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TORONTO 2021 Discovery

Review: Anatolian Leopard


- The pride of an Ankara zoo goes missing, but who will take the rap, asks Turkish filmmaker Emre Kayis in his debut feature

Review: Anatolian Leopard
Ugur Polat in Anatolian Leopard

The Anatolian leopard of the title is called Hercules, and sadly he doesn’t survive this film long enough to fully refute the idea that leopards can’t change their spots. Debuting director Emre Kayis prefers to probe his human characters, of which there is a whole haggard, ageing ensemble, with not one redeeming feature among the lot. The atmosphere of this mordant social parable is Darwinian, in the capitalistic sense; to again paraphrase Shakespeare, it’s lions that make leopards tame. The film premiered in the Discovery section at this year’s hybrid Toronto International Film Festival, where it received the FIPRESCI jury prize for the entire selection.

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, for all its distinction, still feels like half a film, as if its director got too chuffed with the fine work he was doing in its vital initial stages, and coasted towards the point where he could finally write ‘THE END’ on the script’s final page. Nearly everything until the end of the first act - where the prized rare beast of the zoo goes missing - works to a tee; perhaps Kayis started to get bogged down, as we in the audience do, meting out the practicalities of how the story’s different factions respond to the situation. The narrative line is slender but the themes considered are vast: this could be a rare film where parallels to the political climate of ‘fake news’ create opacity rather than relieve it.

In formal terms, Kayis achieves the rare feat of devising a zoo - of all places - that looks like an uninviting, festering landfill. It’s not the labyrinthine house of horrors of Denis Côté’s documentary Bestiaire (one of the more notable recent films on this topic), and forget about the chirpy animals from any number of family films; in Anatolian Leopard’s early winter-set scenes, snow so engorges the cage bars and walkways that you can barely peep a friendly critter. It’s this predicament that leads Ankara’s mayor (it’s a publicly owned facility) to sell the land to a consortium of Emirati developers, with designs on turning this quaint but sorry place into an ‘Aladdin’s Magic Lamp’ theme park. Kayis has great fun with a ‘previs’ business presentation, showcasing a naff 3D rendering of an Arabian Nights-themed rollercoaster.

Fikret (Ugur Polat), the zoo’s loyal but taciturn manager - “here 22 years,” as many characters remind him - wants to maintain his life’s passion, and has been using the unique fate of the zoo’s prize possession, a rare Anatolian leopard, to stall these changes: where might it live in this new configuration? But its sudden death creates an opening for Fikret and his long-suffering assistant Gamze (Ipek Türktan) to help their cause further, and bring the media and law enforcement into the picture. The film’s endgame centres on deliberate, deadpan dialogues between Fikret and his associates (the majority of the city seems populated by friends and acquaintances from his youth), with surprising digressions on Greek mythology and left-wing politics, but a declining forward momentum in the plot.

A foolproof way that many films conclude is by giving the audience simultaneously what they expect and hope for, whilst catching them blindsided. Anatolian Leopard dawdles to the finish, choked a bit by the symbolic significance of its endangered species, man and beast alike.

Anatolian Leopard is a co-production between Turkey, Poland, Germany and Denmark. Its producer is Olena Yershova of Tatofilm; the other production outfits are Asteros Film, Adomeit Film, Donten & Lacroix Films and elemag pictures. Luxbox is handling world sales.

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