If you like lording over people with less power than you, but you don’t have the tenacity to make it in the army, your second best bet is to work in a boarding school. After all, it’s easy to be a jobsworth when punishing children. Handled badly and these are unique, reactionary places that don’t have to operate like the rest of the world. For example, if there is a snowstorm, the nature of their self-sustaining community means that, while other children in the country can stay home, they will still have to soldier on and still go to all their classes.
This uniqueness has deadly consequences in the slow-burn drama Brother’s Keeper, set in a remote boarding school in the mountains of East Turkey. With temperatures in the winter dropping to minus 35 degrees, the special school for gifted Kurdish pupils becomes a literal danger zone, with students and teachers alike slowly succumbing to the bitter cold.
The students — who come from poor regions in the country — are told that they should actually count themselves lucky whilst lining up for reception in the freezing snow. Lucky enough to shower once a week, the chaos and embarrassment of their group wash is caught in tight frames by cinematographer Türksoy Gölebeyi. But when a few of the boys are caught messing around, one of the teachers punishes them by making them have cold showers.
The next day Yusuf (Samet Yıldız) wakes up to find that his friend Memo (Nurallah Alaca) can’t get out of bed. Much to his teacher’s annoyance, he begs them to take care of Memo, but to no avail. The teachers are far more caught up in pointless power plays of discipline, making the film feel like a Young Adult makeover of The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Once he finally gets the principal to realise that Memo is in bad shape, the school slowly deteriorates, with the petty priorities of the different teachers finally let loose on one another.
This drama is caught up in the wider context of the film, which plays as an allegory for Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan region, a large swathe of which intersects with the Eastern Anatolia Region. This is brought to the fore in a geography class, when a young boy is berated for saying they are actually living in a Kurdish part of the world. After a while, the school slowly resembles a type of colonial prison, escape impossible thanks to the endless pile-up of snow.
To keep this claustrophobic feel, we never physically leave the school, kept close in a 1.37:1 frame. The location is a real estate boarding school, which looks like it’s in desperate need of urgent repair. Combined with local community casting, Brother’s Keeper adheres to a realist style and execution, never losing sense of the wider message in the process, tastefully putting a spotlight on a people lacking both a country to call home or even a family to go home to.
My Brother’s Keeper played in the Panorama section of the 71st Berlinale, when this piece was originally written. Out in the UK in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It also shows at the 25th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.