This Land is Our Land: Vatansever Presents Caustic Portrait of Urban Gentrification
Politically and economically motivated displacement is at the heart of Turkish director Ali Vatansever’s sophomore feature Saf (which means ‘pure’ in Turkish), a topical and affecting portrait of the contemptuous issues at the root of the euphemistically termed urban renewal in Istanbul. Of course, there’s certainly a troubling universality to this woeful tale of the trickle-down effect of corporate greed even as it directly addresses virulent attitudes towards immigrants in contemporary Turkey. Much like Ziad Doueiri’s recent The Insult, which focuses on a bitter emotional exchange between a Palestinian refugee and a Lebanese Christian, Vatansever hinges his melodrama on a tragic face-off between two culturally opposed, economically compromised men, the result of which has a detrimental ripple effect on their loved ones.
Twenty-eight-year-old Kamil (Erol Asfin) has been suffering the weight of the world, having been unemployed for some time. Unable to properly support his wife Ramziye (Saadet Isil Aksoy), he reluctantly begins to search for work, despite significant embarrassment and shame in having to work on high-rises going up in his native Fikirtepe neighborhood, where all his friends used to live but have since been displaced. Secretly, he takes a job as an overnight bulldozer operator, accepting the same reduced wage offered to a Syrian refugee he immediately replaces. With his fellow Turkish colleagues resenting him for taking the lower pay, the man he left without a job often appears unannounced, aggressively demanding he get his job back. Kamil reaches a breaking point when he is forced to pay for a license documenting his abilities to drive the bulldozer. Unable to afford to get the license, he becomes worried the Syrian will reclaim his job and therefore, compromise his livelihood.
Had Laurent Cantet ever gotten around to the specificities of gentrification, it might play out something like Saf, which is reminiscent of the Frenchman’s titles like Human Resources (1999) and Time Out (2000), both playing like corporate minded predecessors of the human interest focus here.
Although Vatansever prizes the perspective of Kamal during the film’s first half, our infrequent glimpses of the Syrian refugee who he displaces on the job ends up being as equally potent. Often showing up to cause a scene in the work yard as an ill-conceived ploy to get his job back, Vatansever allows us to see his desperation, squatting on a nearby construction site with his family.
His actions recall the lead character of Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka (2018), a Kazakh refugee in Russia whose pregnancy precludes her from a hard-won blue-collar job. Eventually, Remziye becomes wrapped up in the significant collateral damage of Kamal’s actions, and Vatansever brings us bluntly into more despairing realities. Bleak without falling into a pit of miserabilism, and meaningful without being preachy, Saf should be classified as a moral fable of our times and yet there’s nothing fablelike about it.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Programme. 102 Mins.