engaged and fascinated throughout the show. The multi-spatial structure of the series supports the multi-character narrative and helps to illustrate the stark differences among the various protagonists. Meryem and her family live in a rural-type house on the periphery of Istanbul, which could well be located in the less economically developed eastern regions of Turkey. To go to work, she has to commute to the big city of Istanbul, which seems a world away from her customary surroundings. Other locations include Gülbin's family middle-class Kurdish family home, Sinan's modern high-rise apartment, and Peri's family mansion overlooking the Bosphorus.
Finally, the brilliant writer/director Berkun Oya effectively uses many Turkish cultural references, such as old songs, movies, and dizis from Yeşilçam, to strengthen the narrative. For example, he inserts sections from the 1964 documentary "Bosphore," by renowned French director Maurice Pialat, which effectively portrayed a city torn between tradition and modernity. The closing credits also contain clips from the live performances of Ferdi Özbeğen -- a famous Turkish singer, whose compositions combined elements of eastern, western, traditional, and contemporary music.
Like any series, “Bir Baskadir” contains a few shortcomings, which do not however detract from the overall brilliance of the show. Regrettably, the pace of the narrative considerably slows down at around episode 5. Moreover, the sheer number of intersecting storylines makes it sometimes hard to keep up with each character. “Bir Baskadir” also fails fully to develop some of the minor characters, such as Sinan, Hayrunnisa, Hilmi, and Gülbin’s sister, while perhaps indulging excessively on others – e.g. Rühiye. The sub-par English dubbing makes watching this series in the original Turkish language a must, even for those who may dislike subtitles. Finally, “Bir Baskadir” may be criticized for using multicultural and psychological sentimentalism to paper over the persistence of stubborn historical, economic, social, and gender disparities in contemporary Turkey. Differently put, without significant structural reforms, individual efforts to overcome prejudice, division, and bias can only go so far in solving the problems of a complex society perennially situated in a precarious balance between tradition and modernity.
Netflix hardly made any effort to promote “Bir Baskadir” outside of Turkey. That is unfortunate, as the series is the best Turkish original released so far by the global digital platform. The show has therefore the potential of becoming a sleeper hit, at least among the most discerning Netflix viewers, because it addresses themes that are truly universal, and contains a powerful message capable of resonating with audiences across different national and cultural boundaries.
“Bir Baskadir” is currently airing on Netflix in the original Turkish language version with English subtitles. It is also available dubbed in various languages.
@ Article Copyright by Dizilah and Paola Cesarini
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