Ferit Karahan discusses writing and directing Brother’s Keeper, a nuanced and bleak film about Kurdish children living in fear at a Turkish boarding school. The film recently screened at the Berlinale.
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In Brother’s Keeper, eleven-year-old Kurdish boys are treated more like prisoners than students at an Eastern Anatolian boarding school. They’re not allowed to joke around and express themselves; instead, they are expected to remain emotionless. If they break the rules, cold showers and public shaming are common punishments. When a student really misbehaves, the school parades him in front of everyone and shaves a bald patch down the middle of his head. This reverse mohawk is akin to a scarlet letter: it lets everyone else in the community know who is persona non grata. In this environment where even innocent fun is outlawed, it’s no surprise that students are afraid to speak up when real problems arise. Everyone is so afraid of being reprimanded that preventable issues spiral out of control in the face of silence. Kids are afraid to be friendly with each other for fear of eventual betrayal.
One subtle challenger to this impersonal ordinance is Yusuf (Samet Yildiz). After his friend Memo (Nurullah Alaca) is forced to take a cold shower as retribution for misbehaviour, Yusuf wordlessly offers his own towel for extra warmth. Despite the school’s attempt to beat it out of him, Yusuf seems like a kind boy who is more than capable of empathy. When Memo wakes up the next morning and is unable to get out of bed, Yusuf knows that something is wrong. He escalates his concerns to the adults, who fail to take them seriously until circumstances grow dire. When they finally decide to help, their incompetence quickly becomes clear; instead of providing the teachers with training to actually care for the students, the school has cultivated a culture of denial and ignorance.
Based on his own childhood experiences, writer-director Ferit Karahan told me that it took more than a decade to get the script for Brother’s Keeper right. He needed distance from that period in his life before he could really figure out how to depict it on screen. With the help of co-writer Gülistan Acet (who happens to be Karahan’s wife), he eventually crafted a deceptively simple story that allows for nuance instead of abject villainisation. A lesser filmmaker would have portrayed the adults at the school as evil and worthy of scorn; Karahan understands that the situation is more complex. Especially under a system of oppression, there are many shades of grey that must be recognised; it’s never quite as simple as good versus evil. Keeping the plot bare bones allows for the film to take on a universal quality, serving as a wider metaphor for the issues that come with unchecked power.
I spoke with Karahan via Zoom right before his trip to Berlin for the Berlinale summer event, where Brother’s Keeper screened twice. We spoke about his path to becoming a filmmaker, the difficulties he faced when writing this story, and strategies for perfecting pacing. For anyone interested in reading more about the film, check out Orla Smith’s Berlinale review. This interview was conducted in English (my native language but not Karahan’s) and edited and condensed for clarity.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get into filmmaking? Did you always know that you wanted to write and direct?
Ferit Karahan: I was a teacher, an electrical engineer, at a university, but I was not happy [with] my job, so I decided to start making short movies. Before that, I tried to write a novel, but realised that I couldn’t do it. After my short movies [had some success], I was able to make my first feature, [The Fall from Heaven, 2014].
7R: What is the film funding situation like in Turkey? Was it hard for you to get money to make Brother’s Keeper?
Ferit Karahan: It was a little bit. I wrote the first draft of Brother’s Keeper in 2009, more than a decade ago. I [initially] got a small amount of funding for the writing, but when I applied for the production, they rejected it. I applied three separate times, and it was rejected each time, but I knew that I had to make this movie. There is funding [available from] the Turkish government, and it’s a really good fund, but sometimes, it’s hard to get when you are making a political movie. I did end up getting funding from Eurimages and the CNC Romanian Fund. Then, the Turkish fund [eventually] supported the movie.
7R: Was it helpful to have your wife, Gülistan Acet, as a co-writer? I have to imagine that writing the script wasn’t easy for you since the film is based on your own time spent in boarding school.
Ferit Karahan: Writing Brother’s Keeper was really hard. I had a very bad experience in boarding school. Revisiting the school in my mind was not something I enjoyed. I felt a lot of hate toward the school and teachers. Gülistan helped me [express] these feelings by coming at the story in a very realistic way instead of making the characters [one-dimensional]. I don’t believe that the characters are just good or bad; everybody has a mix of both [qualities]. So yes, it was really helpful to write the script with Gülistan. We’ve been married for eleven years and have a child together. She’s also a director, but we both know our place in our professional relationship. It’s very collaborative.
7R: How did you determine the film’s structure?
Ferit Karahan: After writing the first draft in 2009 and deciding that it wasn’t for me, Gülistan and I tried writing another one in 2014. I wasn’t happy with that, either, because I couldn’t put distance between myself and the story. Gülistan tried writing one draft by herself, which was definitely the best attempt at that time, but I also didn’t like it. At the time, there was a lot of conflict and violence for the Kurdish people, but the political climate immediately changed in Turkey after the coup attempt in 2015.
When that happened, I suddenly experienced a lot of the same feelings that I had when I was in boarding school. One night, [Gülistan and I] spoke about the story when we were cooking something in the kitchen and the [structure of] the movie became clear to me. We talked for like two hours about how, under the pernicious atmosphere, lying became a sort of resistance for these people. We wrote the final version of the script in just seven days and didn’t end up changing anything while shooting.
7R: Through Yusuf, you see how the boarding school environment makes kids afraid to tell the truth. That type of education breeds incompetent adults who are always in denial, much like the teachers. It feels very cyclical in a way. Do you see any positivity in the film’s ending, or is Yusuf doomed to internalise the school’s teachings?
Ferit Karahan: I don’t see Yusuf’s story ending in a positive way. It goes along with what I mentioned about lying as a form of resistance. Under the pressure of that atmosphere, resistance could also be fighting, swearing, things like that. Good and bad become sort of [indistinguishable]. Everyone just wants to save their own asses. At the end of the film, the question isn’t so much about whether Memo is dead or not; it’s more about how everyone reacts and tries to solve the problem.
7R: It’s definitely not a light film, but you do have some moments of repetitious dark comedy, like people slipping on the floor when they enter the sick room, or the adults flailing around in an attempt to find cell phone reception. Did you include these moments to help with the pacing?
Ferit Karahan: Based on my own six years in boarding school, I feel like I know what the students and the area are like. Everyone slipping on the water [in the sick room] is symbolic but also feels like something natural that would actually happen. My first intention was to never give any information to the audience. I hate that. In that way, my [approach] is opposite [to mainstream] American cinema.
There are three ways of using repetition. One way is very stupid; one is poetic; one is for comedy. I realised that I can use repetition to show how you kind of have to find humour [in the boarding school situation] to [detract from] the idea that you’re stuck somewhere without choice. And with film, I think it’s impossible to stick to just one genre if you want to represent the human soul. I don’t want the structure to be visible to everyone.
7R: One thing I noticed when watching the film is that all of the adult disciplinarians are men. Was this a conscious decision on your part? There is a female geography teacher at the school, but she’s not really involved in the film’s central conflict.
Ferit Karahan: The reason I wanted to write this script with Gülistan is because I didn’t want to make the movie just about the men, but critical of the men. There is one scene where a female teacher shows mercy [toward a student] by handing him a coat. With more women involved, I think there would have been a much different reaction to Memo’s illness, which I didn’t want.
7R: Something I wondered while watching is whether the boarding school is supposed to be religious. There’s a scene where the students recite (what I assume is) a prayer before eating.
Ferit Karahan: The sociology of the Turkish National movement created slogans like that. [It’s incorrect to say] that the system is now more religious, but from the beginning of the last century to now, nationalism and religion are very mixed. If you eat, you have to pray and give thanks to not just God, but the state. In my school, we said this same prayer every day before breakfast. It’s all part of trying to make children obedient. Obedience is very important, especially in boarding school, because it [ensures that] when children leave to go back home, they will be positioned to best serve [the state].
7R: The students in the film mostly speak Turkish, even though they’re all Kurdish. Is that common in boarding school?
Ferit Karahan: In state buildings, Kurdish people have to speak Turkish or no one will answer them. When [Yusuf] is upset and speaking with his mother on the phone, he uses Kurdish. Same with when he speaks to his friend. All other times, it’s Turkish.
7R: That seems like it would be very isolating — growing up speaking Kurdish and then not being able to ever really use it at school.
Ferit Karahan: When I was in boarding school, I forgot my mother language. When I went to university, I started to learn it again. Most people just stop using Kurdish after attending boarding school. Isolation is a method for assimilation.
7R: Were you at boarding school year-round, or were there breaks during the year where you got to go home?
Ferit Karahan: School was for half of the year. Life wasn’t great at my [family home], either. There was always work to be done. Kurdish families are so crowded. You can’t eat properly, and everyone is very poor. For a Kurdish boy, Turkish boarding school is like a spider web. If a fly gets stuck in the web, he has to leave his wings behind to get out. If he stays, he will become food for the spider. If we stay there, we become food for the state. If we leave, there’s no chance of education, and we have to lose our wings. You leave behind your character, language, and become very obedient.
7R: Are there any political ties or metaphors in the film that you feel a wider international audience might not pick up on?
Ferit Karahan: No, I don’t think so. I very intentionally designed the movie so that it would [work on a universal level]. The only thing I can think of is the movie’s original name, Okul Tıraşı, which translates in English to School Shave. This is a form of punishment [that you see in the movie] where the head is shaved down the middle. It doesn’t really have the same meaning [in English]. Brother’s Keeper is a deeper name with religious ties since it comes from the Bible.
7R: So the shaved head punishment is something that really happens in boarding school?
Ferit Karahan: Yes, of course. It happened to me, I think, three times over the course of my six years [at boarding school]. There’s a lot of shame [associated with it] because everyone knows that you’ve been punished. It’s not just at the school, but in the city and around your family. There is no way to hide it from anyone. When people see [the shaved stripe], they always ask what you did. Shaving the rest of your head is forbidden. You have to leave it as is and wait for it to grow out. It really [prolongs] the punishment.
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