Berlinale 2021 review: Brother’s Keeper (Ferit Karahan)

Looking at his countless memorable quips, Mark Twain’s insistence that he “never let schooling interfere with [his] education” is one that stands out in any situation where one questions the importance of school, and the role it plays in preparing us for the real world beyond the schoolyard. Ferit Karahan takes a similar sentiment (albeit in a way that is less humorous, but not any less effective) and turns it into the heartbreakingly bleak Brother’s Keeper, a harrowing portrait of a corrupt school system taken from the perspective of the individuals that often tend to make it such a toxic environment. The film focuses on two victims of a system that had existed for centuries, built on a foundation of well-composed rules, which are suddenly derailed when a near-tragic incident renders one student incapacitated while the teachers at their prestigious private school rush to resolve the problem before it turns into a public relations crisis.

Taking the well-worn adage of ‘boys will be boys’, and inverting it to focus on the dangers of systemic educational structures and their draconian methods of punishment derived from generations of conservative beliefs, Karahan carefully curates a series of difficult moments centred around a particularly harrowing situation, and the several people who are woven into it in an effort to avert any potential crisis. Each one has different reasons for becoming invested in resolving the issue, but barely considers attempting to find the cause of this present problem, nor do they bother to critique the very system that caused such an incident, which the film explores with a precise, unflinching honesty that is simultaneously disconcerting and incredibly moving.

Brother’s Keeper is a radically different kind of coming-of-age story, while still featuring many of the same fundamental qualities of the genre. Keeping with the tradition of looking at a young protagonist earning some form of ‘education’, this film focuses on an innocent boy realising the fragility of life and how volatile existence can be, ripped away from us in a moment without any warning. The gradual realisation that anything can happen in the span of a few seconds underpins this film, which lends it the necessary depth in how it explores the journey of a young man suddenly seeing the more malicious side of what he has previously been led to believe is a solid, sacrosanct system. The foundation of Karahan’s narrative comes from a place with which we are all undoubtedly familiar, the uncertainty of the future that signifies the beginning of our journey into maturity.

In the case of Brother’s Keeper, this happens much sooner for the young protagonist, who is initially hesitant to reveal the truth of what happened on that fateful night, in fear of being reprimanded and punished severely by those who wield ruthless, unimpeachable power over these developing minds. We follow him as he learns that this is far more than just a problem that can be resolved with a simple punishment – and it is in his sudden realisation that it is much more serious than he initially imagined that we find the most profoundly haunting commentary on this inevitable recognition of some of life’s more brutal realities.

Karahan clearly delineates this common crisis through the perception of two different groups – the first composed of the adults who are intent on averting this problem in order to save face, the second the students who are more focused on saving their friend once they realise that his ailment is far more serious than they thought. The contrast between the two groups is fascinating, and yet incredibly frustrating, a clearly intentional decision by the director to show how even a matter of literal life and death can be reduced to nothing more than a potential public relations crisis. The adults in this film are depicted as ill-equipped to handle such situations, despite devoting their lives to looking after the next generation. They may not have caused this emergency, but they certainly are only making it worse through shifting the blame and not paying attention to the signs – that they only realise could lead to a career-ending disaster – until much later than someone else would have, someone who demonstrated the intrinsic compassion associated with educators from the outset.

Karahan is not criticizing all teachers, nor is he composing a portrait that intends to show the shortcomings of the education system – instead, his focus is on constructing a deeply unsettling story of hubris, and how the unassailable pride can only exacerbate easily-avoidable problems. Later on, we start to learn that the efforts of the young protagonist are more than just an act of friendship, but rooted in something even more harrowing than the flippancy of the adults. This creates a fascinating, if not deeply haunting, contrast between the two perspectives and their relationship to the situation – and as the snow falls harder outside their school (a captivating allegorical motif used throughout the film), the situation only worsens with bleak uncertainty.

Brother’s Keeper is an incredibly compelling film, a multi-layered social drama that takes the form of a tightly wound psychological thriller. We see a group of people racing against time in order to diagnose a mysterious problem that could lead to serious complications, both medically and socially, if not taken care of immediately, not realizing that their efforts are in vain when they are clearly motivated by their own interests, rather than the wellbeing of the student. A profoundly human film that refuses to avert its gaze from some of the more difficult questions regarding matters that are rarely the subject of widespread attention, as Karahan immerses us in a hostile version of a recognizable world, from which he crafts a deeply unsettling drama about accountability and responsibility in times of unforeseen difficulty.

Cold and arid in both style and substance, the film is a fascinating glimpse into the machinations behind a brutal system that seems to be built on a solid foundation, but suddenly teeters on the verge of falling apart the moment an unexpected crisis pulls those tasked with maintaining the system out of their comfort zone. Filmed in the wintry landscapes of the Eastern Anatolian region, which lends the film a degree of isolation and seclusion from the rest of the world, this is a staggeringly beautiful work about the limitless bounds of a brotherly friendship, as well as a disturbing account of the misuse of power. Brother’s Keeper is a complex, deeply human film that manages to be both profoundly moving and incredibly upsetting, while still finding the common humanity in a frighteningly stark portrayal of reality.