ISTANBUL: Anyone can improve their lives, we’re told, if they just change the way they look a little. Cosmetics, epilating technologies (from wax to lasers), weight-loss and fitness programs, injections of silicone or Botox and “nosescape architecture” – a myriad of industries have blossomed around the belief that feeling better hinges on looking different.
It’s a premise that has been taken up with some artistry by Turkish writer-director Tayfun Pirselimoglu in his 2014 feature “I Am Not Him.”
The story centers on Nihat (Ercan Kesal), a middle-aged man with deteriorating eyesight who ekes out a living working in a hospital cafeteria. Unmarried and taciturn, Nihat divides his off-hours between solitary porn-channel aerobics and enduring the infidelities of his married colleagues – with whom he’s expected to enjoy sharing a prostitute.
When Nihat betrays little enthusiasm for these adventures – especially when they land him in jail for the night – his pals accuse him of having an affair with Ayshe (Maryam Zaree), a young woman they consider a “slut” because her husband is in prison.
Nihat has no idea what they’re talking about but, spurred on by these accusations, he (and the audience) notice that Ayshe does spend a lot of her workday silently staring at him, as if in wonderment.
Eventually Ayshe convinces Nihat to come to hers for supper. He’s the model of discomfort, but he’s given reason to believe that the sex act is available if he wants it – prompting a flurry of intimacy that may rate among the most abrupt and short-lived in cinema history.
Evidently not accustomed to much in the way of romance, Ayshe duly serves up dinner – taking as much pleasure from Nihat’s “My complements to the chef” as their coital aperitif.
Remarkably, they become a couple. Necip Kara, Ayshe’s husband, is three years into a 10-year term for fraud and, having entrusted Nihat with the keys to Necip’s car, she decides to ditch her marriage.
One reason for her decision, as Nihat learns, is that the two men bear an uncanny likeness to one another: Literally the only difference between them is that Ayshe’s husband wears spectacles, while Nihat sports a villainous handlebar moustache.
The visual disparities are mischievously chosen – suggesting that Nihat is a thug and Necip a gentleman, when the opposite is true. The unpredictable plot complications that ensue stem from the two men’s uncanny resemblance.
“I Am Not Him” was one of two big winners in the national competition of this year’s Istanbul International Film Festival, which wrapped up Easter Sunday.
Pirselimoglu walked away with both the Golden Tulip for Best Film and the best screenplay prize. Giorgos Komendakis, who composed the score for “I Am Not Him,” shared the Best Soundtrack award with Ali Tekbas, Serhat Bostanci and A. Imran Erin for their work on Huseyin Karabey’s highly musical road movie “Come To My Voice.”
The other major prize-winner was Onur Unlu’s “Let’s Sin,” a social critique-cum-comic detective caper whose central character is neither a copper nor a private dick but an imam with a background in anthropology and boxing. Unlu walked away with the Golden Tulip for Best Director, while Serkan Keskin won the Best Actor prize for his portrayal of protagonist Selman Bulut.
Unlu won last year’s Golden Tulip for his “Thou Gild’st the Even” – an idiosyncratic story of love, violence and the paranormal told from the perspective of a schizophrenic antihero – but he may be best known in Turkey for his television work, broad comedies that send up the hypocrisy of local political culture.
Since authorities canceled his most recent series, while “Let’s Sin” was cleared for local exhibition with an “18 years of age and over” rating, some have read Unlu and Keskin’s prizes as a political statement on the part of the national competition jury.
While the event hosted a requisite number of world premieres (four) and Turkish premieres (three), some Turkish film habitués have remarked that the 10 works contending in this year’s national competition have not been the strongest in the festival’s 33 years.
Audiences may differ about what makes good cinema – the winking politically inflected farce of “Let’s Sin” is an utterly different beast from Pirselimoglu’s quiet existentialism – there is little doubt that “I Am Not Him” is a well-realized film.
While the cinematography is less spectacular than some of the works in the national contest (and shares with them the sometimes-glacial pacing that marks international art-house fare) Pirselimoglu has created a freestanding work, as opposed to a cinematographic exercise in landscape without the plot needed to provoke nuance from the characters.
Pirselimoglu’s narrative has the simple symmetry of a contemporary art object.
Virtually as soon as Nihat and Ayshe are tentatively comfortable together, circumstances change, and he is pitched back into his lonely life, aware suddenly how unhappy he’s been.
He packs a suitcase of Ayshe and Necip’s things – including a pair of the prisoner’s discarded spectacles – and returns to his house.
There he shaves his moustache and begins to live as though he were another man, finding another Ayshe in the process.
“I Am Not Him” gradually resolves into a study in what can come of the desperate loneliness that is the flip side of individualism. Despite its increasingly fantastical plot turns, the film is convincing because Pirselimoglu isn’t afraid to allow his characters a smile or two – or, as is more frequently the case, to allow his audience to smile at their benign eccentricities.
Early on in their affair, a grinning Ayshe emerges from her bedroom wearing a florid bathing suit. A startled Nihat, who’s been watching a television documentary about sea lions, gapes.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
“What is it?”
“I’ve had it for years,” she smiles. “I wanted to wear it for you.”
“Well,” he stumbles, “you’ve done that now.”
She thrusts forward a pair of swim trunks and instructs him to try them on. Surprisingly, he does, and the couple are captured watching television in their swimsuits, perfectly framed, content in the disparity in their facial expressions.
It doesn’t last long, but it’s fun while it does.
For more information about the national and international competition results of the Istanbul International Film Festival, please see www.film.iksv.org/en