If you sleep, so will the black trees.
In a display of authoritarian punishment, the principal (Mahir Ipek) of the Turkish boarding school where Ferit Karahan‘s Okul Tirasi [Brother’s Keeper] is set seeks to remind the eleven-year-olds under his care that they should feel lucky to be there. They get a stellar education (while having the Kurdish beat out of those who come from the Kurdistan region). They get three square meals a day (consisting of a pitiful ladleful of three creamy liquids and half a bread loaf to dip). And they’re even allowed to shower once a week (such luxury). Unfortunately, as a clandestine phone call home reveals (cells are off-limits to students), these prison-like conditions are luxurious to some. Most of these kids come from poor families of nine children with no real opportunities.
It’s therefore unsurprising that a hierarchy of power forms throughout the building whether amongst the adults, the children, or the obvious imbalance between the two. The teachers puff out their chests when lording over the students, punishing them to set an example of strength without care for the ramifications because they’re able to insulate themselves from blame. The principal might be in-charge, but the faculty doles out the abuse. Those teachers might be the ones on the frontlines, but they assign child prefects to perform many of their duties for them. And the kids jockey for position, bullying the weak to gain an advantage. So, the fact Yusuf (Samet Yildiz) cares when his roommate and friend Memo (Nurullah Alaca) is victimized means something. He’s not yet completely lost.
Yusuf becomes Karahan and co-writer Gülistan Acet‘s lead as a result—the eyes of compassion amongst a sea of selfish opportunism. As the rest of the boys go about their business in the showers, he watches intently while Memo is bullied. Before he can do anything to help, though, Mr. Hamza (Cansu Firinci) arrives to stop the noise and force victim and bullies alike to use cold water as a reprimand despite sub-zero temperatures outside. Yusuf lends his towel for added warmth afterwards and we see Memo curl up in bed before lights out. Discovering the boy is sick the next morning makes sense then, so we assume he’ll go to the nurse, get some rest, and be fine. Except this school operates by looking the other way.
What first seems like an existential nightmare (Yusuf being told not to worry despite recognizing the severity of issue or being accused of using Memo to skip classes), however, soon devolves into an exposé on just how easy it is to lose one’s humanity in an oppressive environment ruled by an iron fist. When accidents (a window breaking when closing it) become grounds for child negligence posing as lessons of accountability and the job responsibilities of a teacher sprawl out to include uncompensated guard duty at the expense of their own health, everybody on that campus will inevitably find themselves seconds away from wanting to rebel. Everything becomes an inconvenience at best or conflict at worst. And when the aggrieved can’t ignore the problem any longer? Panic arrives.
Because, as Karahan talks about in the press notes, we are driven by fear. We hide, torment, laugh, and cry because of it. We lie and conjure excuses because of it. Where Yusuf fears for Memo’s life, the rest merely scoff and go about their business. Once their assumptions of “kids being kids” proves hasty, however, they realize they will be the ones to answer if tragedy does strike. Mr. Selim (Ekin Koç) can’t rely on the sickroom to solve the problem when there is no trained professional on campus and the department prefect only knows to give out aspirin. Mr. Hamza can’t rely on punks being punks to absolve himself of guilt when saying his punishment of cold showers wasn’t enforced (it was, just not by him).
This is a very serious film mining the human psyche to watch the line between toughness and malice shift depending on how much control a character wields over a given scenario, but it’s also quite funny due to the farcical nature of our inherent predictability. Every adult—and I mean every adult—eventually walks into the sickroom to put a hand on Memo’s forehead before saying, “He doesn’t have a fever.” Like that should somehow make the boy’s condition suddenly feel less dire. They all slip on the icy water pooled under the door too to remember that none of them is immune to the harsh conditions surrounding them in a recklessly run boarding school caught in a blizzard miles away from the nearest point of emergency assistance.
That’s when all the shortcuts and Band-aids built and exploited by children and grown-ups alike to survive here are laid bare. Suddenly those at-risk of trouble become emboldened to remind those above them of their own unforgiveable indiscretions. There are so many secrets being exposed and blame passed around that we don’t even realize a big one still looms large over the entire film. Karahan and Acet have structured each new revelation with perfection, deflecting from one moment to the next until we forget the strangeness of how this day initially began. The most compassionate of us all is also driven by fear, though. Because despite those loud men turning white when facing the unknown, their color and domineering ways quickly return once answers insulate them from punishment.
Yildiz is wonderful as Yusuf—his emotions worn on his sleeve throughout regardless of whether his worry not yet being fully contextualized. That said, however, the adults deliver the most memorable performances. Their duplicity. Their indignation. Their terror. Seeing Koç, Firinci, Melih Selcuk‘s Mr. Kenan, and, especially, Ipek spiral psychologically and physically once desperation replaces entitlement is quite the eye-opening experience because of how familiar it proves. We’ve all known educators and bosses like them. Many of us probably see ourselves in their characters too. That knee-jerk desire to pretend things are fine followed by the debilitating sense of uselessness upon realizing they aren’t. It won’t be enough to instill real change, though. The comfort that another’s discomfort affords us is too good to willingly balance the scales.
courtesy of Altered Innocence