By Michele Calderon
Are the decisions we make in personal relationships, and our intimate fears and worries, rooted in our deeper family history and our genetic makeup? Are old traumas experienced by our ancestors still stored in our subconscious, even if we don’t know about or remember them? Are we unconsciously repeating psychological patterns that have been in our family for generations?
These are some of the key questions explored in a good amount of depth in the series Another Self currently streaming on Netflix (in Turkish Zeytin Ağaci – The Olive Tree).
Part romantic comedy with dramatic elements, part spiritual exploration, the story of Another Self is mostly told against the lush backdrop of Mediterranean landscapes in the Island of Cunda (also called Alibey Island), the largest of 26 islands in the Ayvalık Archipelago, on the Aegean coast of Türkiye. It is an engaging series unlike any other currently on Netflix, with a story of friendship, love, and confronting one’s psychological wounds, via a better understanding of those who came before us. The Turkish title (Zeytin Ağacı – The Olive Tree) is symbolic of the series’ key premise: an olive tree whose roots are sick or damaged cannot bear truly healthy fruit.
Another Self is the work of mostly female creators; first and foremost acclaimed screenwriter Nuran Evren Şit (Vatamin Sensin, The Gift) and director Burcu Alptekin, demonstrating once again the exceptional wealth of female talent in the Turkish entertainment world. Its appeal is further enhanced by the wonderful ensemble cast featuring several of Türkiye’s best actors. Released on Netflix on July 28, 2022 Another Self offers a different kind of romantic comedy, one that is meant to elicit deeper self-exploration from an international Netflix audience.
Indeed, the series appears to have struck a chord amongst viewers as it quickly rose to the top 10 of most watched shows on Netflix, seen in 190 countries, one week after its release. It is still, as this review is written, the most watched Turkish show on Netflix, topping 100 million hours of viewership. The engaging music and original theme song in English by Özgur Buldum (starting with the line “What if the Past is Not Yet History”) adds to the attractiveness of the production for non-Turkish audiences.
The following contains major spoilers.
The storyline revolves around the lives, hopes, loves, and aspirations of three thirty-something female friends who have known each other since college: Ada (played by Tuba Büyüküstün), Leyla (Seda Bakan), and Sevgi (Boncuk Yilmaz).
As the series begins, Ada, a physician, is desperately trying to get her friend Sevgi, a lawyer, back in treatment after Sevgi has suffered a cancer relapse. Unwilling to go back to the drudgery of chemotherapy in an Istanbul hospital, Sevgi opts to go on a road trip to the Island of Cunda where she has heard that a New Age guru by the name of Zaman, conducts mind-body therapy sessions. She persuades both her friends to accompany her to Cunda. Leyla, a stay-at-home mom agrees enthusiastically as a distraction to her humdrum life, caring for her young son while her husband is pursuing his latest get-rich-quick venture. Ada, a tightly-wound, workaholic surgeon with controlling impulses, reluctantly agrees to go along.
After her first session with Zaman (brilliantly played by actor Firat Taniş) who seeks to heal psychic wounds by helping his patients uncover painful secrets in their families’ past, Sevgi decides to quit her job and move to Cunda with her mother Muko. She is soon joined there by Leyla and her son Sarp; and a bit later by Ada, seeking shelter and emotional support after her husband Selim confesses he has cheated on her, and she has lost her job by nearly botching a surgery due to tremors in her hands.
As the three friends reconnect, living together in the quirky, colorful home rented by Sevgi and Muko, the plot evolves to each of their individual stories portraying how, willingly for Sevgi and Leyla, and in Ada’s case with a huge amount of skepticism and scorn, their therapy sessions with Zaman and his followers fundamentally impact their decisions and personal relationships.
Leyla, slowly but surely comes to realize that she has stayed in a marriage with a husband who doesn’t value her – out of low self esteem and insecurity. By the end she courageously faces a new life as a single mother, with the help of her friends.
Ada is ultimately forced to admit the failure of her marriage to Selim, an architect and college friend whom she married on the rebound of a painful breakup from her musician boyfriend Toprak (Murat Boz) and realize the truth about her mother and father.
Sevgi, who has spent years battling cancer, is finally able to find love and fulfillment through her relationship with Fiko, the local tavern owner played by beloved actor Riza Kocaoğlu in a sweet, understated performance. In this, she will confront her overprotective mother’s wishes, and a bit of her own prejudices.
An Ongoing Therapy Session
Another Self is an intriguing series in that its core thematic element is based on the psychotherapeutic technique of Family Constellation Therapy. I found it confusing at first because the English translation by Netflix is Family Expansion. I had not heard of this therapy approach and felt compelled to research it to make sense of the sessions led onscreen by Zaman.
Developed by German psychotherapist Bert Ellinger in the 1960s, Family Constellation Therapy was popularized in the US by Mark Wollyn, whose book It Didn’t Start with You, is featured in the series (as reading material given by Sevgi to Ada). The central premise of this approach is that we all bear “inherited trauma” in our subconscious mind, stemming from events suffered by our mother, father, grandparents, or other ancestors. As stated by Wollyn “Hellinger teaches that we share a family consciousness with our biological family members who come before us.” …”Traumatic events such as the premature death of a parent, sibling, or child or an abandonment, crime, or suicide can exert a powerful influence over us, leaving an imprint on our entire family system for generations….as family members unconsciously repeat the sufferings of the past.”….”Hellinger believes that the mechanism behind these repetitions is unconscious loyalty…and views it as the cause of much suffering in families”.
This theory of inherited traumas is vividly illustrated in Another Self by scenes at the beginning of each series episode, which depict traumatic events involving ancestors of Leyla, Ada, Toprak, Selim, and others. Sevgi’s father was killed in front of her when she was a little girl; Leyla’s great-grandmother Eleni, a Greek living in Crete with her Turkish husband, drowned after being thrown overboard while attempting to flee the island in the early 20th century. Selim’s mother died while protecting him during an earthquake.
All of these traumatic events are linked to the characters’ current psychological challenges: Leyla has a deep fear of swimming; Selim desperately clings to his marriage to Ada even though he senses her lack of true commitment because, as the therapist tells him, “you’ve replaced your late mother with your wife”. Sevgi had to step into hard-fitting shoes, becoming her mother’s emotional protector, unconsciously taking the place of her father in an effort to ease the mother’s pain.
The cinematic medium provides a fascinating visual into the process of Family Constellation Therapy: sessions led by Zaman in each episode involve the key characters and others sitting in a circle. The person who seeks to discover the root cause of an emotional problem they face, a phobia in their lives, or a trauma they experience is guided by the therapist to randomly pick people in the circle, each one of whom will represent a family member, or a fear they are experiencing.
I found the onscreen sessions intriguing but confusing, as the narrative does not clarify how people randomly chosen could be feeling the subject’s emotions, let alone be able to channel the subject’s ancestors in their own mind and body. According to Ellinger “fields of energy” telepathically make the volunteers behave in a certain way that will bring about repressed memories and unconscious connections of the patients’ relatives and their ancestors. This repressed or hidden content will manifest itself in the geometry of the people in the room – their places and stances relative to each other – and this map, or “constellation”, duly interpreted by a professional “constellator” can heal the patient from mental suffering and/or reestablish the family’s harmony.
Family Constellation Therapy has been labelled by some as a pseudo science. As presented in the series, it strained credulity by implying that such long-term traumas running through decades (maybe even a century) in the life of a family could be resolved in one or two therapy sessions. Yet, over the last 20 years it appears to have become a bona fide form of psychotherapy through the work of Wolynn and others, bolstered by the scientific findings in the field of epigenetics by Stanford cellular biologist Bruce Lipton. Once found controversial, Lipton’s work showing how cellular memory including chronic negative emotions such as fear and anger, may be transferred in the womb by a mother to her unborn child, has since been corroborated by other researchers.
Even though some of the scenes in Another Self purporting to demonstrate inherited trauma may elicit disbelief, the series creators can be credited for shining a light on this technique which may lead to personal revelations, or at least constitute food for thought for some viewers.
A Story of Female Friendship
One of my favorite aspects of Another Self was the portrayal of the relationship between the three main characters. The series departs from the traditional family set-up of many Turkish dizis with a strong, authoritarian male patriarch at the head. Here the narrative focuses on the female point of view: writer/creator Nuran Evren Şit’s well-crafted dialogue emphasizes the deep, nurturing friendship among three strong, modern Turkish women in their 30s.
Their relationship resonated with me as in my own experience, the friends you make during your schooling years, especially in college, are ones you will often keep throughout your entire life. These are the friends you are able to sing songs at the top of your lungs with, during a road trip; borrow clothes from, for a date; share intimate secrets with; tell difficult truths to, or hear those truths from them. They become your pillars as you journey your adulthood together.
Leyla, Sevgi and Ada take turns confronting each other about their decisions, but always do so from a place of love. Harsh words exchanged lead to apologies. Resentments are not left to fester in that trio of friends. I found their friendship thoroughly realistic as the three friends go from laughter to tears and lighthearted banter to truth-saying, episode by episode.
Refreshingly, the writer added male characters on the periphery of the three lead characters, who remain closely connected with all of them. Selim married Ada, but nevertheless has remained close friends with Sevgi and Leyla, even while his marriage was unraveling. A touching scene in episode 5 shows Selim appearing, flower bouquet in hand, to celebrate his friend Sevgi’s birthday with their friends even after Ada has separated from him over his cheating. Similarly Toprak, Ada’s former lover has remained in close touch with Sevgi and Leyla, after their breakup.
Characters and Performances
Another Self shines as an example of great ensemble acting, with the cast members (several of whom have worked together in past series) easily interacting with each other throughout the course of the eight episodes. The performances are outstanding, even in the smaller roles, with each of the actors slowly but surely peeling the layers back on their characters, exposing their flaws as well as their strengths, making them more human in the process.
Firat Taniş as Zaman: an actor with an impressive resume who has appeared in over 30 Turkish films or series, including classic dizis such as Istanbullu Gelin (The Bride of Istanbul) and more recent Netflix productions such as Kulüp (The Club), Firat Taniş has often been underrated as an actor. Here, his portrayal of Zaman, the enigmatic practitioner who leads the therapy sessions in Another Self, is nothing short of exceptional. Exuding New Age cool with his loose tunics and beaded bracelets, his longish salt- and- pepper hair highlighting a kind face and perceptive dark eyes, Zaman has devoted his life to helping his patients recover from traumas existing in their family history, sometimes for generations. Interestingly the word zaman in Turkish, means “time”. Zaman is dedicated to his work and says little about himself, yet from the very beginning one can sense through Firat’s performance that “the waters run deep” in the character of Zaman. He plays Zaman as a highly intuitive guide, yet not a remote Yoda. The character is very much a man of his time, bicycling around town to enjoy a kahve (Turkish coffee)or a plate of mezze (appetizers)at the local tavern, or enthusiastically cheering his favorite team at a televised soccer match. Firat perfectly portrays Zaman’s paternal affection towards his patients, and his calm unflappability towards the challenges to his work mostly brought on by Ada, who denounces the therapy as `not scientific or rational”.
Tuba Büyüküstün as Ada: I was impressed by Tuba’s performance as Ada, the series narrator and skilled general surgeon who is shown in the series’ very first scene receiving an award for her work and dedication to helping patients. On the surface Ada is a strong character; she comes across as harsh and uncompromising, with a black and white attitude towards life and relationships. For Ada, there is only what “should be”, and not what is. As the episodes progress we discover that Ada is estranged from her mother, whom she blames for leaving her father while the father was terminally ill. As Zaman explains to her “when you cut your mother out of your life, you cut out your creativity, your compassion….If you ignore your feminine side, you reject your ability to love and be loved”.
Tuba, with her tall model gait, dark hair and stunning green eyes, is one of the most successful and popular actresses in Türkiye, with a career in modeling and acting spanning two decades. Her performances in previous series have sometimes been criticized as flat and mechanical, with viewers stating that she has trouble accessing the deep well of emotion some roles require.
As she did in other series, such as Cesur ve Güzel (The Brave & The Beautiful) acting opposite Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, Tuba in Another Self plays an outwardly cold, career-driven character, a woman with anger issues and buried emotions. Yet her Ada is not uni-dimensional. Tuba seems to have fully embraced the role. I felt she more than held her own in emotional scenes requiring her to show sensitivity to the fact her marriage is falling apart (playing opposite the excellent Serkan Altonurak), or to give in to her long-buried, conflicted feelings towards Toprak, her former boyfriend (sensitively portrayed by musician/actor Murat Boz).
Seda Bakan as Leyla: a terrific performance. An actress mostly known for comedy roles Seda Bakan effortlessly portrayed Leyla as the extroverted Instagram Queen who takes pole dancing lessons to keep the spice in her marriage, and whose most fervent desire is an enhanced, new set of breasts. Yet beyond the superficial exterior, the actress lets us discover Leyla’s deeply insecure side: a woman in a co-dependent relationship with a man who cheats on and uses her, desperate to keep her marriage alive while feeling trapped by her vocation to stay at home to raise her young son, while her two friends launched successful careers as a doctor and a lawyer.
Serkan Altonurak as Selim, gives a superlative performance as Ada’s architect husband in Another Self. Outwardly Selim and Ada live the charmed life of two well-off professionals in a modern, well-appointed apartment in an Istanbul high rise. Selim supported Ada through the devastation caused by her failed relationship with Toprak, later marrying her. He’s obviously deeply in love with her. Yet early in the series he confesses to having cheated on her with his office assistant.
The actor does an outstanding job of portraying Selim’s flaws along with his good sides. We get to discover that it is Ada’s lack of commitment to their marriage that has driven him away.
Serkan and Tuba have previously worked together (he played her character Sühan Korludağ’s fiance Bülent, in Cesur ve Güzel) and their interactions onscreen show an ease of working together. A scene in Another Self where the two finally recognize the failure of their marriage, and deliberately but lovingly take off each other’s wedding rings, was a particular emotional highlight of the series for me.
Riza Kocaoğlu as Fiko: a powerhouse of an actor with a 20 year career, who has appeared in multiple awarded dizis such as Çukur (The Pit), Içerde, and Kuzey Güney (his masterful performance early in his career as Kuzey’s friend and true brother Ali was particularly memorable) Riza plays a supporting role as Fiko, the local tavern manager who falls in love with Sevgi.
While it may be said that the actor’s formidable talents are somewhat wasted in Another Self, I thoroughly enjoyed his tender performance. Riza plays poetry-loving Fiko with a self-effacing, but optimistic demeanor, his blue eyes adoring as he looks at Sevgi. He and actress Boncuk Yilmaz (a fellow Çukur alum) are well-matched as an unlikely couple who find happiness together in the midst of multiple challenges.
Murat Boz as Toprak: a well-known Turkish singer/ songwriter, who until now had fairly limited experience with acting, Murat Boz seems to have merged seamlessly into the role of Toprak, the attractive but commitment-phobic musician in Another Self. His earlier, 2-year relationship with Ada (told through flashbacks in the series) was a failure because, in spite of loving her Toprak could not remain faithful to her. He is described as “a nomad who doesn’t know how to take root”.
Yet, 15 years later Toprak, when we meet him in the first episode, appears to have matured, finding more stability after becoming a father. His daughter, 11 year old Flor, lives in Amsterdam with her mother “and her mother’s boyfriend” and Toprak is anxious to renew his resident permit so he can be reunited with her.
When he sees Ada again, powerful feelings come to the fore, culminating in a love scene on the beach where the two give in to their long-buried passion. Regular viewers of Turkish series may be surprised at the boldness of the semi-nude scene (given the conservative approach of most Turkish productions in classic dizis) but the scene was tastefully shot and naturally acted by the two actors.
Yet Murat Boz is also excellent in the various scenes where he reveals Toprak’s fear of inadequacy towards Ada, his subtle facial expressions revealing the confused feelings felt by some men in relationships with strong women: “Am I enough? Do I measure up?”
Boncuk Yilmaz as Sevgi: Even as Ada appears to be the main character, acting as narrator for each episode of Another Self, ultimately Sevgi is the core of the story whose decisions drive the narrative. She is the haven where all the characters’ roads meet, both literally (her house in Cunda is a shelter for the three women and their friends) and emotionally: all of them go to Sevgi for help and comfort. Less exuberant than Leyla, less outwardly confident and hard-charging than Ada, Sevgi is everyone’s confidant, no nonsense, but sweet. As portrayed by Boncuk Yilmaz she is an endearing mix of strength and fragility, whose fight with cancer has made her aware of what is really important in life.
Sevgi desperately wants to find love, and allows her friend Leyla to set her up on blind dates. Yet when true love is right in front of her in the unlikely form of Fiko she hesitates, as Fiko is not the kind of man she had in mind for herself. Her mother Muko makes her opposition to the match loudly known.
Maybe some of us have had experiences where the person who loves you best, may not have the characteristics you were looking for. In the end he is the one who is right for you. Wealth, status in life are small things compared to a person’s true depth of feeling and commitment to a relationship.
As Toprak says to Sevgi: “maybe you just need to let Fiko love you”. In the end Sevgi does. One of the most touching aspects of Another Self for me was Sevgi’s slow but steady realization that she has to give her attraction to Fiko a chance, thereby confronting the mother she loves, but feels emotionally stifled by.
A Final Word
Without revealing too much, the tale told in Another Self seems to come full circle: at the end of the eighth episode we see once again how Sevgi’s decisions drive the storyline. We are left with a cliffhanger which seems to portend that we will see a second season of this beautiful series. I found myself wanting to know what would happen next and realized that I have gotten to care about all these characters.
Another Self is a well-made series with beautiful cinematography, the stunning seaside landscapes of the Aegean, tight and lively dialogue and colorful, true-to-life characters. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and worth watching. Even if you don’t believe in the psychotherapeutic approach of Family Constellation, it holds a very true notion at its core:
You cannot run from the past; you carry your parents and grandparents within you. Understanding and embracing who they were, and making peace with their legacy, will allow you to live a truer, more meaningful life.
Kudos to the creators of Another Self, writers, director, actors, and all the cast and crew who clearly put all of themselves in telling this story.
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