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BERLINALE 2024 Generation

Review: Elbow

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- BERLINALE 2024: Aslı Özarslan's coming-of-age film set in the Berlin immigrant community and Istanbul stands out for its storytelling economy, unusually dark atmosphere, and thematic variety and depth

Review: Elbow
Melia Kara in Elbow

Every year, the Generation section of the Berlinale includes a coming-of-age film about immigrant youth, often made by filmmakers who are themselves second-generation immigrants. This year, that film is Elbow [+see also:
interview: Aslı Özarslan
film profile
]
, co-written with Claudia Schaefer by its director, Berlin-born Aslı Özarslan, and based on the novel by Fatma Aydemir. But while it follows some of the familiar tropes of the sub-genre, this picture stands out for its unusually dark and violent elements, storytelling economy, thematic variety and depth, and the performance of the young lead actress Melia Kara.  

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She plays Hazal, whose Turkish mother works as a bakery employee and her father as a taxi driver. Hazal is about to turn 18 and is acutely aware of the xenophobia and racism in Berlin society, which are depicted as not at all casual, but rather aggressive and direct. In constant conflict with her mother, Hazel wants more for herself than being a cashier, a waitress or a prostitute, but everything she experiences tells her in no uncertain terms that this is the only kind of future possible for "people like her." Her long-disillusioned mother agrees with this and wants her to train as a hairdresser. Subjected to insult after insult, Hazal grows increasingly bitter, but unlike many other humiliated immigrants, she doesn't keep her mouth shut and actually strikes back. 

After she and her two best friends are not let into a cool club for her birthday celebration, the group gets cat-called and racially abused by a young man in the U-Bahn station. The no-nonsense Elma (Jamilah Badgach) punches him and Hazal joins in, accidentally killing the guy. The next thing we know, she is running away to Istanbul and surprising her friend Mehmet (Doğa Gürer), another Berlin-born Turk. She crashes at his place, and he turns out to be both more and less than she expected. 

In Istanbul, a city completely foreign to her, she finds a new level of freedom but also encounters a whole new set of problems, and learns that she is not at home there either. Mehmet's roommate Halil (Haydar Şahin), an activist, opens her eyes to the reality of the Kurdish issue, while Hazal is not even sure if her family belongs to the ethnic group. "Aren't we all Turks?", she asks naively.

Almost all of the scenes in the film serve a clear dramatic and narrative purpose. Hazal's bitterness and defiance are finely graded and her character develops accordingly — and explosively, too. Other characters are also well-rounded, although the dialogues in segments with Halil do come across as a bit contrived. Cinematographer Andaç Karabeyoğlu-Thomas works in a classical manner, resorting to a handheld camera only in a couple of key instances, while the editing by Ana Branea and David J. Achilles mirrors Hazal's character development, often with abrupt cuts and loud sound effects. 

Kara is excellent as Hazal. She is a young woman, but has retained a baby-faced appearance and youthful energy that make her outbursts all the more jarring and impactful. It is the way she portrays Hazal's desperate defiance that provides her character with its most interesting facet: the tortured reality of being both victim and perpetrator. This aspect of the film, when taken together with its other key themes — identity, family relations, societal positions, culture clashes — turns out to be its most compelling and thought-provoking dimension.

Elbow is a co-production between Germany's Achtung Panda! and JIP Film & Verleih, France's Tripode Films, and Turkey's Istos Film

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