Foreign films can be a mixed bag. Often times, I’ve praised the fact that – because they’re made without the creative shackles of the American studio system – they tend to be raw and unfiltered portrayals of what the people of distant lands deal with in the day-to-day. While I stand by my own interpretation, I’d also have to say that there are times when a guiding hand (like said studio system) could help refine a particular vision if only to the point that a motion picture’s core message might get broader acceptance.
Such is quite possibly the case with WATCHTOWER. It’s a terrific performance piece, punctuated by two great low-key performances that probably won’t register on the global radar because so very much of it is built on little moments. Whereas big name actors get all the raves these days for doing the same, a foreign release needs to hit one out of the park to garner more international attention; otherwise, they’ll garner mostly just the praise of (basically) their neighbors, which this little gem certainly did.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Nihat (played with a kind of smoldering intensity by Olgun Simsek) has lost his way. Emotionally decimated by an automobile accident (of his cause) that took the lives of his wife and child, he’s taken the unforgiving job of serving in a ‘watchtower’ – a wilderness outpost monitoring the endless forest terrain for forest fires, accidents, and the like. His only communication with the outside world is by radio or by occasional trips for foodstuffs and other supplies to a nearby bus terminal. There, he crosses paths with the much younger Seher (a lovely Nilay Erdonmez), the bus’s host who’s fled big city life with a life-changing secret. Through an odd twist of fate, the two will find another first as strangers but gradually a kinship will push the two of them past their grief into one of the oddest dependent relationships captured on film.
WATCHTOWER is, largely, the kind of film most audiences dismiss because either (a) they don’t partake of foreign films or (b) it probably looks too artsy. Thematically, I could argue that it has striking similarities with, say, JUNO (2007) without all of its dripping American derisiveness and crowd-friendly cynicism. Instead, it takes the same idea – a young woman’s out-of-wedlock birth – and strips it bare, relieving the story of artifice and banality so that it can be inserted culturally with an entirely different people. As a result, what you have is something that’s equal parts artistic though debatably more disturbing.
Whereas JUNO’s character flaws are encapsulated in the typical saccharin writing of Diablo Cody, WATCHTOWER’s flaws are more relatable. Nihat’s grief turns him to a world of forced isolation, and Seher’s angst leads her to make some unspeakable decisions. They’re both in flight away from a kind of personal tragedy – one which brings a child into the world – and it’s only when they find one another that they’re forced to make decisions in the best interest of themselves as well as the greater society behind their own little private Idaho … well, their own private little Turkey (the country where the picture is set).
Director Pelin Esmer has crafted a film with themes that should be universal, and it’s no wonder that this debut has scored some great acclaim from those who measure prominence. While the film’s pacing it understandably slow, I think it easily could’ve been trimmed a bit here and there in order to get that 100 minutes down to under 90 and nothing would’ve been sacrificed. If anything, it’d be in a condition better for American audiences. That, and, were I a betting man, some studio suit would’ve asked for a more conclusive ending; WATCHTOWER kinda/sorta just ends … which is a good thing if you were sponsoring a Q&A right after. But as a film with a message? I would’ve liked to see some final moment of acceptance from these two gifted players.
Maybe that’s what makes me an American.
Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties if I failed to point out that WATCHTOWER received five awards from the Adana Golden Roll Film Festival, including Best Director for Esmer’s work. At the 2013 Fribourg International Film Festival, the film won Don Quixote Award (Special Mention) and Ecumenical Jury Award (Special Mention) as well as being nominated for the Grand Prix. At the 2013 Goteberg Film Festival, dir. Esmer received a nomination for the International Debut Award. At the 2013 Nuremberg Film Festival, Ms. Erdonmez took home Best Actress honors while the film scored a nomination for Best Picture. Lastly, at the 2013 Rotterdam Film Festival, dir. Esmer picked up a nomination for the Tiger Award.
WATCHTOWER  is produced by Sinefilm, Bredok Filmproduction, and Arizona Films. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Film Movement (a distributor with a terrific catalog). For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Turkish-spoken-language film with English subtitles; there is no English-dubbed track available (thank the Heavens!). As for the technical specifications, the film boasts some high quality sights and sounds from start-to-finish, and there’s even some surprisingly lush cinematography coopting from some largely passable locales and shooting locations. If it’s special features you’re looking for, there is a bonus short film (“The Foreigner” by dir. Alethea Avramis), as well as some liner notes reviewing the film’s selection as part of Film Movement’s releases and excerpts from an interview with dir. Esmer.
RECOMMENDED. Pelin Esmer’s WATCHTOWER is a bit of a puzzle, which honestly amounts to most of its charm. It’s a romance, but there’s very little romantic about it. It’s a performance piece highlighting some terrific work from its principles, but there’s very little pomp and circumstance on the surface as what’s conveyed emotionally here is far more by nuance than by grandstanding acting. Albeit a bit long, WATCHTOWER is best with its quiet moments – of which there are many – and, when are two leads finally come together, it sacrifices its silence in favor of a brewing storm – literally and figuratively – that is the human experience. A pleasant surprise, but it serves an ending that’s far more obtuse than it needed to be.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Movement provided me with a DVD copy of WATCHTOWER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more