A ship is like a country, says the captain in “On Board,” and in Serdar Akar’s directing debut the boat is a metaphor of Turkish (male) society and its nearsighted, self-serving attitudes centered on food, drugs, sex and a bit of comforting camaraderie. Fine ensemble acting, skillful camerawork and a tight script make this a promising bow for Akar and herald extensive fest travel. The pic won multiple prizes at Turkey’s national festival in Antalya last year and should be eligible for selected art film markets.
Four sailors aboard a harbor silt-cleaner live a routine existence revolving around talk, drink and hashish. Their only image of the outside world, completely false, comes from the tall tales of the captain (Erkan Can). Their isolation is shattered one night when Boxer (Naci Tasdogen) returns beaten up and robbed of their dinner money. Drunken and stoned, they hunt down the thieves; the captain accidentally kills one, while the sailors abduct a lovely young prostitute (Ella Manea) and tie her up in the hold. They wake up the next morning to find they are in a fine mess.
Script by Akar and Onder Cakar is lean and mean, using a lot of comic obscenity which only partly translates in the subtitles. The film depicts a world that veers crazily between friendly jokes and sadism, kindness and murder, just as the images on TV show either Laurel & Hardy comedies or hard-core porn. Violence seems like an unavoidable accident, yet everyone suffers from a guilty conscience afterward.
The four seamen — rounded out by reflective first mate Kamil (Haldun Boysan) and the dull-witted Ali (Yildiray Sahinler) — are individuated and human. The only cipher is Manea, the tough foreign prostitute believed by Boxer (the first to rape her) to be “a virgin.” The film’s strictly male p.o.v. is underlined by the fact that she never utters a word, even in her own language, and passively submits to every imaginable humiliation.
But some light may be shed on Manea in a sister film centering on her character, “A Madonna in Laleli,” shot by Akar at the same time and using the same cast, equipment and resources of film students and unpaid professionals belonging to the group Yeni Sinemacilik (New Filmmakers).
The film has a pleasingly abstract quality, with production designer Yavuz Faz limiting details to the essential. On board, it is heightened by the monotony of the ship sets, lensed in somber gray-greens by Mehmet Aksin. Ugur Yucel’s subtle score creates tension through use of drumbeats.