An extraordinary performance by a 10-year-old girl anchors “The Children of Diyarbakir,” the debut feature of Miraz Bezar. Set in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, the pic takes a straightforward, non-sensationalized approach to the tragic story of a brother and sister orphaned when their parents are assassinated by a secret-services paramilitary officer. Though it shows its first-feature origins, the film has moments, especially toward the end, that so transcend the material as to make the journey doubly worthwhile. A healthy fest life is assured, while Euro arthouse play isn’t out of the question.
Though less inspired, the early scenes do the necessary work of introducing characters and establishing a mood: Gulistan (Senay Orak) and her younger brother, Firat (Muhammed Al), have a normal childhood with their mom (Fahriye Celik) and dad (Alisan Onlu) and new baby brother. Dad is a Kurdish journalist; on their way back from a wedding, the family is stopped by three gunmen, who shoot the parents dead in front of the kids. The brief scene is all the more powerful because Bezar downplays any excess in either the lensing or editing.
The kids’ aunt Yekbun (Berivan Eminoglu), an underground Kurdish activist, moves in to care for them, but as she tries to get a visa to take them to their grandpa in Sweden, she’s kidnapped by the paramilitary police and the children are left completely alone. As the weeks pass, they start selling everything in the apartment just to have food to eat, but it’s not enough for medicine for the baby.
Kicked out of their home, Gulistan and Firat meet worldly-wise street kid Zelal (Suzan Ilir), who teaches them the basics of survival. Gulistan is also befriended by Dilara (Berivan Ayaz), a prostitute who uses her as a cover but genuinely cares about the young girl. When Firat sees one of their parents’ killers, Nuri (Hakan Karsak), the boy is paralyzed by fear; in the days that follow, the paths of the two children, along with those of Dilara and Nuri, will all intersect in ways that have surprising impact due to the unexpected restraint with which they’re played.
It’s precisely Bezar’s ability to hold back that allows this street-orphan tale to rise above the usual treatment of the subject. Bezar (born in Turkey, raised in Germany) keeps the kids as real as possible without turning them into merely cute sympathy magnets; he also reveals a city in all its multiple facets, from dying neighborhoods to leafy residential sections where the privileged live, unmoved by or apathetic toward Kurdish repression.
The cast of mostly unknowns can be uneven, but Orak is haunting as 10-year-old Gulistan. With large brown eyes taking in everything around her, this young nonpro is astonishingly real as she searches for ways to get herself and her brother through each day.
Fatih Akin boarded as co-producer through his production house, Corazon Intl., after Bezar showed him a rough cut. Tech credits reflect the modest budget, and the transfer from HD can’t disguise a certain flatness in lighting, but the overall look is more than acceptable. Presumably, the final rap song was chosen for its message and thus requires subtitling.