BFI London Film Festival presents Brother’s Keeper; book festival tickets here.
In a remote boarding school in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, Turkey, a group of young Kurdish boys cue for their one daily shower before bed as the snow falls outside. The vast shower block they inhabit, both sterile and cold, as they patiently wait to share a small cubicle. The noise of splashing water, conversation and feet on tiles echoing around the room as a young prefect attempts to keep the boys in order. Meanwhile, just around the corner, a teacher stands out of sight, the hot water supplies his only concern as he attempts to ration the expensive needs of each boy in their attempt to keep clean.
When a simple argument over access to water breaks out in a cubicle, the shower prefect finds young Memo (Nurullah Alaca) complaining about a lack of water to wash the soap from his eyes. As punishment, the teacher orders the boys to complete their shower with cold water, the prefect standing over them as they pour pales of the icy water over each other. Following the punishment, young Memo heads to bed alongside his dorm mate and friend Yusuf (Samet Yildiz), still shivering with cold.
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The following day as the boys prepare for school, Memo complains of feeling ill, his body weak, his head thumping with pain. But, apart from Yusef, nobody pays Memo any attention. The boy’s pain, a minor inconvenience, as Yusef carries him to the school’s sparse and ill-equipped medical room. Meanwhile, as the snow thickens outside, the temperature drops, causing the heating to fail. The school, all but cut off from the outside world as Memo’s suffering becomes critical. Here Yusef becomes the boy’s sole carer as he attempts to navigate the indifference and oppression of the school around him.
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Kurdish director Ferit Karahan creates an atmosphere laced with tension as Yusef struggles to find someone who will listen as the snow continues to fall. His search, full of despair, worry and care as he attempts to rescue Memo from the darkness of his mysterious condition. The school grounds a prison of no escape as the children suffer unbalanced punishments for minor indiscretions. While at the same time, the boy’s food is rationed, with any warmth and care ultimately denied. Even the Kurdish language is banished from the classroom favouring Turkish. Each boy refused their cultural heritage under an oppressive system of control labelled as education. Here it’s clear that Memo is worthless in the grand scheme of things, the teachers obsessed with control over care, while the headmaster worries about the lack of snow tires on his car.
In just 84 minutes, Karahan uncovers and explores the ongoing oppression of Kurdish communities in Turkey with devastating precision. And while his film may focus on the oppressive school system, themes of broader Kurdish oppression also find a powerful voice through the journey of Memo and Yusif. Here, the school represents a state where Kurds are third-class citizens: Yusef’s trials and tribulations reflecting a world where Kurdish oppression continues to be ignored.
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Türksoy Gölebeyi’s stunning cinematography builds a sense of imprisonment from the opening scene. The snow-covered school grounds, bathed in a subdued colour palette that further enhances a feeling of sterility and oppression. Meanwhile, the choice of an Academy ratio creates a sense of confinement and claustrophobia. The point of view use of the camera further deepening the sense of urgency, hopelessness and frustration Yusef feels.
Equally strong are the performances at the heart of Brother’s Keeper. Each one, rooted in realism while never allowing for simplistic caricatures. Here the ongoing incompetence of the medical advice each adult provides and the shifting tides of blame as Memo’s condition worsens are darkly comical. The failures of the school’s oppressive system of care unravelling with each discussion as themes of power, corruption and incompetence collide. However, it is not until the final fifteen minutes of Brother’s Keeper that the accurate picture of the night’s events finally sees the daylight. And as the journey unfolds, we find ourselves asking whether Memo’s story could lead to organisational and cultural change. But, alas, as we leave Yusef, it’s clear the day’s events were a mere distraction in a school where oppression and control are free of criticism or change.