2009 // Germany - Turkey // Miraz Bezar // November 16, 2011 // Theatrical DVD (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Theater)
The setting of Before Your Eyes—the grimy flats and back alleys of Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey—might be light years from the experiences of most Western viewers, but the film’s story follows a familiar template: orphaned children learn how to survive on their own in a cruel world. Ten-year-old Gülîstan (Senay Orak) and her little brother Firat (Muhammed Al) have a meager but generally happy life, dwelling in a tiny apartment with their newborn sister and politically active Kurdish parents. Happy, that is, until the family car is stopped by a squad of Turkish paramilitary thugs, who abruptly execute the parents and speed off into the night. Broken and hollowed by the horror of this event, Gülîstan and Firat live for a time under the care of their mother’s sister. However, after she vanishes, the children are forced to sell off all the family’s belongings to obtain money for food and formula. Eventually, the landlord tosses the kids into the street, where they fall in with a dodgy yet colorful roster of street vendors, pickpockets, and whores.
Dealing as it does with the slow-motion tragedy of children who have no one to care for them and nowhere to go, Before Your Eyes is a wrenching, deeply sad film. Granted, compared to the shattering, abyssal intensity of Grave of the Fireflies—with which it shares some narrative and emotional beats—the film is positively light-hearted. However, any feature in which children are so routinely placed in harm’s way is still fairly harrowing stuff, and Before Your Eyes’ grimness is ameliorated only occasionally by bits of wry comedy and small, hesitant triumphs. Despite its focus on the street-level experiences of Gülîstan and Firat, the film is moderately political, and not just due to its sympathetic treatment of Kurds victimized by violent Turkish authoritarianism. A sequence where a crestfallen Firat is unable to pay for his infant sister’s cough syrup is practically a PSA for health care's status as a vital human right. Moreover, the whole enterprise explicitly presents itself as a tribute and vague appeal for the forgotten urban children of the world.
Orak and Al give marvelously authentic performances that highlight the resourcefulness, shrewdness, and almost heartbreaking toughness of kids in dire circumstances. The film has profound pity and respect for Gülîstan and Firat, but devotes little time to conveying the contours of their emotional lives. (On this point, Before Your Eyes suffers in comparison to another film it recalls, So Yong Kim's superlatively empathetic Treeless Mountain.) The film's approach forgoes social realism in the name of sorrowful melodrama, which is a reasonable but uninteresting choice. The Dickensian turn in the third act, when Gülîstan encounters her parents' murderer by pure happenstance, is both wholly appropriate for the film’s tone and also disappointingly preposterous.