“This country is such a strange place. You never know what’s going to happen.”
—Record shop owner, Arada
For many years, Turks have left their country for economic or political reasons. Turks became guest workers in Germany in the early 1960s; people fled the countryside for jobs and lives in the big cities, particularly Istanbul (population 1.5 million 40 years ago, now 17+ million). Intelligent, educated couples (not in love) marry to escape their families. Young people seek expats to marry to flee or partners to start businesses with in other countries. Many Turks believe that to fulfill their dreams they must leave the country. In 2017, 1 percent of the population (80 million) moves elsewhere.
In the 90s, a vibrant underground punk and hardcore music scene developed that director Mu Tunç witnessed firsthand, as his older brother Orkun was the drummer for the punk band Rashit. Their father had been a famous singer of Turkish classical music in the ‘70s whose career ended because of the military coup of September 12, 1980, which ended all forms of popular culture, including a rock music scene that had thrived throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In Tunç’s feature debut Arada, the father wants his son Ozan (a charismatic Burak Deniz) to get an education, to get a ‘real’ job, as he had to do after the 1980 coup. Tired of his son’s complaints and seeing no future for him as the leader singer of a punk rock band, the father warns him: “You will abandon so many things that you will get abandoned too.” Exceedingly well shot, Tunç’s film accurately portrays Istanbul as a city of contradictions—its beauty and its rust, its confusion and why it both attracts and repels its inhabitants. So many people in the film want to leave Turkey but don’t really know where they want to go or what they’ll do when they get there—as in real life.
It is Ozan’s 19th birthday. His good friend runs a music shop in an unappealing Istanbul neighborhood, Merter, filled with small-industries and apartments where they live. He tells Ozan that his birthday gift is a ticket for a cruise ship departing for California the following morning. Lost, aimless and not really sure of what he wants Ozan decides to take on this quest for an ever-elusive ticket that will enable him to escape Turkey to find greater opportunities abroad.
First, he meets his girlfriend, Lara (Büşra Develi, who in real life is in a couple with Deniz), in an amusement park. On a Ferris wheel, she points out a flock of birds in the sky. She thinks it’s beautiful. He doesn’t. “Don’t you fly away,” she says. Lara accompanies him on his journey, but he only lets her think that they are searching for “concert tickets,” as they embark on what turns out to be a nightmarish, hallucinatory trip through Istanbul at night. They pass ancient ruins, with Lara saying, “Ruins give Istanbul its soul.” But Ozan can only see the rust and the hurly-burly of the city, and he tells her, “The city makes me feel like a dead man.” On their search, they rush from one spot to another, an ever-worsening spiral towards the depths of hell, with the people becoming more unpleasant and unsavory.
They start with Deniz, a sax player who had been a part of the No Wave music scene in New York City in 1978, who tells them they have to find Emir. Emir isn’t at home, but we get to meet a daughter of Istanbul’s super rich—filled with bored indifference and completely pretentious, one of the film’s many loathsome characters that seem to populate the city and stymy Ozan’s escape. She says (in English—the preferred language of the spawn of the country’s super rich), “Turkey is so belly dancing, mustaches, and tea.” Her companion asks her to speak in Turkish. She tells him she can’t express herself in Turkish (after all, she studied art in London) and doesn’t like Turkish art. He tells her that Istanbul now has the Biennial. But she is dismissive: “All the artists are imports. Even the curators are foreigners.” Ozan and Lara finally find the sleazy Emir, who after trying to pick up Lara, tells them they he gave the ticket to Resul who they’ll have to find in Aksaray at a hookah café. Meaning a trip to sleazeville in mafia land.
After the vile Resul demands payment for the ticket, Ozan and Lara grab it and run, with Resul and his lackeys in pursuit. The chase consists of a series of quick B&W stills edited together, while news reports tell of governmental upheaval—a moment that seems to collapse the distance between the ‘90s and recent events. After a quick stop to perform at a punk gig, Ozan and Lara manage to escape and find their way to where the cruise ship is docked, where he finally tells her what the whole night has actually been about. Lara tells him that he has changed and that he used to be interested in “soul.” The movie ends ambiguously: Will he stay or will he go, as The Clash would put it. As for Lara…?