Nesrin’s “motherland,” as depicted in Senem Tüzen’s debut feature, is a place of return, one that holds the promise of peaceful isolation from the city in the aftermath of a divorce and during a much-needed time for intellectual production. The film opens with the protagonist, played by Esra Bezen Bilgin, traveling back to her parents’ village outside of Niğde, a town in rural Turkey. Nesrin temporarily settles in her late grandmother’s home to finish her book after ending her marriage and deciding to pause her urban middle-class life in Istanbul for an ostensibly idyllic writing retreat. These plans prove a bit too optimistic, however, upon the arrival of her mother, Halise (Nihal Koldaş), who lives in the country’s capital Ankara, with the seeming intention to keep her daughter company during this difficult time. Nesrin’s time in the village, with all its imagined familiarity and maternal embrace, quickly turns into a painful episode wherein intergenerational tensions surface against the backdrop of multiple histories of patriarchal oppression and internalized misogyny.
From the moment she arrives in the village, Halise’s way of connecting with her daughter and, in many ways, with herself is informed by a looming sense of guilt and martyrdom: she tearfully asks what she did to deserve her mother’s recent passing, and forces Nesrin to comply with her wishes as punishment for what she perceives as her daughter’s dismissive, immoral, and out of line behaviors. Just as we begin to think she’s simply an authoritative mother, influenced by her religious, provincial upbringing mixed with her uptight background as a schoolteacher in a secular nationalist bureaucracy, the film peels back layers of repressed sexuality and oppression that Halise herself had experienced, squeezed between a secret love interest and an unloving husband, struggling to make a career in the city in an elitist academic environment. Halise’s past pain articulates itself in the compulsive control mechanism she builds around Nesrin, a mechanism that she relies on as her primary source of self-esteem and empowerment. In this way, Motherland shows patriarchy as a trap in which women’s oppression is perpetuated not just through manifestations of toxic masculinity but by the very actions of women themselves trying to survive often at the expense of each other. And it does so with tightly framed and dimly lit shots in indoor scenes, which make up the majority of the film, and camera angles that convey to the viewer a persistent air of surveillance.
Ana Yurdu is screening on September 15 as part of Indiana University Cinema’s Running the Screen: Directed by Women and Between Worlds: Cultural Hybridity in Turkish Film series. Director Senem Tüzen is scheduled to participate in a post-screening, live-streaming Q&A.
The film is available to stream on Vimeo on Demand.
Zeynep Yasar holds a PhD in communication and culture from Indiana University, where she specialized in film and media studies. Her dissertation focused on the role of grassroots, anti-authoritarian, and oppositional practices in repurposing spaces and practices of film consumption in contemporary Turkey. In addition to academic publications and presentations, Zeynep has regularly contributed to Yeni Film, an independent film magazine based in Istanbul, since 2008.