Exile & Exhiliration
Head-On is the name of a film by the German-born Turkish writer-director Fatih Akin, and sure enough, early in the film one of the main characters runs his car head on into a wall. He's a mean alcoholic loser named Cahit (Birol Ünel), a Turk living in Hamburg , barely getting by doing clean-up work in a crummy bar. He smashes the car into the wall in a drunken fury, but instead of dying he ends up in a psychiatric hospital where he meets a young woman named Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who is there for cutting her wrists. Sibel gets the idea of marrying Cahit in order to escape her conservative Turkish family and embark on a life of partying and sexual exploration. Cahit eventually agrees to the plan, for reasons that are obscure even to himself. After a big Turkish wedding, Sibel finds that living in a trashy little flat with an angry drunk is not so easy, but the two misfits tolerate each other while indulging in sexual liaisons with other people.
Cahit is a gruff, craggy-faced misanthrope whose only enthusiasm, besides drinking, seems to be for an older era of punk rock. He looks on other Turks with contempt (barely remembering how to speak the language), yet he doesn't fit in with the Germans either. With a complete absence of vanity, Ünel makes his character as unattractive as possible. It's a risky strategy for Akin, since movies tend to seek audience identification, but behind Cahit's bad behavior we sense terrible loss--there's a mystery here that keeps us watching. Here is a man who has abandoned all attempts to conform to middle class values, and some of the funnier scenes involve him trying to appear respectable to Sibel's family. Even in its comic aspects, though, Head-On has a gritty feeling for the more unsavory aspects of lower class street life, with sudden explosions of violence and degradation. We witness some mean words and angry sex, and the story comes close at times to a kind of callous indulgence of brutality, but Akin walks the fine line pretty well. There's something more at stake here, especially as reflected in the enigmatic character of Sibel.
Kekilli is a non-actor who was discovered by the director in a shopping mall. But if I haven't read that, I might have thought she was a star. Beautiful in an odd way, looking totally different depending on her character's mood and circumstances, this newcomer plunges into her role with abandon. She projects Sibel's rebelliousness, passion, and sadness, while bringing a remarkable gracefulness and self-possession to the portrayal of this unpredictable young woman.
Through all this, we can't help but anticipate that Cahit is eventually going to fall for Sibel. But the way the film gets us there, and the way the characters expand and get to know themselves in the process, is surprisingly moving. Ünel, playing what seems like a hopeless case, ends up portraying an inner journey that is both unexpected and totally convincing. This coincides with a shift of the action to Turkey , a move that also signals the film's transition to a graver tone.
The picture is good at conveying a sense of disconnection and rootlessness that is so often a part of the immigrant's experience. Akin has a wry, ambivalent attitude towards traditional Turkish culture. Although he's a lowlife, Cahit has a better sense of what love requires from a person than Sibel's father or brother, with their rigidly repressive notions of honor. There's a kind of subtext in the film, in which tensions between Turkey and the secular world that is represented by Germany play themselves out through the inward struggles of the characters as they come to terms with themselves.
Head-On won the grand prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and has become a major success in Europe . The picture is sometimes disturbing, and at other times it goes for the cheap laugh at the expense of authentic feeling. But in the end I found myself deeply stirred by this moody, emotional film, and the way its characters keep outgrowing and surpassing their own stories.
With all the possibilities for drama in the human condition, it is often by looking at childhood that we get to the heart of the matter. A good example is Mad Hot Ballroom , a documentary by Marilyn Agrelo--this film about fifth graders learning ballroom dancing allows us to celebrate the joy of life and movement while paying respect to the real issues and struggles involved in being an inner-city kid.
Agrelo focuses on three New York schools participating in a dancing program that culminates in an all-city competition. We follow each class through ten weeks of practice, with 10- and 11-year olds learning to dance in styles such as swing, rumba, meringue and tango. There's a lot of good-natured humor watching kids navigate some difficult dance steps that often seem like a sort of training for later boy-girl relationship skills. But there's also an increasing sense of wonder and joy in seeing the kids developing their talent and really pulling off some beautiful moves.
Interspersed with all the dance sequences are interviews with the teachers and their students. The kids are remarkably self-aware, often funny, sometimes quite touching in their support for one another. The girls are in general more advanced, emotionally and intellectually, than the boys, which is normal for that age, and their interviews are especially poignant. The viewer will also notice differences in class and gender relations depending on the school--the predominately Dominican students in the Manhattan school face the most serious problems, and at the same time their motivation seems to be the most intense.
There aren't a lot of scenes of the kids at home, which makes it a little harder to know them as individuals, but Agrelo's decision to focus mostly on the dancing has its own rewards. The film has an infectious joyful quality--the audience begins to root for one of the schools, and that makes the competition sequence of the story rather exciting, but the real delight is just watching these kids begin to glow with confidence and self-esteem as they discover themselves through dance. Mad Hot Ballroom is great energetic fun from start to finish--a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the lives of some inspiring young people.
©2005 Chris Dashiell