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VENICE 2023 Orizzonti

Review: Dormitory

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- VENICE 2023: Turkish helmer Nehir Tuna’s debut shows two sides of a bad education, all told with compelling force

Review: Dormitory
Doğa Karakaş in Dormitory

Already compared by Venice head Alberto Barbera to Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket, Nehir Tuna’s Dormitory [+see also:
interview: Nehir Tuna
film profile
]
also seems primed to blow, to combust: its fists are rather clenched in the folds of a religious robe. Balancing so much, with the moral and emotional education of an early-teenage boy shown in tandem with the battle for Turkey’s future in the new millennium (the story is set between 1996 and 1997), Tuna’s film is one of the more inspiring premiering in Venice’s Orizzonti this year.

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It’s a funny thing, that early teenage, early secondary-school age. Perhaps your mind feels ready to state its own preferences, ready to be fully self-reliant, but your life experience is null, and your parents still have authority over key decisions of your future. So Ahmet (the impressive Doğa Karakaş) is stuck between stations, with the film opening with his rudimentary English lessons at a modern, secular school, with great facilities; then he is bussed over to his actual term-time residence, the yurt (in Turkish), or dormitory. These imposing buildings were built around a decade previous (as said, the story picks up in 1996) to provide a secure sanctuary for young Muslim men, side by side with a staunch religious education. Ahmet’s father’s (Tansu Biçer) own religious conscience has placed him there, in an environment that the presiding secular forces in Turkey are deeply concerned might foster radical beliefs.

What sort of man (to use a very old-fashioned turn of phrase) might Ahmet be when he emerges on the other side as a fully grown adult? Tuna and this film’s mere existence provide the answer: the filmmaker lived for a similar part of his life in such surroundings. The plot tension strongly emerges through the individuals he encounters there, a place to live that surely feels like it’s actually existing and is coloured in stark monochrome, which is indeed how Tuna chooses to shoot the majority of the film. There’s the tyrannical educator Yakup (Ozan Çelik), who puts the boys through hazing exercises, such as where two are forced to slap each other whilst the others watch; more critically for the plot, when Ahmet’s fancy, formal shoes go missing, he doesn’t let the school population go home for the December holidays, to force the culprit to own up. We also have Hakan (Can Bartu Arslan), Ahmet’s closest friend (and perhaps something else, eventually), a more typical inductee of the yurt from a working-class background, who provides a worldly companion for our lead character, but not before a bittersweet final twist.

You never know what corner Dormitory is going to take you around next; for one, it’s an oddly formal, classical-looking film from a millennial-age filmmaker, at least until the austere foundation of its default setting and look is allowed to shape-shift, in colour, tone and reality. With a pleasing amount of foreground detail and exposition, a more conventional three-act structure is also never brought to bear; it’s more like a novel, maybe a great debut where the author has been allowed to stretch to 300 or so pages, perfectly crossing character with eventual catharsis.

Dormitory is a co-production by Turkey, Germany and France, staged by TN Yapım, Red Balloon Film and Ciné-Sud Promotion. Its world sales are by Pyramide International.

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