At its heart, Zayiat (Casualties) is a story about the search for meaning not only as a metaphorical quest but also as an exploration in structure. Director Deniz Tortum adopts the long, stoic shots favored by iconic directors Akira Kurosawa and Abbas Kiorastami as a visual vehicle for a tale that is at as universal as it is deeply Turkish. The rhythmic cinematography at the heart of Zayiat is deeply compelling, drawing us into a story that may or may not be all that interesting on its own. There’s a sort of hypnotics at work here that hints at the core idea of the story while still keeping that essential kernel of je ne sais quoi intact.
In more narrative terms, Zayiat is the story of a young man, Mete, who embarks on a lukewarm search for his missing father in the streets of Istanbul. The movie opens with a man falling into the Bosphorus Strait on a cold winter night. We know that he must have died, but we don’t know if this man is Mete’s father. As we are introduced to our young protagonist, we are struck almost immediately by his incessant cough. Like the tedium of winter in an Istanbul that seems more claustrophobic than draped in grandeur, his cough is suffocating. It stays with him throughout the movie and we are often left wondering what its origin might be. Like so many of the questions we will ask during Zayiat, we just won’t ever know the answer.
Mete continues his half-hearted search for his father throughout the film. We are treated to a view of Istanbul that we would likely not see as tourists wandering the streets. We’re also immersed in a family life and introduced to cultural expectations that drive the disappearance of Mete’s father while providing some sense of motivation for the film’s action. Still, there’s a sense in which Zayiat does not adhere to its story.
Yes, Mete is there looking for his father the whole time. But as we watch some of Tortum’s most sensitive and gorgeous shots, we get lost in them. We forget what we are looking for at all. There is the snow on the Bosphorous, there is an elevator next to a door behind which the answer is not standing. This general sense of becoming lost may frustrate some viewers who believe that cinema should be, foremost, about telling stories. For those who are interested in the visuals of inner and outer exploration, Zayiat will be much more intriguing.
Zayiat was shot in less than a month with no real budget to speak of. Yet it serves as an excellent reminder that the heart of film lies in engagement with emotion, something that is accomplished by skill and intent—not financing. Though it is not a perfect film, Tortum’s feature debut is certainly worth watching and considering. As we follow Mete through the streets of Istanbul, we see that structure and repetition dominate our lives no matter our attempts to evade them. Perhaps the only one who has escaped is Mete’s father; then again, can we ever know?
Look for Zayiat at festivals in the U.S. and Europe throughout the spring and summer.