About Dry Grasses

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

About Dry Grasses
"It’s the multiple layers of mystery – which have less to do with actual events than with what different characters are thinking – which make the film compelling."

The general advice given to filmmakers, as to other kinds of creative artist, is to show, not tell. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, however, shows through the telling. About Dry Grasses is a film built largely out of conversations, but not every voice receives equal attention, and the different narratives they present cannot easily be reconciled, even over the course of three and a quarter hours.

Samet (Deniz Celiloglu) is a teacher working out his four year mandatory post-training placement in a remote Anatolian village before, he hopes, getting a transfer to the capital. Things go wrong for him when he is accused of inappropriate behaviour with two of his young female pupils. In the mess which follows, he struggles to rebuild his life, finding hope in a possible relationship with fellow teacher Nuray (Merve Dizdar) – but nothing here is quite what it seems, and Samet will ultimately be left wrestling with mysteries of his own making.

It’s the multiple layers of mystery – which have less to do with actual events than with what different characters are thinking – which make the film compelling and persuade viewers to stick around as Samet becomes increasingly uncomfortable company. Although he’s the character we follow, there’s an implication that what we’re seeing has been assembled from multiple people’s memories or accounts, as background objects move around within scenes depending on whose perspective we are taking, far too frequently and consistently to be accidental.

Samet himself pays less attention to his surroundings than perhaps he should. His gaze is latterly on Nuray, but before that, it is continually drawn to teenager Sevim (Ece Bagci), and it is to her that his thoughts keep returning, right up until the end of the film. Ceylan frames her in the style of the French New Wave, romanticising her innocence whilst imbuing her with a sensuality which could easily be interpreted in a problematic way. Early on, there’s an implication that she has a crush on Samet, but given the distortion of perspective elsewhere, we are left to wonder whether or not we should take this seriously. What is clear is that his obsession is deeply damaging to her, and whilst he might not be guilty of the things he is directly accused of, his behaviour towards her has been anything but innocent.

This manipulative aspect of Samet’s personality gradually becomes apparent in his treatment of other people, and in the way he understands himself. Unwilling to admit what he’s doing even to himself, he can’t understand why people begin to avoid him, and he consequently assigns motives and personality traits to them which are not borne out by the rest of what we see. It’s subtly done, however, and some viewers seem to have come away from the film thinking of Samet as a tragically misunderstood, ill-treated hero, which itself points to the need for further artistic treatment of these difficult issues. There is an element of tragedy in Samet’s isolation, but it is very much of his own making.

Such is the weight of Samet’s bruised ego that the characters around him are always being squeezed out, their narratives overridden – yet we see enough of them to recognise the difference between how they perceive one another and how Samet sees them. This is particularly complex in the case of Sevim, and Bagci gives a remarkable split performance, sometimes the dreamy-eyed coquette of his imagination, briefly a happy child whose focus is on the interactions between her friends, and later an unhappy girl, wiser than anyone that age should have to be, still unable to find a means whereby to fully articulate the wrongness of what has taken place.

A brave film which asks a lot of viewers, challenging us to examine our own assumptions as well as those of its characters, About Dry Grasses eschews sensationalism to focus on the commonplace exploitative and predatory behaviours which distort the fabric of day to day life in ways whose effects can be observed even when they’re difficult to pinpoint. It also takes the frequently sensationalised topic of dubious accusations and explores what might underlie such behaviour and what it might mean for those involved over the longer term. It’s a pertinent contribution to ongoing discourses around power and gender, and an impressive contribution to Ceylan’s catalogue.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2024
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A young teacher hopes to be appointed to Istanbul after mandatory duty at a small village. After long time waiting he loses all hope of escaping from this gloomy life. His colleague helps him to regain his perspective.

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Writer: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Akin Aksu

Starring: Merve Dizdar, Deniz Celiloglu, Musab Ekici

Year: 2023

Runtime: 197 minutes

Country: Turkey, France, Germany, Sweden


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