From Bes Vakit to Kosmos: Becoming Animal in Reha Erdem’s Films

In the last twenty years new Turkish film directors put their unique style on screen and now we can talk about different waves in young Turkish cinema. Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Zeki Demirkurbuz determined the new independent Turkish cinema and in the meantime production companies started to produce mainstream films. In this modern era new directors like Özcan Alper, Seyfi Teoman and Hüseyin Karabey created the second wave, telling stories in a more political context. In between, Reha Erdem kept on making films as he tried to create a unique form of storytelling on screen.

During the progression of his filmography it can be seen that there is a serious evolution in his cinematic style. In his first film A Ay (1990), he gave the first signals of a search for a new experimental cinematic narration which creates an expressionist visual poetics. Stylized black-and-white visual structure was combined with the voice-over of a young girl to set the mood of nostalgia in an old wooden house in Prince Islands. Afterwards the director came up with Kaç Para Kaç (1998), which involved more conventional filmmaking than his debut film. It is one of the rare films that used Istanbul as a functional background in storytelling. We as audience could have found glimpses of his auteur touches, which are more visible in the films he made after Kaç Para Kaç. Korkuyorum Anne (2004) was the turning point of Erdem’s filmography. In a really conventional and dynamic story, he succeeded in injecting his unique style, especially by using extra-diegetic music. That was the first time the director deliberately overused non-diegetic music to set the tone of the film. This was a very “Turkish,” or we can call it “oriental,” story set in a really old neighborhood of Istanbul. In spite of this local origination point of the story, the film goes into the territory of a universal theme which explores the relationship between a human being and his/her body. Then that leads us to the question, “What is a human?”

In 2006, the director shot one of the most revolutionary films in the history of Turkish cinema in terms of cinematic style. Beş Vakit (2006) tells the traumas of three teenagers growing up in a village set in the skirt of a mountain on the Aegean coast. This slow-paced film combines hypnotic visuals with Arvo Part’s haunting music to create an uncanny and sometimes disturbing atmosphere, the consequence of brave cinematic narration choices that have never been used to describe village life in Turkish cinema before.

Hayat Var (2008) was the film where Erdem pushed his limits and brought his style to a new level, creating a totally nonexistent Istanbul in an indescribable time and space. The experiment of deconstructing classical storytelling uses a shattered narrative structure which directly reflects the shattered state of the teenage girl’s mind and body. This nonlinear and shattered narrative structure was also repeated in his latest film Kosmos (2010), which probably will be the defining work of his filmography in the near future because of the sense of “loss of control” of narrative as a filmmaker. We can’t talk about a reality in this film on any basis. Even the leading character Kosmos looks like he fell down to earth from a different time and space. The conventions and the expectations of the audience are totally subverted, which gives no glimpse of reality to the audience to connect with the character and the story. Thus Erdem reaches his aim of creating a visual narrative that pushes the limits of cinema.

Beş Vakit was the last turning point in Erdem’s films, as he entered fresh territory which has been influenced by new Asian cinema. In his declarations he mentions directors like Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has been inspiring him for the last ten years. His style of filmmaking changed profoundly; his last three films became formalist experiments which try to explore new horizons in visual storytelling. In this formalist system especially the sound design of films becomes as important as mise-en-scene and visual creations. This essay will explore and analyze Erdem’s latest three films with a formalist approach, trying to conceptualize these three films under Mikahil Bakhtin’s notion of “chronotope.” After defining Erdem’s (non)specific time and space in his films, I will focus on audio tracks and  investigate the function of self-conscious sound designs starting from Beş Vakit. Due to the foundations of the audial analysis, I will try to describe the phenomena by using Gilles Deleuze’s article, “Becoming Intense, Becoming Animal, Becoming Imperceptible,” which will lead me to a conclusion about the creation of the animalistic sensitivity and criticism of the glorified human existence in Erdem’s films.

Time and Space in Beş Vakit, Hayat Var and Kosmos

The uniqueness of Erdem’s last three films, in terms of cinematic narration, is the created time and space peculiar to Erdem’s vision. Even though we are aware of the shooting locations because of the extra-diegetic information we get, we have no clues to describe the village in Çanakkale in Beş Vakit, or Istanbul in Hayat Var, or Kars in Kosmos, as the reflections of real space and the time they belong to. Erdem creates an artificial spatio-temporal atmosphere due to his belief about the artificial ontology of film art. In this case all three films will be explored one by one in terms of their relationship with their space and created time in narratives.

Beş Vakit: Still Life in a Village

Beş Vakit starts with an establishing shot of the village set in the skirts of a mountain. It is dark and we see only a small, silent village in the background. In the first scene, Ömer leaves the house to wake his uncle because he has to call the village for the prayer. Ömer’s dad is the imam of the village and because of his sickness he won’t be able to sing the call for prayer. In this scene the camera follows Ömer from behind and reaches to the house, where he asks his uncle for the favor and meets with his cousin and they talk about Ömer’s father’s sickness. Like the first scene, the last scene of the film is shot with the same camera with the same narrative motivation. During the film we see the dad getting better but in the end he gets worse and Ömer must have made the same request to his uncle for morning prayer. Structurally, the beginning and end of the narrative reflect each other and they have been shot with the same aesthetic concerns. In this case, a symmetry is created, the beginning becomes the end and the end becomes the beginning, which creates the main discourse and concern of the film’s narrative: In this village, like all villages, time is stopped, nothing happens and all of these lives repeat themselves in a loop. This is also declared by the old lady who sits in front of the house. She says, “His father used to be like his son, her father’s father’s was also like him. I damn all of them.” Besides the structure, the film also tries to describe this loop in the village in its narrative. In this context the story also focuses on father-son, father-daughter relationships in different generations. Briefly, the film focuses on repetition and the loop it has created in the village. That’s why Erdem’s main stylistic choice for Beş Vakit becomes “narrational repetition” which can be observed in many different scenes.

Besides the narrational repetition in the beginning and end of the film, the most self-consciously made repetitions are the scenes in which we see children who fell asleep in the heart of nature. Yıldız, one of the tree children, fell asleep in bushes after she saw her parents having sex. We see Ömer asleep under the tree after he was beaten by his father.

Fig.1: Yakup is asleep under the tree.

Fig.2 : Yıldız is asleep in the bushes.
These scenes repeat after children experience a teenage trauma: exploring sex, faced with violence, falling in love, smoking a cigarette. We see them asleep, we see them grow up. Also the costume design in these scenes creates a different layer of meaning. In all of these scenes the costumes children wear are the same color as the space where they fell asleep. At first, one cannot easily differentiate the child from nature; after the camera movement ends and we see the whole body, we understand a human being is lying on the soil or grass. These children become an organic part of nature when they grow up, and at the same time they look half dead, as if in a vegetative state, which is directly related to the description of people’s lives in this village.

Besides these repetitions, the union between human body and nature is also described with another shot. That makes the statement valid for the grown-ups and also supports the created “loop” in village life. You can see in the screenshot below, two trees resemble the standing positions of father and son.

Fig.3: Father and son
Nature-body correlation is created here and in two other scenes in which tree-human body relation is also shown. Yıldız visits her teacher’s house to give her some milk. When she leaves the house she touches the leaves of the tree with her face, like touching her teacher’s hair. Yakup does the same thing towards the end of the film when she leaves the teacher’s house. Every tree becomes the signifier of every human life in the film, which relates to the vegetative, still state of people in the village. Because as mentioned above, village life creates something stable and still which is no different from death on earth. All of these people wait for their death in this prison.

Hayat Var: Life Between Two Sides

Hayat Var also deals with a teenager’s struggles and traumas when she’s growing up, but this time “city” was chosen as the background for her coming-of-age story. Like Beş Vakit’s village on the edge, Hayat’s house, in which she lives with her father and grandfather, is in between land and water. This old wooden cottage looks like it might collapse at any second. The main aesthetic choices in the film’s cinematic narration are all about emphasizing a time, place and characters between binary oppositions. The film can be described as a story of survival between two oppositions which only give you harm and pain.

Hayat as a character is dealing with her inner conflicts. She’s becoming a woman, but in the meantime she is still a child who wants to play with her toys. She’s been abused, but also treated like a sexual threat in the family. She struggles to become a woman, and her mind reacts to this inner conflict by expressing herself with wearing some pretentious makeup.

She has been brought to school on a boat by her father; that’s why they have to pass Bosphorus every day. We see her repetitively between two continents, in the middle of the sea. Like in Beş Vakit, we see her asleep on the boat many times, which describes the character in between adolescence and adulthood. The narrative stays between these two timelines and the spaces in the film were also created visually to describe this indescribable setting.

Fig.4: Hayat is asleep on boat.
Kosmos: Once Upon a Time in a Town…

Kosmos tells the story of a man named Kosmos who visits a town covered by snow, and who maintains he has special powers that heal and save people. First he is perceived as a messiah and everyone wants help from him to heal themselves or their children. He becomes like a holy person in town, but in the end he fails and is deported. Erdem reaches the limits of his new way of storytelling by exaggerating every cinematic aspect in this film. He achieves another level to his cinematic “reality” which transcends the mood he created in Beş Vakit and Hayat Var. Even though we as the audience had some reality to hang onto in his former two films, in Kosmos he doesn’t let us link our mind to any reality we perceive or know in advance. His alternative reality he created in films becomes the starting point of the surrealistic in Kosmos. The leading character speaks like he is reading something from a poetic book; he makes us believe he is able to heal people; a satellite falls down to the ground and it burns. In this film Erdem creates a total “tale” atmosphere by using space and that directly creates an alternate timeline we can’t describe. He also benefits from the magic of Kars as a hauntingly beautiful city.

In Kosmos, narrative starts to fade out and he doesn’t give us any chance to follow the storyline. In this film he creates a totally shattered narrative combined with totally stylized cinematic narration. Subverted narrative becomes like a reflection of Kosmos’s mind, his insanity. The director lets his film go insane and not make any sense, but this does not mean Kosmos is a piece of nonsense. This “nonsense” becomes an originating point for each audience member to think about his/her existence as a human being. Especially the director’s use of animal voices, beginning with Beş Vakit, becomes something inseparable from narrative. In Kosmos, people start to become animals, and in this case our existence grows less meaningful on earth but more meaningful in the context of the universe.

The director ends his film by showing us the universe, by pointing his camera to the sky, and it gives you the feeling of an impossible physical phenomenon: “falling into space” and becoming a part of same unitary system which we call the universe. To experience this feeling, the director claims we should get rid of the eyes of a human being and look down to the earth simply with an animal’s eyes. That’s why he correlates cows’ slaughterhouse with people’s daily life by using crosscutting and equalizing all of the “beings” on earth at the same level. The director’s exploration of the relationship of humans with nature becomes self-consciously visible in Kosmos‘s cinematic narration.

If I had to conceptualize these three films under the “becoming animal” notion, I would say Beş Vakit was the first step of showing humans as an organic part of nature; Hayat Var indicated the anomaly of “city” as an artificially created nature; and Kosmos brought down the fight between nature and men to the same level, and they were interrelated by emphasizing the potential of turning into each other as animals or as human beings. In this context, after defining the time-space in Erdem’s last three films, the notion of “becoming animal” will be explored in the last part of this essay.

“Elseland” Chronotope in Reha Erdem’s Films

Mikahil Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope borrows the foundations of Einstein’s relativity theory in order to define the relationship between time and space in literature. It gives us the chance to conceptualize the time-space relationships and becomes a tool to define genres in terms of spatiotemporal relationships. E.g. Vivian Sobchack creates a “Lounge Time”(1) chronotope in order to define film noir and claims that chronotopes are something productive in terms of creating specific spaces (hotel rooms, bars, rainy streets in film noir) and characters.

Bakhtin describes chronotope thus: “We will give the name chronotope (literally, “time space”) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. This term (space-time) is employed in mathematics, and was introduced as part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The special meaning it has in relativity theory is not important for our purposes; we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor (almost but not entirely). What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time (time as fourth dimension of space).”(2)

Bakhtin also varies the notion of chronotope: artistic chronotope, temporal chronotope…etc. He defines the artistic chronotope as an aesthetic reflection of narratives. “In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”(3)

Erdem’s latest three films are set in places that are on the edge: in the skirts of a mountain (the village), in between land and water (Istanbul and wooden cottage), on the border of two countries (Kars or no-name town as in the film). He creates spaces “in between” and the lack of juxtaposition of spaces to our reality makes them something indescribable. We can say these three spaces are hanging on in emptiness and exist only on the screen. The differentiation of these spaces from other “fantasy” places like Middle Earth, Narnia…etc. is that Erdem’s spaces have no logical explanation of anything and they don’t need a cause-effect relationship to be described. That’s why the director allows the audience’s imagination to create new fabulas in these narratives.

In this context, I will call the spaces in Erdem’s films “elselands” that are created in the audience’s mind as well as on film. As a result of these “elseland chronotopes,” characters who have adolescent struggles, characters who are in between accepted reality and their minds’ reality and a time that’s indescribable are born and reproduced in every narrative. Briefly these “elselands” signify a time and space that are on the edge of our reality.

Sounds from “Elseland” and Becoming Animal in Beş Vakit and Kosmos

Besides the visual and temporal structure of Erdem’s films, sound design plays a great role in their cinematic narration. Instead of using conventional atmosphere sound and dramatic music, the use of sound in Erdem’s films makes the audial structure of the films “visible” and they function as a part of mise-en-scene. This self-conscious design of sound, especially starting from Beş Vakit to Kosmos, opens a new layer in Erdem’s storytelling. These designs become directly part of his “elselands” and perfectly fit with the time-space he created, as will be analyzed below.

First, the soundtracks should be identified under two categories: diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. Diegetic sounds are coming from the story world of narratives and hypothetically they are described as the sounds that the characters in the film hear. On the other hand, non-diegetic sound involves dramatic music and other sounds that can be heard only by the audience. Erdem pushes the limits of these notions in his films, because in some scenes assumed diegetic sound becomes non-diegetic or intra-diegetic (which is assumed as diegetic but turns into a non-diegetic sound and vice versa).

In Beş Vakit, we hear the sound of a donkey repetitively as a diegetic sound, but after many repetitions it starts to function as non-diegetic sound which then is used to describe the characters. When Yakup’s father is on screen we hear the same sound again and again. Sound here becomes a description of character’s fear towards the animals. As Deleuze says, it is the projection of relationship conflict between man and animal, which is the use of wrong language between two beings: Human can’t communicate with an animal by acting like a human.(4)

Repetitive donkey sound becomes “visible” in the soundtrack and repetition tells us that there is no narrative motivation in the use of this sound and it becomes something functional. Michel Chion says that metaphoric use of sound is one of the most fruitful, flexible and inexpensive methods: by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and reassociating different sounds that seem at first hearing to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the filmmaker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush. That creates a reason to perceive the soundtrack metaphorically in order to enrich the discourse of the film.(5)

In this case the mentioned conflict between donkey and man is also related to the power relationship between father and son. In the first part of the film we see donkeys having sex, which was the first time the children saw a “couple” getting into a sexual act. On a psychoanalytical level, donkey becomes the symbol of power because of his visible phallic existence. The same donkey becomes the reason of a conflict between Yakup’s father and his dad, and in the end we see donkey’s voice again when Yakup’s brother was born, which also supports the created loop among characters mentioned in the first part of this article. Juxtaposition of donkey’s sound in specific scenes like this also refers to the villagers’ lives, which are directed by nature and described in a metonymical relationship with nature itself.

In Beş Vakit, characters become a tree or an animal or a part of the grass, a part of the mountain, as the story progresses. They are perceived as everything for nature but nothing for civilization: that’s why they run to the arms of mother nature and that defines their existence. With all the aspects of cinematic narration every human being in the narrative becomes an organic part of the village’s nature, which is profoundly described by Gilles Deleuze: “Becoming is a rhizome, not a classificatory or genealogical tree. Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation. Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, ‘appearing’, ‘being’, ‘equaling’ or ‘producing’.”

In this case the animal behaviour of Kosmos and Neptün in Kosmos brings this kind of approach, of indicating human-animal, human-nature relationships, to another level. Kosmos and Neptün communicate with each other by creating bird sounds, but they don’t imitate or produce those sounds, they become birds. Because in a scene towards the end of the film set in the deserted building, they “fly” in the room even though we don’t see them flying. They literally become animals and that also becomes the way of showing their love, as well as something that liberates their souls. As Deleuze mentions in his interview, this “becoming” action also defines their standing in life and in this “elseland.” “If I try to vaguely count, what shocks me in an animal, the first thing that fascinated me is that every animal has a world. It is curious because many people do not have a world. They live the life of everyone’s life, no matter who, no matter what. Animals have worlds. An animal world, what is it? It is sometimes extraordinarily limited.”(6) These characters live in their own world: that’s why they are different from everyone in the town; in the end as a natural consequence of being “other” in society, they are rejected and Kosmos has to leave the town crying.

Besides these diegetic and sometimes intra-diegetic sounds, because of the self-conscious repetition of same sounds, non-diegetic sound in Beş Vakit functions as an important part of the soundtrack. Overused themes of Arvo Part create a great contrast with the film’s location. In a film set in a Turkish village, hearing the music of an Estonian composer of orthodox church music creates a really uncanny situation. However, it functions as the alienation object for the audience and puts the film’s narrative on a universal level. Music also becomes the main tool to keep the rhythm of the story together, which was originally created as a shattered narrative.

Felix and Deleuze also created a philosophical concept on the idea of territory.(7) They claim that the territoriality of animals toward their living grounds is nearly the birth of art. Animals delineate their territory by leaving some marks, with colors, postures and sounds. That is like the description of creating something with existing materials which are aesthetically charming. They also claim that they admire the people, such as hunters – real hunters and not the ones from hunting societies – who are able to recognise the animal that passed by. Then Deleuze says that they are animals, they have an animal relationship to the animal. That’s one of the “becoming” moments. Reha Erdem as a director also becomes an “animal” for his films. If making art is going into a new territory and creating an eternal time and space, then Erdem becomes someone like Kosmos who is not welcomed, or like the teenagers in Beş Vakit and Hayat Var who can’t find their right place and rebel against the system. As an artist, Erdem can be considered in this territory of the unconventional, this territory of people who push the limits. He brings both uprising and love together because he knows how to become something else than himself. That’s why he dares to create an “elseland.” He makes us believe in the possibility of becoming an animal, or something else, when experiencing cinema art.

Works Cited
(1) “‘Lounge Time’: Post-War Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir,” in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. Nick Browne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 129-170.

(2) Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, pp.84-85.

(3) e.g.

(4) From the English transcription of the first part (first letter of the ABC) of the eight-hour series of interviews between Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, filmed by Pierre-André Boutang in 1988-1989. Broadcast on Arte between November 1994 and Spring 1995.

(5) Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. XX

(6) From the English transcription of the first part (first letter of the ABC) of the eight-hour series of interviews between Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, filmed by Pierre-André Boutang in 1988-1989. Broadcast on Arte between November 1994 and Spring 1995.

(7) e.g.