Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The closer this film gets to documentary, the better it becomes."

Although Zer is a fiction feature, director Kazim Öz has his roots in documentary filmmaking and it shows, as the closer this film gets to documentary, the better it becomes. The story begins in New York, where Jan (Nik Xhelilaj, good at broody looks, less hot at dialogue), the son of Turkish emigres, is studying music and mooning after lost love in a way that is borderline stalking. It's a relief then, when the film turns out not to be about that relationship at all, but about the connection he forges with his grandmother (Güler Ökten), who arrives in the city for a cancer operation.

Although reluctant to visit her, at first, he quickly falls for her gentle humour and interested in the tales from 'the old country' that she has to tell. It is a love song she sings in Kurdish, however, that most thrills him and he also finds himself intrigued by her recurring nightmare, in which she tells him the story of a village massacre witnessed by two little girls.

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It comes as no surprise that gran doesn't make it too far into the film, and, when Jan goes with his family to bury her back in Turkey, he starts to question what he knows about family history. It is at this point that Öz's film kicks up a gear, as we join Jan on a road trip through the remote landscapes of Turkey, in search of the song of lost love he heard her sing. The structure becomes looser and less formulaic, as his chance encounters bring with them generous hospitality and a string of traditional stories as well as more of the love song he is seeking.

Öz weaves things together well, particularly in terms of balancing both the positive heritage that Jan learns about alongside the darker history of Dersim rebellion and massacre, a stain on history that the director suggests many just want to pretend never happened. He also conjures a good sense of place and of traditions practised in this more remote areas, with both a funeral and wedding featuring. And he finds space in the story to nod to some of the problems in the modern era - in particular, that many young people have moved away and cannot come back.

The director is less successful in terms of his imagery. While the old walnuts that Jan carries in his pocket and clacks together take on a decent significance, he often uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut, such as when, right after being told a story of a seagull with a frozen foot - a similar tale to the traditional English fairy tale The Old Woman And Her Pig - Jan immediately sees a one-legged gull. There are also some things that don't make much sense, such as when he finally gets to share some time with a young village girl he has been making eyes at and, instead of speaking to her, unaccountably falls asleep.

Towards the end of the film, the documentary element is once-again ditched in favour of a neat tie up that would be better left as loose ends - especially since it features weak special effects that serve to push you out of the narrative rather than draw you to it.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2017
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A young man seeks the story behind his gran's sad song.

Director: Kazim Öz

Writer: Kazim Öz

Starring: Ahmet Aslan, Haleigh Ciel, Füsun Demirel, Tomris Incer, José Ramón Rosario, Teresa Anne Volgenau, Nik Xhelilaj, Bülent Çolak, Güler Ökten, Levent Özdilek

Year: 2017

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: US, Germany, Turkey


EIFF 2017

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