Ethos offers up Turkish coffee and cultural contradictions

Berkun Oya’s Istanbul-based series finds rich pickings and international appeal on the well-trodden border between tradition and progress.

Oyku Karaye as Meryem in Ethos (2021)

Ethos is available to stream on Netflix.

Aptly for a series set in Turkey, coffee is an important metaphor in the opening episode of Berkun Oya’s eight-part Netflix series Ethos (Bir Baskadir). Meryem (Oyku Karayel) explains to her therapist Peri (Defne Kayalar) how she has recently learned the secret to good coffee – waiting for the boiled water to cool so as not to burn the grounds – which has, she says with pride, led to her brother asking her to make his daily brew instead of his wife.

It’s a seemingly innocuous exchange which seems designed to seed the names of characters we will come to meet. Yet, it will transpire, these themes of tradition and patience are central to writer/director Oya’s intriguing tapestry of life in modern Turkey, a country whose deep-rooted Islamic traditions and conservative government are often at odds with progressive ideas such as the acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities and equal rights for women. This increasing cultural divide has proved fertile ground for a new generation of filmmakers in recent years, such as Azra Deniz Okyay, whose Ghosts, set on the tumultuous streets of Istanbul, won the Critics Week prize at Venice last year; now Oya artfully continues the discussion of what it means to be Turkish.

The opening sequence of Episode 1 – strikingly shot by series DP Yagiz Yavru – captures this feeling of old ideas colliding with modern sensibilities. Donning a traditional hijab, Meryem makes the long journey on foot from her rural home to her employment as a cleaner in Istanbul; as she walks, the green landscape is replaced by the towering façade of the busy city, the early morning shadows and hazy sun overwhelmed by the artificial lights of the metropolis. She enters a plush apartment and prepares to clean. Getting her phone out of her bag to check her messages, she promptly passes out on the floor. Her body out of shot, the camera lingers on her slippers; feet will prove to be an evocative motif throughout.

Ethos (2021)

It is because of these fainting spells (always triggered by anything to do with weddings and engagement, a perplexing detail that will become relevant in later episodes) that Meryem finds herself in the city office of psychologist Peri, and we flash back to their first meeting a year previously. Despite their shared nationality, the differences between these two women are immediately obvious. The primly dressed and clearly well-educated Peri regards Meryem – whose name, she explains to Peri in one of several on-the-nose pieces of dialogue that seem aimed squarely at non-Turkish viewers, means “Mary, the mother of the prophet Jesus” – with something akin to bemused detachment. This response will take on a more intimate resonance in Peri’s later session with her own therapist.

As Meryem rambles about the minutiae of her daily life, Peri picks up on two things of significance: the fact that her patient is deeply religious and in thrall to the neighbourhood hodja (a teacher or wise man, played by Settar Tanriogen), and that she is in love with her wealthy employer Mr Sinan (Alican Yucesoy). Later, it emerges that Sinan is sleeping with both Peri’s therapist and one of her friends; this is just one of the ways in which these characters’ lives will intertwine over the coming episodes.

Neat editing by Ali Aga means that the story unfolds at a natural pace across the series, despite some unavoidable narrative contrivances. And each interaction lays bare the contradictions and anxieties that plague a country that has the trappings of democracy and modernity – elections, a fast-growing economy – but continues to be governed by ancient Islamic tradition increasingly out of step with a contemporary globalised world.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at Ethos, it’s that its eclectic cast of characters seem to be too obviously that: a group of carefully constructed individuals each representing a specific issue. Meryem’s sister-in-law Ruhiye (Funda Eryigit), for example, is a manic depressive, a victim of past sexual trauma that she keeps hidden from the wider world as a shameful secret. Her husband Yasin (Fatih Artman) has accepted her despite that black mark on her reputation because “her heart is pure” – a move that’s likely more dramatically optimistic than realistic, given their traditional background. Ruhiye is clearly an upsetting cipher for the country’s enduring culture of violent misogyny (something Emre Akay tackled in a more visceral manner in his excellent 2020 revenge horror Av: The Hunt).

Yet this kind of dramatic shorthand is certainly nothing new in the world of episodic television, and in this case the performances and narrative are so involving that it never becomes a major issue. And in making his drama both authentic and accessible, Oya has ensured that its message will reach far beyond Turkey.

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