- Reviewed at the 2021 Berlinale.
In a cramped, dimly lit boarding school shower room, young boys are packed in three to a cubicle. As one group leaves, another enters in single file; plastic sandals slap against wet tiles, shared pitchers and bars of soap slip between hands, while playful chatter is drowned out by the sound of running water. In Brother’s Keeper, the latest film from Kurdish director Ferit Karahan, scarcity and sparseness guide both the visual aesthetic and the narrative, an economy that results in a compelling accumulation of small moments that loom with volatility.
During the opening shower scene, what starts as a seemingly paltry mishap becomes, at the hand of one punishing teacher, an event that will break open the troubled and archaic dynamics of the school and unwind a tangled history of guilt. The beginnings of an argument can be heard from one cubicle, kids bickering over the soap. These boys are ordered to finish bathing only with cold water as penance, while settling snow thickens outside the building and heating pipes freeze and fail. The next morning one of the boys, the timid and near-silent Memo (Nurullah Alaca), says he doesn’t feel well, so much so that he can barely move. His best friend Yusuf (Samet Yildiz) is undeniably panicked, fighting against the bureaucracy of the school and lazy indifference of their teachers to get Memo the medical help he needs.
A poised and precise work, Brother’s Keeper moves assuredly through tightly controlled, incremental revelations of the truth about Memo’s illness. Yildiz, with his wide, dark eyes that deepen beneath spidery black lashes, anchors the film with a quietly impassioned performance that makes its final ten minutes all the more sharp and impactful. Before this point of rupture, though, there is the enduring frustration of life at the school, a repressively secluded home for Kurdish boys that hints more broadly at the ways minority communities in Turkey have long suffered. The children are slapped for their misdemeanours, food and warmth are not guaranteed, and the Kurdish language is excluded in favour of Turkish. They face years under this oppressive schooling system, the burden of which is expertly depicted by Karahan in just 84 minutes.
Türksoy Gölebeyi’s cinematography is gloomy, with a muted colour palette and the confines of Academy ratio effective contributions to the film’s mood. No shot out of place, no scene wasted, Karahan shows a real mastery of story and tone in a film that manages to be at once understated and shattering.
As Memo’s predicament worsens under the watchful eye of Yusuf, his protector, fissures in the school’s regime begin to show. One by one, teachers approach his sick bed to offer their guidance; “he doesn’t have a fever” becomes a painful running joke, a repetitive insight that under the failings of the school becomes a mockery. When the blame game starts, the oblivious, or deliberately obtuse, staff are forced to reckon with the institution’s dark habits they had long accepted as the norm. Will the severity of Memo’s situation be enough to change their ways? Karahan’s ending, a cyclical return to the film’s crucial opening, crushingly suggests otherwise.
Education shows how Britain taught Black boys to fail
The fifth, semi-autobiographical film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection calls out a school system that did the opposite of nurturing its wards – and a country with much to learn.
By Nikki Baughan
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
Originally published: 11 March 2021