Two weeks ago at the 52nd Antalya Film Festival, the most prestigious in Turkish cinema, director and producer Tolga Karaçelik took home the award for Best Film and Best Director with his feature Sarmaşık, or Ivy in English. This past Sunday, I found myself seated next to him at a wedding reception in a gilded banquet hall along the Bosphorus in Istanbul. After making our introductions, I asked Karaçelik about his film, and he nonchalantly explained that it was the story of six men stranded on a shipping freighter.
“What happens to a crew, to a captain, when their ship doesn’t sail, and furthermore is it still a ship?” he said. The film was nationally released in Turkey a week ago, and when I asked Karaçelik where I could see it, he frowned. “Finding distributors has been a challenge.” Having recently swept Antalya’s awards, this seemed odd, but before Karaçelik could explain he was interrupted by another tablemate, columnist and law professor Özgür Mumcu, who said: “Tolga has made an important and brave political film. You must see it.”
When it comes to political courage, Özgür knows of what he speaks. In the month since his re-election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has imprisoned two of Özgür’s colleagues at the leftist Cumhuriyet newspaper, and decades ago his father, also a columnist for Cumhuriyet, was assassinated with a car bomb when Özgür was 13. After pressing Karaçelik for a copy of Sarmaşık he promised to send me a link on Vimeo. A few days later, I viewed the film on my iPhone. I had gotten up early to watch the Republican Party debate on CNN, so the idea of ships that don’t sail and the captains that pilot them was on my mind. After opening my Virtual Private Network, an app that allows access to websites intermittently blocked by the Turkish authorities, Sarmaşık began.
The film’s tension builds slowly. Shortly after embarking, a vessel is forced to moor off the coast of Egypt. Its unseen owner has fallen into debt having put a lien on his business, and a skeleton crew must maintain the quality of the ship until it can legally dock. Led by the husky Beybaba, the captain whose name deconstructs into the words "mister" and "father," the characters that remain are archetypes (men that are submissive and anxious, lazy and drugged, deeply religious and unquestioning) whose values collide in the ship’s confines. Beybaba, who begins the journey as a benevolent autocrat, gradually seeds fear and suspicion among the crew in an effort to maintain his slipping authority. One by one he brings select crewmembers into his cabin: Ismail (the hardworking and religious first mate) and then Nadir (the loyal and modest steward), asking them to inform on each other. “I trust you to be my eyes and ears,” Beybaba instructs. “We have to be united. Then we won’t have problems.”
Unity through division becomes problematic for Beybaba. Cenk, a stoned grifter, refuses to work and begins to eye the key to the ship’s drug locker worn around the neck of the pious Ismail. A mute sailor known only as “Kurd” disappears. The meek Nadir searches everywhere for him and Kurd becomes a type of Godot, the ship’s unspeaking conscience. Will he reappear or won’t he? Nadir refuses to give up his search and when he sees, or thinks he sees, Kurd’s dripping ghost haunting the ship’s passageways, suicidal despair sets in. As for Beybaba, he recedes deeper and deeper into both his cabin and an authoritarian madness, losing his hold on the crew and himself. If Sarmaşık sounds like something from Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, it’s because Karaçelik contends with similarly primal themes—societal order, guilt, redemption. Before becoming a filmmaker Karaçelik worked as a crewman on commercial ships, and his understanding of the monotonic rhythm of life at sea (or life at anchor) seeps through the film.
Finishing Sarmaşık, I could understand why it resonated as a politically important film with Özgür. After inconclusive parliamentary elections this past June, with many Turks rescinding their support of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., a runoff election occurred this past November. To prepare for the runoff, Erdoğan adopted a campaign strategy of division and fear. He resumed hostility against the Kurds in the southeast. He expanded his involvement in the Syrian War. He cracked down on media outlets critical of the government. Stoking this collective fear worked. When Turks returned to the polls last month, many returned to the A.K.P., voting for stability above all else. Like Beybaba, Erdoğan’s campaign seeded suspicion and discontent among voters, stranding Turkey in authoritarianism as surely as the vessel is stranded in Karaçelik’s film.
Trading on fear for political power is hardly a Turkish phenomenon. Watching Sarmaşık after the Republican presidential debate put much of that debate into a clearer context. Sealing our borders to Muslims, boasts of carpet-bombing, and promises of enhanced surveillance on certain communities—these echo the captaincy of Beybaba.
When accepting his award in Antalya, Karaçelik took the stage to make a few remarks during a live broadcast of the ceremony. Moments before, Nadir Sarıbacak who plays Cenk had received the award for Best Actor and had his acceptance speech cut off by the pro-government A Haber News Agency when he said: “I am concerned about my country." This interrupted the program for a few minutes, but with the live feed running again Karaçelik joked: “You don’t have to cut it, I won’t say anything bad.” Then, smiling for the cameras, he went on, dedicating his win to Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and journalist Erdem Gül, Özgür’s imprisoned colleagues. It seems noble qualities also exist among those stranded on a ship.