Having made a trilogy of narrative films about Turkish characters in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, German filmmaker Thomas Arslan ventures back to Turkey itself in superbly wrought docu, “From Far Away.” With the director’s emotionless narration kept to a minimum and a characteristically distanced camera in command, the pic is designed as a precisely calibrated tabula rasa for the viewer, free to choose what to watch and focus on. Dispassionate nonfiction work about a hot-button region is a distinguished fest entry and welcome respite from ultra-opinionated works on the Islamic world. It deserves sensitive handling for wider distribution.
Arslan spent some of his childhood in Turkey, and his dramatic films have demonstrated a keen and original perspective on the conditions experienced by Turkish guest workers and their families in Germany.
His mission in the tellingly titled “From Far Away” is all about taking in whatever happens in front of his camera. With a tiny crew (Martin Steyer on sound and Tuncay Kulaoglu as assistant director) Arslan, as his own d.p., begins in Istanbul, explaining that he will travel east to explore the country of his father’s birth. The bustling city translates on screen as a distinctly European-style urban center, with large pockets of poor neighborhoods and traditional, non-Western ways. Cannes-prize-winning helmer Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant”) is seen working with his editor on his new film, “Climates,” set for the upcoming Cannes competition.
Arslan’s only real intrusion is announcing the crew’s various eastbound destinations, which include the capital of Ankara, Ganziantep, Diyarbakir, Van and Dogubayazit, close to the border with Iran.
Rather than observe his family home in Ankara, the director contrasts the nearby, Greek-like mausoleum of Ataturk with modern-daykids playing soccer, poor kids hanging out in a park and luckier kids in a schoolroom.
Roads grow narrower and less paved as the crew moves east, and European style visibly gives way to older, more traditionally Turkish ways. Arslan’s interest in people’s desire for fun, from ping-pong to group dancing is a pleasure.
Docu’s approach ties in with a recent trend led by the brilliant Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread”), that’s more explicitly anthropological and cinematic than journalistic or polemical.
Lensing is exquisite in a superb 16-to-35 blowup, with Arslan’s compositional eye akin to that of classical European landscape painting. Subtle “chapters” break up the odyssey, each ended by a modest view out the window of whatever hotel Arslan happens to be staying in.