Review: Soldat Ahmet
- In his first-feature length documentary, Austrian filmmaker Jannis Lenz creatively and amusingly challenges prejudices in the story of a professional soldier, boxer and aspiring actor
Soldat Ahmet, which just had its world premiere in Visions du Réel's Burning Lights Competition, clearly displays the considerable and wide-ranging talents of Austrian director Jannis Lenz, so far best known for the 2017 EFA-nominated short Wannabe. The biographical exploration of a protagonist who is both an ordinary human being and a very specific character is as multi-layered as its subject, with a bonus of amusing choreography that ties in perfectly with the themes of the film.
Ahmet is a Turk in his late twenties, a professional medic in the Austrian army and a boxing champion who rediscovers and pursues his drive for acting. As Lenz adopts a predominantly observational approach, we learn basic facts about Ahmet from a conversation he has with an acting coach: he grew up in Austria and always wanted to be an actor, but eventually conformed to his family's expectations. Now that he has landed the role of Stanley Kowalski in an apparently amateur Viennese production of A Streetcar Named Desire, he realises that he has not cried since he was a kid, and the role demands it.
This becomes the central theme of the film, and Lenz builds the character of Ahmet around it. We watch him in all his capacities: at home, he is the beloved uncle of several kids belonging to his siblings, and his tolerant but nevertheless traditional parents pressure him to get married. Of course, his mother is worried about his boxing, but he tells her that this practice is why people have started showing him respect. In a remarkably potent and tender scene, we see them drinking tea and rolling his boxing hand wraps together. Later, he wins a medal, which makes him as happy as a kid, struggling to keep a straight face as he tries to look menacing for the photographer taking his picture.
At work, Ahmet meticulously churns out reports, typing with two fingers on an electric typing machine, and can show real authority when training cadets to do CPR. At rehearsals with the theatre group, although he may not manage to cry in the role of Stanley, he shows a real comic talent.
Those familiar with Tennessee Williams' character will recognise similarities between the two macho immigrants, and there lies the crux of the story. Ahmet is not a wife-beater and rapist, but his professional choices certainly imply a capability for violence. The fact that he is struggling to cry opens up many possible interpretations, and the most obvious one is a clash of identities: a Turk protecting the Austrian people, a soldier and a boxer with an artistic soul. In several instances, we can see him being almost viscerally torn apart by these contradictions, and with the film challenging so many prejudices, the viewer finds themselves constantly re-adjusting their expectations as it progresses, and increasingly feeling for the protagonist.
Using these elements together with the excellent experimental score by Benedikt Palier, which employs only percussion and voices, Lenz adds a welcome, dynamic layer of choreography that similarly subverts stereotypes. Edited by Lenz and co-editors Roland Stöttinger and Nooran Talebi to the rhythm of Ahmet’s military exercises, his boxing training and the theatre group's practices, the score's playfulness results in engaging and uplifting sequences. The broken, dismantled sound of percussion can easily be interpreted as a deconstruction of the marching drum, again contrasting discipline and rules with creativity and emotion.
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