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Social Suffocation in 'Burning Days'

The past few years have seen Turkish cinema flourish in an unprecedented boom, matching production quality with films from regions with much higher budgets. This phenomenon extends across various genres, but I am particularly enthusiastic about the convergence of thriller and drama. Filmmakers like Emin Alper have skillfully merged captivating storytelling with a compelling artistic vision, offering relevant social commentary all the while. Such can be seen with his latest project, Burning Days.

The story revolves around Emre, a newly minted prosecutor appointed to the small town of Yaniklar, a rural town plagued by intense heat, vice, and corruption. With local elections approaching, the established powers have little interest in taking action against these issues or investigating anything at all. Huge sinkholes are mysteriously appearing in the ground, potentially caused by interference with natural processes, but powerful interests want to keep any discovery hidden. Emre is invited to dinner at the home of the region's local president and, to avoid seeming arrogant, he accepts. During the dinner, the president leaves to attend to an urgent matter, after which things spiral out of control when his son brings out copious amounts of alcohol.


The next day, a Roma girl – who Emre saw dancing with the president's son the night before – claims to have been raped. However, there's a significant problem: Emre has no memory of that evening. He blacked out and woke up in a completely different place with a local journalist named Murat. Emre and Murat grow closer, forming a relationship marked by both camaraderie and manipulation, with an underlying homoerotic element that never fully materializes. Or does it?

Emin Alper delves deep into the divisive issues of contemporary Turkish society, leaving much to the viewer's interpretation. The destructive effects of political corruption stand out as one of the film's most prominent themes, and Alper emphasizes that it can permeate anyone, even those who initially arrive with good intentions. The portrayal of homosexuality, a divisive topic in Turkish society that’s exploited by its more religious factions, is fascinating because the film artfully depicts a homosexual relationship through subtext, suggestive imagery, and a keen focus on the characters' attitudes and reactions towards each other, without ever explicitly showing it to the audience.


The director also highlights the homophobic response from characters who use it as a weapon; several individuals blackmail Emre and implicitly threaten to expose what they believe him to be. Furthermore, the film sheds light on racism and discrimination against intellectually disabled individuals, with several references to voiceless victims subject to mistreatment without their crimes ever being investigated or their culprits brought to justice. It becomes evident that the police's primary function is to turn a blind eye and pretend that nothing happened.

The cinematography of Burning Days is likewise impressive. The landscapes and natural elements are breathtaking, and Alper incorporates them with purpose. The director's adept use of slow camera movements, coupled with strategic angles and an unsettling score, artfully weaves suspense throughout the film, both in wide shots and enclosed spaces, prompting my desire to see Alper exploring the horror genre someday.


The incorporation of local customs in the film is done organically and with great vitality, like in the initial chase scene and the celebrations during election night. It leaves us wanting to explore more of this world while also displaying ambivalence about its existence in the present day, questioning whether all time-honored traditions should persist. Ambivalence and gray areas are deftly explored throughout the film, not just due to the ambiguity surrounding the occurrence of the crime – we are presented with only fragments of the event – but also in its portrayal of uncertain attitudes, such as the characters' hesitancy in accepting the invitation to the dinner, which contributes to a suffocating atmosphere fitting for the region's climate.

In the end, as in the beginning, there is a chase through the streets. Both instances demonstrate a kind of boorishness, embodying an obsessive mob mentality that can lead to dangerous and deadly collateral damage. In both cases, the population behaves this way because they believe they have the right to defend what is theirs, closing ranks and finding comfort in an "us vs. them" mentality. After all, the system must be maintained and perpetuated. The massive sinkhole seen in the opening scene is shown to us again, becoming particularly significant in the context of the film’s final events. Beyond its causes, natural or not, this enormous hole impresses with its sheer size. This vast chasm symbolizes our society — the gulf that separates those who seek progress from those who cling to the past. We are on one side and they are on the other, and the gap seemingly keeps widening.


-Pedro

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