Bliss, Honor Killing, and Turkish Cinema

Demonizing the Enemy, the Old Battle Between East and West

Those of us who are cultural-diversity followers continue to be intrigued by the global verbal battle going on between the conservatives on both sides of the “which-culture-is-superior” topic.

In the West, the Berlusconi followers continue to rant and rave about the superiority of Western Civilization. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists and militant jihadists believe that the infidel West is going to hell in a hand basket. Both sides have reduced their enemies to demonized objects.

Edward Said, the eminent authority on Middle Eastern culture, added fuel to the fire in one of his earlier books in which he claimed that the West has historically treated the Middle East as an oriental, an “other” primitive, uncivilized culture, giving the West complete license to colonize that “other” in order to bring the Middle East in line with Western values and to raise it up a notch on the evolutionary ladder (By analogy, claiming that those south of the border also needed to be “civilized,” Theodore Roosevelt was not without his fierce ethnocentric attitudes during the Spanish-American War.)

George Bush, added more heat than light in referring to several Islamic countries as “axes of evil.” In his “bring-’em-on,” testosterone-driven posturing, Bush rerobed himself in the the wardrobe of the old, patriarchal, tough white-guy-knows-best.

The fierce nationalist, religious-fervor, ethnicity-driven reactions on the part of the Islamic militants, of course, could be seen in the variations of suicide attacks on U.S.,the United Kingdom, and Spain, in addition to the Islamic youth uprisings in the suburbs of France. However, these uprisings had a strong local, economic-disenfranchisemet flavor, even though there continues to be Islamic hostility among the French Muslims against a country that many Muslims feel considers them to be second-class citizens. The French see some Muslims, on the other hand, as resistant to the long French secular tradition of laïcité, a tradition that explains why the majority of the French are in favor of a ban on the “voile integral” (the total veil) in public places such as schools and transportation.

Modernity, Secularism, and the Ancient Traditions in the Middle East

Within the Middle Eastern countries themselves, there is a sometimes sharp division between those political forces that want to modernize and secularize Islamic culture and those who prefer to retain the old customs of the Islamic traditions.

If Turkey is any example of the division, it would seem that the split also runs along the urban-rural divide. In cities like Istanbul, the secularist and more cosmopolitan Muslims—the artists, the movie directors, the writers, the business community—seem to have more sway, or at least more acceptability than if they were to live in the rural communities that are more fundamentalist and traditional.

The recent Turkish movie, Bliss, plays on that urban/rural and modern/traditional divisions within Islam.

A young shepherd girl is raped. The family eventually sends her to Istanbul with the son of her father’s cousin. The son is unable to follow through with the girl’s execution and the two of them are given a place to stay at a fishing farm owned by the young man’s friend.

When the motor of a professor’s sailboat breaks down in the cove of the farm, the young Muslim helps the professor who asks the young couple to work for him.

Meanwhile the cousin of the male protagonist’s father sends a hit squad out to kill the girl. The professor and the young cousin chase the abductors and eventually free the girl who finally reveals the name of the rapist. The film ends in an act of revenge against the rapist.

The brief summary I gave of the plot of Bliss falls short of the more nuanced readings of the film’s clear demarcations between a modern, more open Islam and a rigid, closed, doctrinaire religion of an anachronistic tradition like honor killings.

 Honor Killing and Fundamentalist Islam

Honor killing, of course, is part of the old, more fundamentalist Islam. It is portrayed by the director as antithetical to the more modern Islamic views represented by the bourgeois professor, the young man’s friend, and the protagonist’s brother who left the patriarchal home scene to search out his own independent life in Istanbul.

The central male protagonist who is initially chosen by his father to perform the honor killing is torn between his evolving love for the raped girl and the ancient obligation he has to his father (when the father first tells him that he will take over some of the fields, the son, who has just returned from the battlefield, concedes to his father’s wishes).

The raped girl is consistently referred to as a whore, a sinner, and an embarrassment to the community. She has been tainted by the rape and must bear full responsibility. Only one other women in the small community tries to convince the young girl to identify the rapist (the woman sarcastically refers to the men in the community as “cuckolds”).

The professor represents the new, secular Turkey, a man who has the bourgeois luxury of trying to “find” himself and is served divorced papers by his angry wife (both variations of modernity at its more neurotic and narcissistic level). Although the professor has only paternal affection for the young girl, there is a kind of “noble-savage” judgment he makes about the uneducated girl’s pure, uncomplicated, transparent reactions to the world (this was the only time I felt the director bordered on political correctness at the expense of realism and complexity).

I realize that the the honor killing is the moral center of the movie and that the young girl’s brutal victimization by an ancient custom is certainly horrific. However, her character lacked an edge of raw numbness and began to move into the realm of a beautiful, innocent little girl taken advantage of by the big bad boys of her community. Her beauty had a kind of manufactured Hollywood look that could almost make an audience oblivious to the horror of what had happened to her.

And when she reacts to the male protagonist, there is too much of a flirtatious, girl-next-door look that completely annihilates the profound existential crisis of having been abandoned by her community (she may admit that to the professor at the end of the film, but her romanticized physicality belies the depth of that abandonment)

The male protagonist is the only character who gives the film an edge of complexity. He is haunted by the killings he has done in the war; he is tormented by his obligations to his father, his own patriarchal attitudes, and the affection and sexual attraction he has for the young girl; he becomes increasingly jealous of the professor’s innocent affection for the girl; and, at the end of the film, he is forced to confront the rapist in a gut-wrenching scene of complete terror. Throughout the film, he has far more complex issues to juggle before he can finally feel comfortable with the love he has for the girl, who, if my geneology is correct would be his second cousin (their fathers are first cousins).

In many ways, I had the same problem with Bliss as I had with another socio-political-commentary film, Water, an Indian film about a young Brahmin who falls in love with a widow who, prior to the laws changing in India in the forties, remained a member of the untouchable class.

The Use of Color to Sentimentalize and Mainstream

Both films use deep, very rich colors that tend to sentimentalize the films and to trivialize the rawness of the social issues. Color, in general, softens the emotional texture of a film and tends to distract from any visceral elements that control a film’s primal sensibility that must exist if you are portraying the horrors of a world of untouchables or of honor killings.

Ultimately, it is a classic conflict between form and content.

A good friend reminded me that the rich, Hollywood-like colors used in both films may be a way of mainstreaming the subject matter. If audiences can be lulled into some level of empathy, the directors have done their jobs.

In the end, then, Bliss will certainly attract a mainstream audience and, given the nature of the topic, that will be its saving grace in spite of some of its aesthetic anomalies.


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