Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Since the events of 9/11 there has not only been a rise in the number of young people turning to religious extremism, but a concomitant rise in the number of books and films attempting to unravel their psychology. Most of these fail in the same way - they're written by Westerners with little personal experience either of Islam or of the cultural environments in which it is flourishing today. One such environment is Turkey, the only country in the world where religion is growing in popularity faster than it is in America, and this Turkish film does a good job of telling the familiar story from the point of view of people who can actually relate to it.

This isn't to say that the film endorses terrorism, or widely accepted fundamentalist Islamic practices - far from it - but it does acknowledge that they stem from political views and cultural attitudes which, in themselves, seem quite reasonable. Naturally, a lot of Muslims are angry at what they see happening in Palestine. Naturally, young people want to take action. These feelings stem from the desire to do good. The problem comes, Girdap suggests, when our internal struggle for goodness (the traditional meaning of 'jihad') is exploited by other people with their own agendas, people whom, if we listen uncritically to them, can lead us astray.

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Another mistake frequently made about terrorists is that they're of sub-normal intelligence and come from strongly religious backgrounds. In fact, research suggests the opposite is true. The heroes of this film are university students. Umut (Ozan Bilen) doesn't believe in God and his girlfriend has to dissuade him from shouting at religious proselytisers in the street. Like most young men in the West, he likes clubbing and fast food and has a happy-go-lucky approach to life.

What changes it all is a seemingly trivial, ridiculous thing. Strange events in their shared flat convince Umut and his friends that it must be haunted. In another context they would have been laughed at and teased about it, but in Turkey the accepted solution is to go and see a holy man. It just so happens that the one they choose has an interest in them that goes beyond their immediate plight. Initially there are small gestures they're too polite to refuse. Come for dinner, he says. Come and attend a public event. Self-assured and charismatic without being showy (Fuat Saka is perfect for the part) he gradually eases himself into the centre of their world. Once he falls for the holy man's line, Umut has the passion of a new convert without any of the seasoned religious person's awareness of moral complexity.

Alongside this, we see the stories of the other students and of Umut's girlfriend and father, both relegated to the sidelines, unable to reach him. His relationship with the former shows us the side of Turkey which blends seamlessly with its neighbours in Europe; his relationship with the latter shows us the old Turkish culture, still strong, where respect for one's elders is vitally important. In this context, fundamentalism is a new thing, tipping the balance between East and West which has been carefully preserved in this city for centuries.

Although it suffers from a sometimes clumsy script and an intrusive soundtrack, this is an emotionally intelligent film with more to say for itself than is at first apparent. It's particularly effective because it doesn't present Umut as somebody who is becoming a monster and must be stopped before he hurts other people, but as somebody who is losing his way and should be helped before he loses his own soul.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2009
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A group of new university students in Istanbul are gradually radicalised, with tragic consequences.
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Director: Talip Karamahmutoglu

Writer: Onur Aydin, Talip Karamahmutoglu

Starring: Rahman Altin, Ufuk Bayraktar, Ozan Bilen, Emre Canpolat, Ibrahim Iris, Eda Özerkan, Fuat Saka

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Turkey


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