The true-life border-crossing romance between a Turkish actress and her Kurdish lover gets a semi-fictional work-up when the real thesp takes on her own role in docu helmer Huseyin Karabey’s fiction-feature debut, “My Marlon and Brando.” Though there’s something oddly masochistic about watching someone play herself in a tragedy, star Ayca Damgaci isn’t aiming for the therapeutic route, and while Karabey works best when sticking close to his docu roots, he’s crafted a moving statement on war and the confining artificiality of borders. Euro arthouses and fests should join in the journey.
Amid the growing paranoia created by constant news reports of the U.S.’ imminent invasion of Baghdad, thesp Damgaci tries to stay in close contact with Hama Ali Khan, an actor in Iraqi Kurdistan she fell in love with some months before. With English as their sole common language, they exchange letters and video diaries (Hama Ali’s real vids are used) full of the hyperbole of new love.
But as war breaks out, Damgaci becomes increasingly frustrated by the distance between her home in Istanbul and his in Suleymaniye, near the Iranian frontier. Appeals to Kurds for advice to get across the border are met with discouragement, so she finally makes the cross-country trip by bus and cab, arriving at the town of Habur, only to find that she can’t get through to Iraq.
Damgaci is both naive and brave — she understands what she wants and is determined to get it, but Hama Ali’s constant delays make her question whether he really wants to be with her after a year and a half apart. When she finally gets him on the phone, they agree it’ll be easier to meet in Iran, so north she goes, into an unknown country where she feels more isolated than ever.
It’s painful at times, watching Damgaci go through her story as if it’s happening all over again, especially as weariness, fear and despair take control. Her letters are achingly honest, full of deep yearning and insecurity, and this added authenticity unquestionably makes for a more poignant film. Counter to expectations, she’s a baby-faced, zaftig woman, Hama Ali an older, jovial fellow: This touch of the everyman strengthens the sense of commonality.
Helming is best when approaching the subject from a docu viewpoint; Karabey (“Silent Death”) has an appropriately curious eye for the details around his characters in the form of emotionally focused reportage. An extended scene where Damgaci and her cab driver stumble on a rural wedding inserts both a sense of joy and a warmly ethnographic aspect, but Karabey’s style as a fiction helmer isn’t fully formed.
Music uses melodies from the various nations, including the unmistakable, riveting voice of Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan, in ways that often increase the sense of melancholic longing. As a title, “My Marlon and Brando” sounds less jokey when heard among a list of endearments (“You are my everything,” etc.), and a literal translation of the Turkish “Gitmek,” approximately “take oneself away to a place,” doesn’t work well in English.