Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Belonging, An Unusual Séance

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In this essay, Phuong Le looks into Burak Çevik’s Belonging, a film about memory whose centre is an autobiographical tragedy

Belonging, the second feature by Turkish filmmaker Burak Çevik, is an unusual séance. Lingering throughout the film is a sense of fluidity, of plasticity, evident in the recurring images of choppy sea water, of flowing drapes, of hung clothes fluttering in the wind. Accompanied by an impressionistic ambient score, Belonging’s encompassing visuals conjure up an omnipresent and omnipotent past, a memory whose centre is an autobiographical tragedy: the murder of Çevik’s grandmother orchestrated by his aunt, Pelin, and Onur, Pelin’s boyfriend. The film clinically subverts the conventions of a crime film, both in terms of style and narrative, by experimentally layering fictional elements over documentary ones and vice versa.

Belonging is divided into two chapters of markedly different styles, resurrecting the beginning and the outcome of the relationship between Pelin and Onur. The film’s first 25 minutes is shot in the fashion of a street documentary. It comprises of long takes showing different parts of Istanbul and its suburbs, including the apartment of Çevik’s grandparents where the murder happened. The narration, taken from Onur’s report to the police after the murder, is cold and detached, echoing the impersonal images of vacant spots in Istanbul, eerily devoid of human beings. Nevertheless, even when they are not occupied by people, these frames still hold an emotional intensity. At one point, as the voice-over recalls a letter sent by Pelin to Onur expressing her wish for her mother’s death, the screen shows an empty office where a printer slowly churns out a printed document on its own. Suddenly, Belonging makes clear that, embedded in the banal, mundane fabric of urban life is unresolved turmoil, unquenchable anguish and unanswerable questions, including the motives behind Pelin’s wish for her mother’s death. 

In contrast to the first segment’s gloomy mise-en-scene, as the film seeps into a fictional territory where Çevik imagines the first encounter between Pelin and Onur, the screen lights up. While previously, Pelin might come off as a mostly faceless, cold-hearted figure in the police report, here she emerges as a real person, full of hopes, dreams and insecurities. Compared to the documentary segment, the framing here is less impersonal, yet for the most parts, the film still resists using close-ups to portray Pelin’s and Onur’s bond. Instead, the camera focuses on their feet, walking side by side on the way back to Pelin’s apartment, as she shares her shame of withdrawing from college without informing her parents. Their tender breakfast the morning after is shot in a similar fashion, with the camera caressing the sensual dishes of bright red jams and plum cherries on the table, bursting with life and hope, blissfully unaware of the doom awaits the couple. At one point, their encounter even encroaches on the realm of the fantastical when a poem that Pelin reads to Onur transports the characters to a lush forest. Since the gentle, nurturing greenery contrasts starkly with the urban alienation seen in the documentary segment, this moment appears to yearn for an alternate dimension where these two lost souls can find peace, instead of succumbing to their destructive impulses. 

I wonder whether, for Çevik, Belonging might have been an attempt to exorcise his family demons and to peel off the mystery surrounding his grandmother’s death. Instead of crafting its narrative around the conventional cycle of crime and punishment, the film never comments on Pelin and Onur’s final fates but instead dissects the way the memory of their crime still has a hold on the landscape as well as Çevik himself. This approach is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s evocative quote from The Invention of Solitude, which also centers on the act of remembering: “Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits.” Indeed, the structure of Belonging leaves viewers feeling submerged, bound, a pleasurable yet haunting sensation of being gently dunked into the dark currents of the past.

Phuong Le is a freelance film critic. She grew up in Vietnam and studied film in the U.S. and the U.K.

Burak Çevik’s Belonging screens on Friday 6th September at Regent Street Cinema.