NYFF Review: “Araf – Somewhere in Between”

Neslihan Atagül stars in "Araf - Somewhere in Between," written and directed by Yesim Ustaoglu.Despite the fact that my civilian ticket only earned me a back-row balcony seat in the Alice Tully Hall theater, my view of “Araf – Somewhere in Between” was still spectacular, thanks to the huge, crystal clear screen. The writer/director of the film, Yesim Ustaoglu, was present for this very first North American showing of her film, and I am sure she was pleased when the theater erupted in applause as the end credits rolled. “Araf” deserves such recognition from the audience because it is a clear-eyed and utterly unflinching look at oppression in Turkish society, as suffered by perhaps its most helpless denizens: young adults.

“Araf” tells the story of Zehra (Neslihan Atagül), a young woman who lives with her parents in snowbound, rural Turkey. She works a drearily monotonous job serving food at a truck stop, along with Olgun (Baris Hacihan), who harbors not-so-secret feelings for her. By chance, Zehra meets Mahur (Özcan Deniz) at a wedding, where the two begin a nearly wordless courtship. The problem is that Mahur is a middle-aged truck driver; Zehra is barely allowed to interact with men her own age, let alone keep a secret relationship with one who is close to double it. But Zehra and Mahur inhabit a world that has no interest in their personal passions; there is little doubt that their relationship is doomed.

Filmmaker Ustaoglu takes a highly realist approach to the subject matter, both visually and aurally. Her cinematographer, Michael Hammon, shoots the film utilizing mostly natural light, which frequently casts deep shadows across the actors’ faces. The environment is coldly bleak, and Hammon captures it perfectly with shots of the snowy landscape and the ugly industrial town in which the characters live. Additionally, the sound design includes elevated levels of ambient noise, which combined with the crowded, claustrophobic mise en scène give the impression that each day in the lives of these characters is unpleasantly quotidian. By the end of the film, the viewer is exhausted for having to inhabit such a mundane place, but this is to the advantage of the filmmaker, because the viewer becomes all the more invested by feeling the characters’ burden.

Compounding Ustaoglu’s excellent direction is the central performance by Atagül, which is believable at both Zehra’s happiest and lowest moments. Atagül uses her big, lovely eyes to convey boundless emotion, especially in her scenes with Deniz, which are almost entirely wordless. Their first meeting at the wedding involves them dancing intimately with one another: Mahur leads by encircling her with his arms, while Zehra passively allows him to do so. Atagül’s furtive glances at Deniz (whose eyes are closed, lost in the moment) reflect her blossoming desire for him, as well as the slightly scandalized alarm that lies beneath it.

One of the only problems with “Araf – Somewhere in Between” is that it is slightly overlong at just over two hours. After the film’s breathless and grueling turning point, it lingers for quite a while before concluding. Ustaoglu could have been a bit more judicious in wrapping up the third act, as it lessens the impact of the film’s climax by taking too much time to end. However, “Araf” nonetheless marks a poignant start to my weekend at the New York Film Festival; I highly recommend seeking the film out when it receives U.S. distribution.