BROTHER’S KEEPER (2021)

brother's keeper (2021)
At a boarding school in a remote part of Turkey, a young boy attempts to care for his sick friend.
4 out of 5 stars

Many have taken Ferit Karahan’s slow-burn, deceptively powerful second feature as a straightforward tale of ill-treated children and their oppressive teachers, but this compelling and masterfully crafted film is far subtler than that. At first, Brother’s Keeper does indeed appear to be setting up a simple opposition between the boys of a state boarding school in eastern Turkey and the staff who seem more concerned by discipline than education, and at first, it’s told very much from the boys’ point of view…

However, as the film progresses it widens to also show us more of the teachers, and we realise that (in most cases) neither the specific crisis forming the fulcrum of the plot nor the more general problems of the school are necessarily their fault. It’s the system that’s broken, and if they’re hardly held up as shining models, they’re not exactly villains either. 

Brother’s Keeper is a careful film with everything connecting to everything else. It’s precisely and deliberately constructed and, as a result, carries a bigger meaning despite being so modest in scale.

The central mystery of a boy’s sudden illness, where it came from and what can be done about it, keeps the film watchable to the end, while completely credible characters banish any sense of it being a mere parable. There are obviously implications here beyond the narrative events, but the story and its characters are so absorbing that Brother’s Keeper never feels like just a lecture.

It begins where it will hauntingly finish, in the school’s rudimentary shower room. In the first shot, we see a little boy struggling to get his towel over the rail, and it’ll become clear that pupils here find the slightest comfort or convenience elusive. Then a petty argument brews up among three boys in the shower, drawing the attention of a teacher, who orders that they switch to cold water as a punishment.

Karahan’s command of photography, timing, and his young actors, is evident this early in a scene of the trio continuing their wash, pouring water over one another using a bowl. Like much in Brother’s Keeper, it’s simple, but simply mesmerising too. The story really gets going the next morning, though, when one of the lads—Mehmet or “Memo” (Nurullah Alaca)—falls ill, and his fellow pupil Yusuf (Samet Yildiz) tries to take care of him, first with another student at the school’s basic infirmary, but then involving teachers and eventually the principal.

Perpetually in the background is the bitter weather of eastern Turkey: the central heating is broken, snowflakes fall and fall, a snow plough tips over, the ambulance called for Memo is stranded. This is narratively convenient, of course, but probably also true to life (the film is based to some extent on Karahan’s own education) and it underlines that the problems faced by the school’s boys—and its staff too—aren’t exceptional incidents, but a continual part of their lives.

It’s a strict establishment (a boy who runs away has his head shaved), not deliberately abusive but practising a quasi-military disciplinary style that in some countries died out many decades ago (the principal assembles boys on the “parade ground”). There are hints that the school may be short of money and that some of the little cash it does have is going to buy comforts for the principal rather than the boys’ well-being. And it’s certainly not a plum posting for the teachers either.

Indeed, while Yusuf—a boy of about 10 or 11, beautifully performed by a wide-eyed, wary yet quietly resolute Yildiz—is the character who holds the film together and largely provides its point of view, the way that Karahan handles the teachers is what gives Brother’s Keeper so much depth. In the first scenes, they are rare and fierce, reflecting a child’s perception, and there’s an enormous gulf between the adults and their pupils… but the teachers become more prominent as the story goes on, revealing their own humanity. Indeed, they almost eclipse the boys at times, but tentatively connecting with them too.

Particularly notable are Selim (Ekin Koç), a young man who turns out to be reasonable and friendly (at least by the standards of this school), and Hamza (Cansu Firinci), who initially seems to be shiftily deflecting blame from himself. Both emerge as being on the boys’ side, or almost, against the less flexible and more self-interested principal (Mahir Ipek). Director Karahan also appears in a small role as another teacher.

Ultimately, the boys and teachers are in the same boat, hemmed in by the school’s woeful lack of ability to deal with a sick pupil as much as they are by the weather. 

Everyone accepts there’s a problem, but nobody can do anything: they try to impose logic, try to apportion blame, resort to accusations (there are even hints of sexual abuse which appear to be unfounded)… but none of it gets anybody anywhere. There’s lots of talking and no solutions. Teacher after teacher comments that Memo doesn’t have a fever, believing they’re being helpful but adding nothing useful. Over and over again, characters slip on the wet floor as they enter the sickroom, the same mistake repeated.

The sense of futility which all this engenders may well allude to frustration at broader issues in Turkey and specifically its regional primary boarding schools; many of the criticisms levelled at them show up in the film, and surprising revelations at the end suggest the more general difficulty of doing something good in a system that isn’t amenable to it.

Yet it would be wrong to think of Brother’s Keeper as merely a polemic: Karahan’s film is also about the way people aren’t what we expect, and nor indeed are situations. It looks for a long time like a lesson is forthcoming on responsibility, guilt, and consequences… but, in fact, it’s a relatively random incident, not really any individual’s fault, that turns out to be at the root of Memo’s sickness.

These ideas are clear enough, and they give the film heft, but Karahan successfully avoids overburdening it with meaning. There are occasional direct references to the affairs of the world beyond the school (“there’s no such thing as the Kurdish region… it’s the Eastern Anatolian region”, says one teacher, while in the sickroom a notice reads “Vaccines Are Here To Protect You”), but there are no big speeches from anyone, and even the central character Yusuf has relatively little dialogue.

Brother’s Keeper is shot in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, with the camera often at child’s-head level, quietly reinforcing an implicit point of view. Brief but close attention to details—a boy helping another with his shoes, boiling water poured on a frozen lock, an Anatolian Shepherd Dog with her puppy, teachers smoking in defiance of the rules—provides texture and affirms the sense of place, while muted colours amplify the air of dejection.

It should be a sad film, but it isn’t downbeat, even if nobody ends up with their misery the slightest bit alleviated. Instead—and doubtless this wasn’t Karahan’s whole intention but it’s certainly an achievement in itself—what non-Turkish audiences are likely to remember from Brother’s Keeper isn’t its indictment of his country’s educational system, but the characters he portrays so believably and warmly, struggling yet not quite defeated by the rigours of their situation.

TURKEY • ROMANIA | 2021 | 85 MINUTES | COLOUR | TURKISH KURDISH

Cast & Crew

director: Ferit Karahan.
writers: Gülistan Acet & Ferit Karahan.
starring: Samet Yildiz, Ekin Koç, Mahir Ipek, Melih Selcuk & Cansu Firinci.

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