Political thrillers, often acting as a reflection of the sinister socio-political cataclysm festering beneath the nation’s surface, provide a candid and unconcealed view of the machinations and cynicism of contemporary political leadership. These films stimulate the feeling that a mere individual has the power and command to make a difference and find them navigating through the trappings of corruption, scandal, lies, double-dealing, moral compromises and mismanagement of justice. Such films, which offer universal insight into the corrupt forces of power and governing bodies of a country’s power apparatus, showcase political conflicts, investigative plots, historically grounded adversaries, and a definitive connection to the socio-political history. Caught up in this bleak, unbalanced and existential crisis, the protagonist is plagued by the weight of anxiety and paranoia and realises too late that their actions have far-reaching consequences.
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Turkish director Emin Alper’s incendiary Burning Days is a searing and slow-burn neo-noir political thriller that echoes the political conflicts of the country’s power apparatus and adeptly tackles and critiques the political manipulation, neo-populist ideology, traditionalism, environmental degradation, misogyny and quite surprisingly the mounting homophobia. The tense and derisive Un Certain Regard selection is set in the parched and sweltering small-town named Yaniklar where the calamitous outbreak of sinkholes is gradually making its appearance due to the overconsumption of groundwater. Into this deserted, water-scarce and patriarchal rural Turkey arrives the city slicker Emre (Selahattin Paşali), a young, ambitious and conscientious prosecutor after his predecessor left under suspicious circumstances.
The opening shot of the film is reminiscent of the neo-Western genre, in which we see the newly-posted Emre alongside the local judge Zeynep (Selin Yeninci), standing near the lip of a massive sinkhole and gazing into the ruinous and gaping crater in the backdrop of the drought-ridden landscape of the village outskirts. It is followed by a violet daylight wild boar hunt through the crowded streets of the town complemented by reckless gunfires indicating and foreshadowing the manhunt that is about to ensue. The prominent members of the dehydrated community yearning for the allegiance of Emre meet him openly and discreetly – the mayor’s immoral and wicked son Sahin (Erol Babaoglu) and his dentist sycophantic sidekick Kemal (Erdem Şenocak) with whom Emre gets off on the wrong foot, expressing his discontent for the boar shoots and Murat (Ekin Koc), the handsome editor of the opposition local newspaper, with whom the sexual tension is so palpable and tangible, who also issues warning against the conservative and traditional elements like Sahin.
While investigating the cause of the enormous sinkholes, Emre is invited to dinner at the mayor’s house to forget past misunderstandings and differences where Sahin and his friend Kemal entertain him with a never-ending flow of Turkish raki. Their drunken bacchanal revelry descends into a hellish night of consequences and repercussions when the celebrations are set off with the arrival of a mentally impaired local Romany girl, Pekmez (Eylul Ersoz), who came to dance for the men. When Emre wakes up the next day with a memory blackout and hangover, he finds himself entangled in the violent rape of Pekmez and is ambiguous about whether he was complicit and embarks on a series of investigations that brings out revelations that shakes his very being.
Sliced into four parts namely, The Feast, Investigation, New Arrests, and The Elections, the film thematically delves into the unethical and corrupt practices undertaken by the powerful to control the water source for electoral advantage and competition. The heat-drenched landscape, decrepit buildings infested with rats, the anthropogenic sinkholes, and the village dwellers waiting in queue with water cans for the water tanker create an expansive world-building. The film constructs an uncanny, insecure atmosphere for the newcomer right from the beginning when he notices the pleasing attitude for political gains and for shutting eyes on the impending water trial that will have a serious backlash on the mayor and his associates.
The characterisation of Emre is full of contradictions as he emerges as big town hotshot dripping urbane disdain for the country bumpkins, but we also see his panic, helplessness and vulnerability beneath the facade of his cynical, domineering and contending self. The film offers a psychological insight into the character of Emre when he is afflicted with fractured memories and paranoia and finds it difficult to blur the lines between reality and dreams. We find him at times tendering as an unreliable and aloof self, untrusting and ambiguous, trying to avoid the fate of the previous official who was chewed and spit out for not being compliant. Selahattin Paşali gives a terrific performance as a character showing varied emotional states and leaves you absorbed till the very end.
This parable of sorts with subtle cinematic metaphors deserves appreciation for its blatant representation of modern-day homophobia in rural patriarchal societies. The gradually rising subtext of homoeroticism brings intrigue and suspense to the narrative. Alper downplays the queer attraction and relationship between Emre and Murat by keeping it to the bare minimum, showing a few stolen glances and a drunken dance session. The film refuses to adhere to the conventional standards of masculinism of the political-thriller genre and avoids the overwrought didactic approach and sensationalism, resulting in the thrilling and suspenseful climatic event.
Burning Days is, without doubt, the best film of Emin Alper to date (his previous venture A Tale of Three Sisters premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was also a standout) as he explores the minute intricacies and complexities in the socio-political atmosphere of Turkey. Alper delivers a sharp attack and condemnation against machismo, right-wing neo-populism and the tangible dangers of the unethical system and political forces. His directorial approach and loud criticism are clear and concise harmonised with cunning storytelling, a fulfilling screenplay and unnerving denouement. The mysteries of the fateful night revealed in bits and pieces with the help of Emre’s hazy and vague dream sequences keep you on the edge of your seat. The thumping and intimidating background score, suspenseful sound design and power dynamics of the characters make it special. There are evident influences from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and utilises several tropes and conventions of political thriller/mystery.
Alper’s brilliantly crafted nerve-racking narrative shines a light on the ill effects of political strongman societies, a characteristic aspect of contemporary Turkish culture. They indulge in brutish boar killings, heated rumours, raping marginalised and disabled women, moral policing and mob justice of same-sex relationships, and keep a corrupt system in place exploiting nature and the common folk. This film scrutinizes the need for modern values and progressive education to seize such misguided practices. The closing image, though open-ended resonates with the film’s meanings, emotional and political. The emblematic sweeping wide-angle shots in the film symbolise the extended spread of sinister insinuations within the political system and the craters suggest the downfall of such patriarchal societies in the near future. What makes it even more unique is how morality becomes blurry and ambiguous and how everyone is either corrupt or complicit to the lawlessness and criminality.