This review was corrected on May 6, 2002.
The extreme sensitivity of the Kurdish issue caused Turkey earlier this year to ban this courageous but sentimental study of a retired judge who shelters a little orphan Kurd. The ban — at the request of the police — came after the pic had won best film, screenplay and three acting awards at last fall’s national film fest in Antalya and had been nominated as Turkey’s official Oscar entry. Before getting the axe, it had also been in regular release, pulling in more than 100,000 admissions late last year. Withdrawn at the last moment from the recent Istanbul fest’s National Competition, pic is likely to spur the interest of offshore fest and small-screen programmers who won’t mind its sometimes heavy-handed storytelling aimed at wringing audience hearts.
According to the Culture Ministry, which ironically partly funded the picture, police demanded the film’s distribution license be revoked because it took a “chauvinistic” approach to Kurdish identity and gave the impression that the police carried out illegal killings. (Though the ministry rubber-stamped the police request, the chairman and one other member of the banning committee resigned in protest.)
Like Yesim Ustaoglu’s prize-winning “Journey to the Sun,” this sophomore feature by director Handan Ipekci also ends with the journey of an onlooker into the Kurdish region of southeast Turkey devastated by 15 years of civil war. (A cease-fire is now in effect.)
In “Hejar,” the onlooker is Rifat (Sukran Gungor), a nationalistic pensioner living in western Turkey who instinctively sides with police when they raid the apartment next door and kill his Kurdish neighbors in an exchange of gunfire. Yet he can’t resist offering his protection to 5-year-old Hejar (Dilan Ercetin) who miraculously survives the blitz. When, at the end, he tries to take her back to her relatives in the southeast — in film’s most understated and successful section — he finds their poverty and misery too horrifying to bear.
Writer-director Ipekci makes much of the language question, using it as the hinge of Kurdish identity. Rifat repeatedly tries to get Hejar to speak Turkish, which she can’t, and gets angry when his housekeeper, Sakine (Fusun Demirel), talks to her in “forbidden” Kurdish. Gradually, the straitlaced old judge is led to question the national ban on speaking the language of the country’s 12 million-strong minority.
Gungor and little Ercetin are vivid in the main roles, but could have been stronger had the script sworn off some of the feisty oldster/adorable tyke scenes. Demirel, as the housekeeper forced to hide her real name, and Ismail Hakki Sen, as Hejar’s sad grandfather Abdelkadir, are more believable.
Original title means “Big Man, Little Love.”