[This wonderful film was reviewed and discussed in length last year by many members of this site. Unfortunately, that thread was among the ones that got deleted. Here's my old post.]
HEAD-ON (Germany-Tur / 2004)
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin film festival, Head-On (Gegen die Wand), is a German-Turkish co-production directed by Fatih Akin, a German-Turk himself. The film depicts the struggles of second generation immigrants in their social and cultural surroundings, while theyre also under pressure to remain faithful to the values of their forefathers.
"Gegen die Wand," the German title of the film literally translates as "Against the Wall, which is where we find our aging protagonist, Cahit (Birol nel), a second generation Turkish immigrant living in Germany. We first see an acrimonious Cahit at an arena after a concert, picking up empty and broken bottles who resemble his own state in many ways. Later on that night, after being thrown out of a bar, he decides to end it all by smashing his car against a brick wall. But this is just the beginning of his journey. After escaping his suicide attempt with just a neck fracture, he ends up meeting Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a barely legal nymphet who is also at the hospital for similar reasons. Sibel hails from a strict Muslim-family who want her to marry a Turkish man, but since she has grown up in a much different environment, she wants to have as much freedom as possible. After finding out that the person sitting across from her at the hospital is named Cahit, she blurts out, "Are you Turkish? Marry me." A baffled Cahit responds: "I like guys," but that doesnt prevent her from explaining her situation and what she requires of Cahit.
While it takes another suicide attempt from Sibel to convince Cahit of her intentions, he agrees and they end up getting married -- and, for the most part, go about their own ways, as promised. Sibel gets the freedom to sleep with who she wants, whenever she wants, and Cahit continues with his mostly physical relationship with a hairdresser. However, slowly but surely Cahit starts seeing the value of a proper domestic life as things start to change around him. He now has someone who cooks, cleans, and most importantly, cares for him and thus he starts falling for his "wife." For her he is nothing more than a good friend who has saved her life and she simply feels obligated to do her part.
The wide spectrum of emotions that persist early on in the film probably wont look out of place in a Bollywood potboiler, though thats where the film starts to generate its raw and impulsive power. But Akin also punctuates (and grounds) his narrative by having Romany band of Selim Sesler -- featuring Idil Uner as vocalist -- perform traditional Turkish songs in front of a picture-perfect view of Istanbul. "That's like a Brechtian element," the director stated, who was also influenced by the various structural acts in classic Greek plays. Homage aside, this is a stroke of genius from Akin as those musical numbers represent an emotional and psychological bridge for the characters and for the changing moods of the film itself. They continually become more somber in nature, much like the film.
Any culturally hybrid effort needs to institute an understanding of its roots, which Head-On accomplishes quite well. And while doing so, the film serves a sharp rejoinder to the cultural politics displayed by Manoel de Oliveiras A Talking Picture (2003), which blamed the death of Western arts and culture on the fundamental powers from the "East." Here, Akin seems to suggest that the abuse of freedoms easily accessible in the "West" in the form of drugs, sex, alcohol, etc. can make a person just as hollow as fundamentalism. And he doesnt shy from critiquing the machismo and the no-holds-barred attitude Turkish men are known for. Such behavior in the film ends up reopening many wounds that were starting to heal.
But it shouldnt be forgotten that other filmmakers and artists in the recent past have tackled the issues surrounding the political and cultural landscape in Europe, even though in some case they havent done so as successfully as Head-On, and in others their aesthetic was too extreme to be appreciated. (Though a few of the films seem to be championing visions of the new "unified" Europe and its cultural acceptance, while failing to mention the rabid nationalism and the recent rise of ethnic and religious violence in Northern Europe: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered recently by an Islamic fundamentalist because he made a few pertinent and poignant films about the Islamic culture.)
Akin was inspired by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu's Amores Perros (2000) (and Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the Mexican film, is a huge fan of Head-On). The extensive hand-held camera work, fast-paced editing, grainy and saturated film stock, etc. provide the evidence, which adds to the proceedings in both cases. And if Head-On also contains some tonal inconsistencies like the Mexican film, thats primarily because its also emotionally forefront, and not shy about dealing with the issues it so painfully introduces. Perhaps the reason why there's an air of truth about it.
And once the film gathers momentum, the experience it provides is hard to shake. Both Birol nel and Sibel Kekilli turn in great performances. Especially Ms. Kekilli because the only work she had done before was in X-rated films. So its somewhat ironic that late in the film Akin has her character standing in front of a mirror with Cahit, cleansed in more ways than one. While attempting to save each other, they've saved themselves. But Akin's film takes place in a real-world where people don't necessarily end up living happily ever after.
*Along with the Golden Bear, HEAD-ON also won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2004 Berlinale. More acclaim followed in the form of a Best European Film award and a host of prizes from the German academy.
*Available on DVD in the U.S. (Strand Releasing) / U.K. (Soda Pictures).