A Kurdish girl and her grandmother are placed in the Kafkaesque situation of needing to find nonexistent guns in order to free the girl’s father from a Turkish prison in “Come to My Voice,” a beautifully crafted drama whose traditional storytelling movingly conveys a sense of a community burdened by loss. Making full use of the stunning landscape near Lake Van, in southeastern Turkey, sophomore helmer Huseyin Karabey’s follow-up to “My Marlon and Brando” was practically lost in the Berlinale’s Generation sidebar, but is sure to achieve prominence at other fests. Boutique arthouse distribs should take note.
A Kurdish village gathers around a bard (Muhsin Tokcu), known as a “Dengbej,” to hear the narrative that becomes the film. Just as Berfe (Feride Gezer) is telling her young granddaughter, Jiyan (Melek Ulger), the story of a fox that lost its tail, the Turkish army raids their rustic village, demanding weapons that a spiteful informer claims are hidden in peoples’ homes. The malicious captain (Nazmi Sinan Mihci) has Jiyan’s father, Temo (Tuncay Akdemir), arrested along with all the menfolk, informing the villagers they can free their loved ones if they bring him their weapons.
The community, already depleted and worn down by oppression, is stymied since there are no weapons. Jiyan collects her friends’ plastic water guns, hoping that might help. Berfe digs up an old rifle that belonged to her father and the two trek over to the barracks, hoping they can exchange the gun for Temo, but no luck: The captain humiliates the elderly woman, telling her to bring him a real weapon.
Bowed but not broken, the resourceful Berfe investigates other options. She tries a smuggler working the Iraqi border, though he’s captured before an exchange can be made. Next she and Jiyan take a bus to her sister’s home and there secures her nephew’s pistol, but a roadblock on the way home means they have to walk through the mountains to avoid being caught. On the path they meet three blind bards, led by Casim (Bahri Hakan), who help Berfe and the child evade the soldiers’ checkpoints.
By using the Dengbej to frame Berfe’s story, Karabey cements the sense of a tight-knit community, making the tale a part of their collective memory rather than the narrative of one small village. Stripped to its essence, the scenario has the elemental quality of a modern legend, and further storytelling — as Berfe distracts Jiyan with the fable of the fox — dovetails with the grandmother’s ingenuity, each plotline forming parallels that address concepts of mistrust and cooperation.
While the touchingly realized relationship between Berfe and Jiyan forms the pic’s emotional core, it’s how Karabey subtly situates this within the general tenor of the population that really sets “Come to My Voice” apart from other films shot in the region. Rarely before has the sense of occupation in the Kurdish regions been so starkly captured. Intimidated villages are depopulated of their fighting-age men – Karabey includes terrific, mournful shots of women alone in their houses after ransacking by Turkish soldiers – and every family has loved ones jailed or dead. Roadblocks curtail movement and instill an exhausted fear even in the elderly, while the whims of commanders are further hurdles to negotiate in order to survive.
Contrasting with this sense of anxiety and mistrust is the awe-inspiring panorama, whose majestic peaks and verdant fields just free of snow act as a soothing reminder of something greater than politics and ethnic strife. Berfe, Jiyan and the people they meet are not insignificant, set against these crests and valleys, but rather a symbiotic part of the terrain and thus a natural riposte to the occupying forces. Non-professional actress Gezer fits perfectly into this atmosphere, her placid yet firm mien silently connecting to land and community.
Anne Misselwitz’s stately lensing matches the iconic nature of the storytelling, with splendid vistas caught in long shots that somehow feel both soaring and human. Together with editor Baptiste Gacoin, the helmer imposes a satisfyingly even pace that keeps the narrative lucid, though despite having been programmed in the Berlinale’s Generation section, this isn’t a kids’ film. Traditional Kurdish music thematically elides with the idea of a folk tale and adds aural pleasures to the visual riches.