Already controversial at home, “Zenne Dancer” dramatizes the real-life “honor killing” of an Istanbul student by his family after they discovered he was gay. That story is surely potent enough on its own, and M. Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay’s first feature would likely have been more powerful if they hadn’t unnecessarily added a drag-queen character and splashy production numbers. Nonetheless, the hot-button issue of gay rights (or lack thereof) in Muslim nations, plus an entertaining, fairly slick presentation, will make this an in-demand export item. Pic won five Golden Orange prizes at the Antalya Film Festival.
It starts out looking like a Turkish version of “Macho Dancer” and its ilk, emphasizing the titillating club performances of cross-dressing Can (Kerem Can), who performs traditional belly dances but yearns to design, stage and star in his own edgier, more fantastical extravaganzas. (These are duly visualized at regular intervals.) But given the hidden nature of gay life here, his need to keep a low profile in order to avoid compulsory military service, and the fact that he isn’t paid for the shows he already does, these pipe dreams seem unlikely to come true unless he emigrates.
Jaded and bitchy offstage, Can nonetheless attracts a scorned admirer in hirstute young Ahmet (Erkan Avci), as well as visiting German photographer Daniel (Giovanni Arvaneh), whom he tolerates because Daniel pays him money to pose. Eventually Ahmet and Daniel become a couple, and the three become somewhat unlikely best friends. But the two men’s relationship is risky, to say the least.
Ahmet is allowed to live in the city (along with a resentful sister who’s little more than his housekeeper) only until the imminent end of his university studies. His father (Unal Silver) wants him back working at the failing provincial family business, a most unappealing prospect; his moralizing Gorgon of a mother (Ruchan Caliskur) already suspects the worst from her children living in this “filthy” big-city environment. Daniel urges Ahmet to simply come out to them, little comprehending the severity of their homophobia and that of the culture in general.
As the worst-case-scenario outcome approaches, the pic spills some interesting truths about Turkey’s stance toward gays, most notably the revelation that those claiming homosexuality to get out of military service (apparently a widespread excuse) are often required to produce graphic visual evidence of themselves having gay sex. (Thus, the Turkish army reportedly has one of the largest collections of amateur gay porn in the world.)
While some effort is made to dimensionalize Can via his own conflicted family relationships, he eventually seems superfluous to the story’s real focus, and the numerous glimpses of his flashy act feel gratuitous, as if the filmmakers thought “two parts honor killing drama, one part ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ ” would make the whole more palatable.
Likewise, after tragedy strikes, the pic feels the need to tag on too many life-goes-on epilogues, forcing a closing note of inspirational uplift. The portrait of the evil mother could have been turned down a melodramatic notch, and the somewhat haphazardly organized pic is overreliant on montages.
Despite its flaws, “Zenne Dancer” still inevitably has impact, with Avci very good in the key role. Production values are fairly polished — perhaps too polished, when it comes to Can’s distracting diva fantasias.