by Anna Sirmoglou
We live in a fast-paced world where slow and silent are often synonymous with dull and boring, especially when it comes to films. We tend to expect lots of action, movement and back-and-forth dialogues that will keep us engaged and entertained. We want to switch off and do as little thinking as possible; so we opt for films and shows that are easy watches with clear, linear plot points and fully developed backstories.
Aşıklar Bayramı (with English title The Festival Of Troubadours) doesn’t quite fit this mold. It is a Turkish art-house little gem of a film that uses slow cinema aesthetics to convey powerful, yet subtly delivered, heartfelt life messages filled with realism and raw emotion.
The film, adapted from Kemal Varol’s award-winning book of the same title, was written and directed by director Ozcan Alper (Autumn, Future Lasts Forever, Memories of the Wind). It narrates the story of lawyer Yusuf (Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ) and his estranged folk singer/poet father Heves Ali (Settar Tanrıöğen), who shows up unannounced after 25 years. Realising Heves Ali is terminally ill, Yusuf accompanies his father on a 3-day long road trip from Kırşehir to Kars so that he can bid farewell to old friends at the troubadour festival in Kars.
This character driven film is first and foremost about a father-son reckoning and their unresolved emotions that accompany them (and us) during this 3-day road trip. We understand that Yusuf’s personality has, to some extent, been shaped by the absence of a father figure in his life and by sentiments of rejection and abandonment.
We get clues early on – he sleeps on the sofa, takes sleeping pills, he seems to be a loner with commitment issues. Yusuf unleashes his suppressed emotions of anger, confusion and frustration during the road trip. “You sang for bugs, mountains, meadows, your lovers. Don’t you have anything to say to me”? asks Yusuf helplessly. While Yusuf is keen to settle accounts and leave the past behind by finally confronting his father and getting the answers he needs, Heves Ali has no intention to open up. Instead, his only road trip mission is to offer belated apologies to his ex-lovers (by singing folk songs) and bid final farewells to his troubadour companions. Yusuf’s desire and longing to communicate with his father remains unrequited. As the two men’s starting point is different, discord between father and son is inevitable – especially within the confines of a car, which offers few, if any, flight opportunities. How this conflict plays out and how the characters react to the road trip experience and to each other is one of the key strengths of Aşıklar Bayramı.
I am naturally drawn to realism in storytelling. A conventional plot development would have included a gradual change in the father’s rigidity and refusal to openly acknowledge his mistakes culminating in heartfelt apologies, realisations and ultimately resolution and redemption. While this outcome would have been more emotionally satisfactory (feel good sensations), it would have been unrealistic. This is the story of a father who abandoned his son 25 years ago. A man whose only allegiance lies with his bağlama/his music –“I forgot my bağlama in your car”, he whispers in his hospital bed; a nomad who was never present in Yusuf’s life. Even when he was, their relationship was defined by distance, silence and formality; an Anatolian patriarch who was never able to express feelings of love and affection towards his son and who had never received any affection from his own father. This is the story of a son who spent his early childhood desperately seeking his father’s affection (his gaze as a kid always gravitating towards his father); a son riddled by feelings of hurt, confusion and guilt, who has not come to terms with his father’s abandonment; a son who cannot let go but can also not connect. This is the story of two people whose relationship is so deeply wounded that it simply can’t heal – and it most definitely cannot heal within a 3-day period.
Father and son, both restless throughout the trip, struggle to communicate even at a basic level. The desire is there from the outset (attempts to touch, glances when the other is not looking), but the gap is just too wide. The only time their interaction flows naturally is when they bond over Yusuf’s music teacher. Ironic, given that – to some extent – music is one of the reasons the father had drifted apart. We all wish Yusuf and Heves Ali could speak at length and bridge that gap. However, some things stay incomplete – no matter what. This is beautifully summed up in the film’s last scene by Heves Ali’s friend, Kul Yakup. “Don’t torture yourself, Yusuf. Dad is a word left unfinished anyway. There is no closure with fathers”. Heves Ali is not seeking redemption and knew that an apology or an explanation could simply not give him redemption or reduce Yusuf’s hurt. The damage is irreparable … it simply is too late to make amends. This incompleteness makes Aşıklar Bayramı even more poignant. Yusuf and Ali’s incomplete reckoning resonated with me deeply – its realism hit a nerve, especially given my own personal experience with my own father.
While this is not a film about redemption, it is a film about acceptance and reconciliation. To begin with, Yusuf is unsettled and unhappy, experiencing a flurry of emotions that he can hardly control. His past is holding him back, it is eating him up. He wants to let go but he cannot. Yusuf is so profoundly wounded and affected that he does not know how to handle his emotions. On the one hand, he feels an intense need to gain his father’s affection – “well stay one more day, what are you in a hurry for”. On the other hand, he purposefully distances from his father to contain his bubbling anger and feeling of injustice. During the trip Yusuf witnesses his father’s interaction with his ex-lovers and with his troubadour companions and gains some insight about his past. He also realizes that, despite his hard exterior, his father harbours feelings for him. Yusuf’s anger and stiff exterior soften and turn to acceptance and serenity. While Yusuf does not experience fundamental character change or enlightenment, we feel by the end that a burden has been lifted. He may now be able to hold on to life again or at least try to reclaim the life that eluded him. Maybe this is the beginning of the road to self-acceptance and self-discovery. This journey has a cathartic impact on Yusuf’s life. While the story is left incomplete, it also leaves us hopeful for Yusuf’s future.
The Power of Slow cinema
Aşıklar Bayramı does not use cheap film tactics to evoke a reaction and thrives in its simplicity and realism. We don’t get an explosion of back-and-forth dialogues, unnecessary over-the-top confrontations or an excess of melodrama. The complexity of the relationship is conveyed in a realistic and reserved manner. For the most part, the characters do not tell us how they feel. We don’t get much backstory. We don’t get fully defined answers, confessionals and explanations. It is down to us, the viewers, to use inference and intuition to draw our conclusions about pretty much everything; nothing is explicitly stated.
Meaning is often conveyed through silence, while characters and emotions are developed through movement, positioning and actions more so than dialogue. Yusuf and Heves Ali are always framed in such a way that our attention goes towards the empty spaces around them. When Yusuf vents his frustration, his father quietly signals him to calm down. When the car breaks down, they stay still and on opposite sides of the road through the passage of time. Like in previous Alper works, nature is an agent in Aşıklar Bayramı. The roads, mountains, the sky are characters themselves and become part of the story, while natural elements transform with the characters – Yusuf’s outburst of rage and emotion coincides with a raging storm.
The cinematography revels in stillness and quietude. Long Anatolian landscape scenes, intense focus on facial close-ups, details of day-to-day mundane interactions. Real-time is a much clearer presence in Aşıklar Bayramı, giving us the opportunity to sip in the details, introspect and feel more present. And while dialogue is sparse, what is communicated is meaningful and telling. “Would you accept a guest”? asks the dad in the opening scene setting the tone of their relationship. Every single sentence uttered is meaningful.
This is the beauty of contemplative cinema – its minimalism and observational approach compels the viewer to actively engage, ultimately offering a more rewarding, deeply emotional viewing experience.
This filming style doesn’t work for everyone. While I was mesmerized and savored every minute, many described the experience as dull, uneventful and boring. Different strokes for different folks, they say. But I personally think that this approach to filmmaking elevates the film and helps deliver a sublime viewing experience.
When dialogue is sparse and facial close-ups longer, non-verbal communication becomes increasingly important. A weak actor can diminish the impact of such scenes while a strong actor can elevate them. It takes immense skill to consistently communicate feelings, emotion and thoughts through eye contact, facial gestures and body movements. Both Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ and Settar Tanrıöğen are phenomenal in the movie. You at no point doubted that Heves Ali is a terminally ill man, and you witness a deterioration in his health as the film progressed though a gradual change in balance, walking pace, speech and a further weathering of his already weathered face. Both Settar and Kıvanç made us surrender to the story and their characters, forgetting we are watching a film. Kıvanç’s embodiment of Yusuf is phenomenal. He commands presence from the get-go, and we feel a chimera of emotions and thoughts burning up his wounded soul – emotions and thoughts expressed intensely, yet quietly. Internalised acting at its best. Yusuf’s compressed anger occasionally bursts out in an explosive way, only to be contained again revealing Yusuf’s vulnerability, frustration, inner turmoil and fragile state of mind. Kıvanç is incredibly fluent at moving the energy in his body around to help communicate (within a matter of seconds) the progression in his characters’ emotional state – with fast transitions from one emotion to the next. In Yusuf, you can even see multiple emotions expressed simultaneously (e.g., feelings of longing and hate, sadness and anger). Towards the end, Yusuf’s emotional progression towards acceptance and forgiveness, is also accompanied by a softening of his facial features and a change in posture.
The film is an adaption of Aşıklar Bayramı, the second book in a trilogy by award-winning author Kemal Varol. Varol has just published the final book in the trilogy, which follows Yusuf’s journey of self-discovery following his father’s death. Aşıklar Bayramı has additional plotlines that are not tackled in the film. For instance, the book also focuses on Yusuf’s lament over a broken love story. In the book, Yusuf wrote a number of love letters (that he never posted) to his lover who he left many years ago. Alper felt that this storyline would detract from the father-story storyline so omitted it. I can’t help but feel that making brief, subtle references to Yusuf’s shattered love story would have added a further layer of insight and richness to the story.
In the film, Alper pays tribute to the Alevi culture, life and their music – many of the supporting actors are real villagers, which adds authenticity to the experience. Unlike Varol’s book, Alper shies away from making strong political statements focusing instead on Yusuf’s and Ali’s road trip.
Aşıklar Bayramı delicately, subtly and sensitively approaches a universal issue, that of a father and son relationship.
It is an emotionally touching journey into one’s soul, which has left a permanent mark on my heart.
Article copyright (c) North America TEN & Anna Sirmoglou
Originally from Greece, Anna has lived and worked in the United Kingdom for nearly 20 years. She has a research background (PhD in Political Science) and currently works in the field of equalities and inclusion. She is passionate about cinema and enjoys editing videos in her free time. She lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and her two kids, 9 and 12.
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That is the review I was waiting for! After reading so many negative comments about “slow” and “dull” movie, my heart is finally singing. It is a beautifully written review about beautiful movie. I loved every “slow” minute of it. I often have hard time putting my feelings into words, but reading this review spark the same emotions in my heart as the movie itself. God bless you, Anna! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Excellent review. I loved this film. Movies that don’t just entertain, but make me think and feel are high on my list.
You got me at the title! I normally am not interested in male bonding themes, but this was such a beautifully written review that I will take a look at this film. Your review was so psychological and uncovered the different veils that often men wear to hide their emotions and longing. I also love the way you have described the slow cinematic reveals of emotion through the scenery and the actors’ body language etc. I am now interested in learning more about another Turkish culture in the music of Alevi. Thanks for such an intelligent review!