Religion is a controversial subject to discuss, no matter what era we live in. With extremists taking over the minds of majorities, it has become even more difficult to exercise the freedom to practice faith in one’s own choice. 12-year-old Ahmet (played by Doga Karakas) faces a similar conflict. Set in 1997 Turkey, Nehir Tuna’s ‘Dormitory’ (Yurt) follows Ahmet’s struggle between practicing the faith of his father’s choice and the one that a majority of the population believed in at the time. At the turbulent phase of early adolescence, he grapples with the pressures put upon him by people who think it’s their right to do so.
Ahmet’s recently converted religious father (played by Tansu Biçer) believes he should follow the same discipline. He trusts that the orthodox values can lead his child on the righteous path. That’s why he sends Ahmet to an Islamic dormitory, aka a Yurt so that Ahmet will learn morals that he swears by. While staying there, Ahmet attends a secular school, where religious conformity is perceived as a bad thing.
All of it happened at a time in history when there was a political polarisation in Turkey – when secular Turks became a prominent voice in their country. So, Ahmet has to deal with the rising tensions between them and the devout Muslims. He has to hide his religious side from his schoolmates and the rational voice from the yurt dwellers.
Ahmet’s only place of comfort is his friend Hakan (played by Can Bartu Aslan), who teaches him how to work the dormitory system. He guides Ahmet on being a ‘good Muslim’ based on what the seniors have taught him. An adult authority figure (played by Ozan Çelik) is placed in this dormitory to look after these kids and ensure they do not steer away from their teachings. To make the children comply, he ruthlessly uses measures without thinking of the emotional scars on their minds. For him, they are nothing but moulds he needs to shape according to the scriptures. So, questioning any of it was frowned upon. There is also an omnipresent danger of raids by soldiers on religious institutions such as theirs.
Amidst this, Ahmet oscillates between conflicting belief systems while questioning their rationality. His father uses him as a vessel to make his unresolved wishes come true. Even when he speaks with kindness, you sense the manipulative undertones beneath his pieces of advice. He also does not let Ahmet’s mother (played by Didem Ellialti) have a say in these matters, as she worries for her son’s mental well-being. The film explores Ahmet’s complicated relationship with this man, who is supposed to be someone he should trust without any qualms.
Besides showcasing the effects of such harmful influence, Dormitory also explores the aspect of class divide that creates another mode of separation. The script paints a delicate portrait of two innocent teens and their friendship, caught up in a world hell-bent on suppressing them. As a result, we witness a gut-wrenching account of loss of innocence that hits home more often than one can imagine.
The black-and-white look of Dormitory feels more of a mood-depicting choice than just to convey the depiction of the past. Devoid of colors, it manages to starkly portray the polarising nature of its time period. The direction turns this vital script into an emotionally charged and thematically potent drama. It creates a fine balance for a script that has moments touching a wide range of emotional spectrum. While one moment can make our blood boil, the second will show the purity of the heart where people exist without any fear.
For a film that is so overwhelmingly emotional, it is hard not to feel sentimental while talking about it. Every time Ahmet tries to break free from the shackles of oppressive forces, he is put down repeatedly. The dark, pessimistic outlook toward the way the world worked at the time rings true even after decades and centuries have passed by. In this soul-stirring film, Doga Karakas gives a magnificent performance while depicting Ahmet’s deeply internalized struggle. With Can Bartu Aslan’s wonderful supporting act, Dormitory hints at another mode of repression in a way that is subtle & fully realized.
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Dormitory (Yurt) was screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023.
Cast: Doga Karakas, Can Bartu Aslan, Ozan Selik, Tansu Bicer, and Didem Ellialti.
Directors & Writers: Tibor Banoczki, Sarolto Szabo
Director of Photography: Tibor Banoczki & Sarolto Szabo
Editor: Judit Czako