“Yurt’s stunning black-and-white cinematography is obviously the first element of the film’s aesthetics to make an impression on the viewer, but it is the powerful editing that eventually helps get the most out of the story being told.”
Nehir Tuna’s first feature film Yurt (Dormitory) takes place in Turkey in 1996, a time of substantial societal turmoil prompted by the question of the growing place of religious organizations in a country secular since its independence. The film observes the topic through the eyes of Ahmet, an innocent adolescent victim of the latent war raging between both sides. Ahmet’s father sends his son to an Islamic dormitory (the ‘yurt’ giving the film its title), while the boy at the same time continues to attend classes at his public high school. Ahmet’s tragedy is that he belongs to neither of these places, due to reasons beyond his control; labels that are put on him and precede him in the eyes of others. His classmates at school deem it impossible to engage in a friendly or romantic relationship with someone living in a yurt, even before getting to know such a person. And at the yurt Ahmet is no less ostracized, as the wealth of his family makes him a target for scorning, bullying, and stealing by other boarders.
Ahmet gets judged as soon as he goes anywhere, yet his inner self remains the opposite of such an attitude. Instead of passing hasty judgments, he doubts, takes time to think, does not rush to conclusions. Tuna illustrates this early on, in the first of a long series of gorgeous shots. As they watch a religious sermon broadcast on television, all the teenagers of the yurt look as if hypnotized, their faces bathed in the glow coming from the television set. Ahmet’s face is the only one lit differently, as a way of showing how he is withdrawn and detached from the group; but in no way is this a consequence of him being consciously rebellious. Ahmet is of a profoundly innocent nature, which will lead to tragedy in the course of the film.
Yurt’s stunning black-and-white cinematography is obviously the first element of the film’s aesthetics to make an impression on the viewer, but it is the powerful editing that eventually helps get the most out of the story being told. Through the rhythm set by the cuts and the chain of events occurring without any downtime, Tuna conveys the strength and inescapability of the spiral in which Ahmet finds himself increasingly trapped – by the very same men he trusts to back him no matter what. One is his father, who he looks up to more than anyone else; the other is his only friend at the dormitory, his accomplice in mischief. Both men indeed help Ahmet now and then (his father uses his influence to have the cruel warden of the yurt sacked, his friend gives him a few tricks to feel less out of his depth in the dormitory), but their endgame is nonetheless to take advantage of the naïve boy. They only pretend to care about what he is, when their sole interest lies in what he embodies – a male heir for the former, a rich sucker for the latter, whose family is as indigent as Ahmet’s is opulent.
Even though the final act, in which Ahmet struggles to deal with multiple treasons at the hands of the people he felt closest to, is slightly weaker, the message of Yurt remains effective; and with it the whole film, which works on both levels – the affliction of a single boy, and the tragedy of a whole country. In their attitude (aimed at nothing else but getting personal benefit from a given situation) the men betraying Ahmet are a harsh but fair portrayal of the various interested parties tearing Turkey apart between religion and secularism. All they truly believe in is themselves, and the ones who happen to think more widely are doomed to fall into their claws.