February 05, 2009

The Edge of Heaven

The Edge of Heaven is nothing if not ambitious- it traces the careers of its characters through Germany and Turkey coming backwards and forwards. It traces their interraction with great issues like prostitution, Islamic Fundamentalism, Turkish entry to the European Union, immigration law and immigration. At its deepest though it is a film about immigration- the reasons that pull people away from their societies and the ways that they adapt within those societies. Basically the story involves three groups of a parent and a child. The first is Ali, a Turkish immigrant to Germany and his son Nejat. Ali recruits a prostitute, Yeter, to become his sexual and live in companion- but suspecting she is deceiving him with his son becomes violent. Yeter and her daughter, Ayten, a political activist in Turkey are estranged but are the second of our pairs. Nejat travels to Turkey to find Ayten- who has fled the state because of her politics to Europe where she meets the third of our pairs, Lotte (who becomes her girlfriend) and Lotte's mother, Susanne. The character's lives and deaths intersect from then on- though it is noticable that they never fully intersect (Nejat never finds out who Ayten is- though he meets her using an assumed name- Ayten never finds out what happened to her mother).

The film is successful in some terms. Nurgul Yesilcay as Ayten gives a wonderful performance, alternating between the erotic (with Lotte) and the rebellious (with Susanne) with beleivable alacrity. She is perhaps the best thing about the film. Tuncel Kurtiz is also good as the boorish Ali. But somehow the film as a whole did not work for me. Firstly the fault lies within the structure- because we only have a couple of minutes to identify with each character, it is hard to develop an idea of depth. I had difficulty in understanding these people and their motivations- added to that there is a very realistic style of film making which comes though with an unrealistic attitude to motivation. So for example Lotte picks up Ayten literally off the street and houses her in side her house- Ali does the same with Yeter the prostitute- and yet neither even begin to worry about housing someone with whom they have no relations, no history and of whom they have no knowledge. Realism requires some acknowledgement of why that situation does not happen often and if your visual style is going to be unfailingly realistic, then you at least have to justify why your storyline is not- something the film never really does.

The second problem I had with the film was more fundamental and was about the point it was seeking to make. The film is compassionate- the life of the immigrant is not shown as easy and one of the best bits about it is how it demonstrates that there are both 'push' factors (Ayten's political problems) and pull factors to return (Nejat ends up owning a bookshop in Istanbul because he wants to live in Turkey, his father Ali cannot stop talking about Trebizond). But there is an overhanging simplicity about it all: if only, I seem to hear the film saying, we could all get along then bad things would not happen: Ayten would not get arrested, Yeter would not have to be a prostitute. One particular moment I disliked was when Ayten and Susanne argue about the European Union: yes Ayten is right that Europe in Turkey's case may offer no change, but Susanne is given no arguments in return- she is left looking stonily impotent whereas Ayten has all the power in the scene. We never hear about inconvenient details too: what exactly was Ayten's political cause and what did her 'fight' involve, what does Nejat's university make of the fact that suddenly in the middle of the term he vanishes and goes to Istanbul and buys a bookshop, seemingly without resigning.

The film seems to have been made from the perspective of the children in the pairs of characters above and not the parents. All three parental characters are less well developed than the children- Yeter is the only purely 'good' parental character and she is shown as having more sympathy with the young than either of the other two (until the end of the film). The film ends by implying in two cases- Nejat and Ali's and Ayten and Susanne's a movement towards unity between the child and parent: and yet all the way throughout for me, the child's view of the relationship was more understood and more explained. Ali for example spends the majority of the film offstage in fairly hideous circumstances, but we are never told what he thinks of them or of his son's temporary desertion. Furthermore the script seems to manipulate us into seeing these parents as particularly evil- from incomprehension and neglect to far worse things, they behave in the worst way possible. Given the film has pretensions to political metaphor, I found that single identification with the view of the young and manipulation towards seeing the world through the eyes of the child, concerning. When parents and children quarrel, it is not always the parent that is wrong- nor the child- yet in this film when that happens, the child is always shown to be in the right (either actually or spiritually).

Both cinematagraphically and storywise, I found that I admired the ambitions of Fatih Akin, the director, but could not find it within myself to see the film as a success. Too much was left out- why does Lotte trust Ayten? Why does Yeter trust Ali when she moves in with him? It did not seem clear to me and those kind of questions worried me throughout the film: I like nothing worse than the kind of viewer who cannot suspend disbelief, but sometimes (especially when the film makes claims to realism through its visual style) it is hard to suspend disbelief. This kind of concern married for me to a similar concern about the movie's message- I kept wanting to know what had been left out of the picture that might make me less sympathetic to the line that the film was steering. And particularly in some scenes, the camera seemed to have a naive politics that I saw as unrealistic- ultimately I don't beleive that all Germans are receptive to Turkish immigration, that all prostitutes have hearts of gold and would be safe to leave alone with your valuables, that all Turkish political activists are basically western liberals and that if you opened your door to a tramp, they would instantly fall in love with you and you with them and everyone would be happy ever after.

Perhaps that reflects my failure to comprehend the possibilities of the modern world- perhaps it reflects my Hobbesian scepticism about human nature- but it made this film difficult for me personally to enter into.