Brother’s Keeper, one of the best films of the Berlinale, follows a young boy trying to help his sick friend in a brutal Turkish boarding school.
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During the opening scene of Brother’s Keeper, I wondered, am I watching a dystopian film? A windowless shower room, filled with pre-teen boys stripped down to their underclothes, offers no clue of period or setting. However, the way the boys are treated seems alien to basic ideas about how we should treat children. In fact, Brother’s Keeper isn’t set in the future or the past. This is modern day Eastern Anatolia, Turkey, and inspired by writer-director Ferit Karahan’s own childhood experiences at a boarding school for Kurdish boys. In the press notes, Karahan explains, “The number of boarding schools exceeds thousands, especially in regions where Kurds are densely populated. I studied at a boarding school in the early 1990s. When I started looking for locations, I realized that nothing had changed except the small details.”
This boarding school seems more like a prison camp, both in its design and in how the teachers discipline their students. The rooms themselves are purely functional, devoid of character and warmth, and not particularly well kept. Dozens of children shower together in cramped spaces, deprived of privacy. The kind of boisteriousness that is inherent to pre-teen boys is not tolerated: in the opening scene, a group of boys playfight as they shower, and they’re caught in the act by a teacher, who roughly scolds them and demands they bathe with cold water for the rest of shower time. Watched over by the bath prefect, who’s barely older than themselves, the young boys shiver in the icy water — made all the worse by the fact that it’s -35°C and snowing outside. Among them is Memo (Nurullah Alaca), a small and skinny boy whose body isn’t built for harsh conditions.
Brother’s Keeper primarily follows Yusuf (Samet Yildiz), Memo’s best friend, whose nurturing affection for Memo sticks out as strange in the dog-eat-dog world of the boarding school. This is communicated wordlessly after the shower scene, when Yusuf takes off his towel and places it on Memo’s shoulders, so that Memo can have two towels to keep him warm. It’s a gesture that goes against everything we see the adults teach the kids in the film: fear your superiors, and inflict violence on others to achieve power. Even the bath prefect indulges in this same behaviour, eager to make sure the boys are carrying forth their punishment if it means that he can avoid being punished. But perhaps because they’re already at the bottom of the pecking order, and because they have each other to cling to, Yusuf and Memo haven’t yet lost their compassion.
The apathy of the adults in charge is fully apparent when Memo falls ill the day after his cold shower. In the morning, Memo is still conscious, but he’s pale, coughing, and unable to get out of bed. Panicked by his friend’s condition, Yusuf tries to get an adult to help, but they’re disinterested, telling Yusuf to bring Memo to the sick room and offering no further assistance. Yusuf must lug Memo through the snow to the sick room, hoisting him up by the arm, even though Yusuf is barely bigger than the boy whose weight he’s supporting.
Not only are the adults apathetic, but the architecture and furnishings of the school itself is not set up with the boys’ safety in mind. The sick room isn’t even part of the school building — it’s a tiny room that sits on the edge of the grounds — making it seem like an afterthought. This also means that a sick child must traverse the grounds — which are freezing cold and snowed over most of the year — to get help, possibly making them even sicker. The room is so underused that its lock is frozen shut, and a prefect must carry over a kettle of boiling water and pour it on the lock in order to grant entry. Inside, it’s bare: an uncomfortable bed, an almost-empty cupboard holding a lone packet of aspirin, and not much else. What’s more, there are bars on the window, which implies this room is used more to trap and punish misbehaving boys than it is to treat sick ones. In a blackly comic touch, almost every time a character enters the sick room, they slip on a patch of melted snow on the doorstep; the sick room is more dangerous than it is healing.
When Memo falls fully unconscious, and the adults finally take his condition seriously, their confused and fumbling reactions suggest that they have no training to deal with a sick child. After a number of failed attempts — such as when the principal is about to listen to Yusuf’s pleas, but then get distracted by the opportunity to discipline some boys who are fighting nearby — Yusuf manages to gather a group of adults in the sick room. Snowed in in the rural mountains, and miles from the nearest hospital, they are unable to get their cars to start and can’t find anyone nearby who’s able to give Memo a lift. An ambulance is called, but nobody knows how long it will take to get there — and Memo seems to be at death’s door. Despite the school’s remote location and poor weather conditions, there is no protocol in place to mitigate any health risks that might entail for the boys. Meanwhile, nobody seems to have any first aid training; each teacher individually comments on the odd fact that Memo doesn’t have a fever, but doesn’t wonder any further about why that’s concerning or what they should do about it.
Throughout the narrative, the teachers encounter a series of obstacles that wouldn’t exist if they had pre-planned infrastructure, budget, and protocol to keep the boys safe and well. There are very few members of staff at the school, beyond the teachers themselves, and the little staff they do have is overworked. Crucially, there is no medic. It seems the person in charge of the sick room is a young prefect who knows little more about first aid than any of the other students. Despite the ever presence of snow in the region, the school never bothered to purchase a vehicle that could travel through deep snow. Karahan even includes a scene of the principal’s car being repaired, where the repair guy suggests he buy snow tires. He tells the principal that he can illicitly claim them from the school’s budget under the guise that he could use them to transport a child. It’s one of the only scenes where an adult considers putting infrastructure in place to protect the children’s safety, and yet it’s for selfish reasons.
The more critical Memo’s condition becomes, the more the adults make a show of how much they care, gathering in large numbers in the sick room and trying to keep him well — but it’s too little too late, and ultimately ineffective. They rush to get Memo the school’s best sheets to lie on, and they’re suddenly willing to provide him as much food as he needs, even though food is strictly rationed for the other boys. But these gestures of goodwill can’t undo past mistakes. As the film barrels on, the true reasons behind Memo’s condition unravel. It becomes clear that none of this would have happened if the principal had listened to health and safety advice months ago. It never would have happened if the boys were allowed to shower more than once a week. And it never would have happened if the school hadn’t cultivated a culture of silence, in which the boys are terrified to speak up when a problem arises.
What’s more, the teachers’ sudden concern over Memo is transparently selfish: they’re mostly just interested in covering their asses, and thus, they spend most of their time in the sick room trying to work out who’s to blame, rather than checking on Memo.. They only really start to show concern when they find out that Memo’s condition may be a result of his cold shower the day before, which would make the teacher on duty liable. It’s horrifying to watch a group of grown men bicker about whom to blame while they’re standing right next to the ashen Memo, who is unattended, save for Yusuf and a young prefect. Eventually, the teachers decide to pass blame on to the bath prefect who enforced the cold shower punishment, prefering to penalise a literal child for doing what he was told rather than accept responsibility themselves.
The film’s harrowing conclusion hammers home the fact that there are multiple different levels of violence and apathy in this corrupt institution that could lead to a vulnerable boy like Memo being harmed. It’s not just the literal violence of a teacher making young boys shower in cold water, or the structural poor planning of placing a sick room in the snowy outdoors. It’s also the shame and fear that is struck into the boys each time they’re punished for acting like children, which creates a culture of silence. Speaking up is met with apathy or violence, so when it matters most, the boys stay silent, until it’s too late. As much as the incident with Memo undresses all the layers of dysfunction at the school, Karahan’s cyclical ending suggests that nothing will be learned, as the last scene takes place in the same place as the first: the shower room. With the teachers unable to accept blame for themselves, it is ultimately Yusuf, the only person who actually cared for Memo’s wellbeing, who is punished.
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