As I have oft written, 'I have a little list' (as the Mikado's Executioner would have it), except my ever-growing list is of films that I would like to see, or to be 'knocked off' to continue the analogy.. Not, you will note, films that I would necessarily enjoy seeing, but rather movies that my researches tell me are part of my never-ending education, that I am duty-bound to watch given the opportunity. Enter "Yol" as a case in point.
Winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes, nominated for a foreign language academy award, and a fixture of Sight and Sound's 10-best lists, it is definitely a movie that I had to view and definitely a movie that I confess I did not enjoy watching. The backstory of the film itself is perhaps rather more fascinating than the actual film. Written in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d'état in Turkey by Yilmaz Guney, it was also 'directed' by him despite the fact that he was in prison at the time. It was actually directed by his assistant on Guney's detailed written instructions. Guney escaped from jail, fled with the negatives to Switzerland, edited the film in Paris, and returned to his Swiss haven from which the final product was submitted to Cannes. The movie was banned in his native Turkey until 1999, not so much for its content (although it is critically strong of the country's regime and ethos), but because Guney himself was persona non grata.
'Yol' translates as 'the road' or 'the way' and the film follows the stories of five long-term prisoners who have been granted seven days' leave to visit their families, with dire threats of their sorry fates if they misbehave or fail to return in time. The picture intercuts among them and it was not always immediately clear which story we were following as the heavily-moustached protagonists all looked remarkably similar. Two of the tales were less detailed. The first involved a young husband who lost his identity papers and was thrown into another clink for the duration; the second was some jumble about Kurdish freedom fighters where our protagonist was forced to take on the responsibility of the wife and children of his slain brother. The other three tales were a bit more complex:
A man goes back to his family to visit his son and the wife who swore that she would wait for him. He finds that they have been thrown out because of her 'immorality' which brought huge shame on them all. He is urged to find and kill her to restore the family's honour. He treks over a snow-bound waste to find her in the home of other relatives and to discover that she has been chained up in an outbuilding for some eight months, been given only bread and water for nourishment, and forbidden from bathing or dealing with her other bodily functions. They have been waiting for him to appear and do what is expected of him. Even their son describes her as 'filthy'. He compassionately lets her bathe, comb her hair, and change her clothes, before forcing her back over the frozen wasteland (past the carcass of the dead horse that he shot on the way there), where she conveniently freezes to death -- saving him the bother of having to kill her himself. That description is my being a little flip, since he does try to carry her along and to stop her falling asleep. As he trudges through the snow with the woman on his back, he instructs his son to keep thrashing her to keep her awake -- one of the film's few memorable images.
In another story a man goes to find his wife and children but is snubbed by her family who consider him responsible for the death of their son during a botched robbery. In fact he did in cowardice leave the boy to be shot by the police, although he had previously denied this. His wife is horrified by his admission, but later on does in fact go off with him. On a train they enter a lavatory to finally rekindle their marital passion, but are spotted by the other passengers who are appalled by this display of lust, jeering and threatening to lynch them for their blatant 'immorality'. The pleas of their children provide a temporary escape, until a young relative of the woman's family comes along and kills them both! More misplaced honour!
The final story is rather lighter. A man goes back to his family and is attracted to a young woman whom he wants to be his wife, if and when he is released from jail. Their courtship is one of his telling her all of the dutiful things he will expect from her as a wife, while the pair are continually chaperoned by a nosy pair of black-garbed old biddies, a constant audience of noisy crows. Before returning to jail what he needs most is a visit to the local whorehouse.
All of these stories focus on the repression of life in Turkey at the time. It would seem as if people were forced to live by the prejudices of others, whether it is jailors over prisoners, soldiers over civilians, fathers over sons and daughters, husbands over wives, or the moral preoccupations of the mob. This is the message that Guney's film leaves with us. I genuinely think that some award-winning movies gain their plaudits by allowing us to witness a slice of life that the powers that be would rather we never saw. All very worthy I'm sure, but that's not entertainment!