Sarajevo Review: Grain (Semih Kaplanoğlu)

The Sarajevo Film Festival is an important centre for cinema from the wider Balkan region and, as such, films from established directors such as Radu Jude or Athina Rachel Tsangari often make it to the competition programme. Nonetheless, it was a surprise to learn that Sarajevo would host the world premiere of the new work by Semih Kaplanoğlu, whose previous film, Honey, won the Golden Bear seven years ago. With Grain, Kaplanoğlu moves away from intimate character-driven stories, crafting a dystopian world ruled by corporations and endangered by the failure to produce lasting genetically engineered food crops. The story follows Erol, a scientist specialising in seeds, who embarks on a journey to find a man expelled because of his conviction that such a seed cannot be produced.

While the film’s premise lacks context necessary to grasp this world presented to us, still its first act succeeds in establishing the key environmental topics, in particular the question of genetically modified foods, without resorting to too much explanation. As the plot progresses, however, its main points continuously undermine the story’s focus. The finale in particular is a disappointment as it fails to examine the initial topics, settling for philosophical explanations that simply do not satisfy the complexity of the film’s first and strongest hour. The dialogue, mostly spoken in English, is another major issue as it is often overly complicated and jarring. Perhaps the language also presented a problem for some members of the diverse ensemble, which includes names such as Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now, Incendies) and Cristina Flutur (Beyond the Hills), as not all of them are convincing.

The muddled narrative might not have been enough to command attention if it weren’t for the film’s strongest weapon, lead actor Jean-Marc Barr. In the role of Erol, he gives a committed, formidable performance as a man who goes beyond his own limits and against his own convictions even when his mission becomes unclear. It’s his work that keeps Grain captivating even when it becomes convoluted. Premiering the film at Sarajevo was likely a good idea as the audience is very receptive towards Turkish cinema and a stylish science-fiction film stands out from typical competition entries, gritty and miserable dramas about the underprivileged. However, those are the films that garner awards here, so I don’t expect the jury, headed by Michel Franco, to include Grain among their winners.