Film, despite its wide proliferation throughout the world, is a tragically delicate medium. Unless it is gently cared for and preserved, film negatives will deteriorate in a matter of decades. Film enthusiasts and scholars mourn the cold statistics which pronounce that only 10 to 15 percent of silent cinema has survived until today. Therefore, the rediscovery and restoration of lost films is a cause for celebration. But silent films from the cinema’s infancy are not the only ones at risk. Many more recent films have fallen victim to political repression and destruction. One such cinematic treasure was Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer. Despite its enthusiastic reception in the West (even winning the 14th Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Best Film), it was swiftly suppressed by the Turkish government for giving the “wrong” image of Turkey. Never mind the fact that in Erksan’s film evil is punished and justice prevails. The hammer fell and Dry Summer was locked away and forgotten about for 45 years. And yet, like Lazarus, Dry Summer has emerged from its tomb thanks to a rigorous restoration by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. Now, once again, the world can witness this masterpiece of Turkish cinema.
It all begins with two brothers. The eldest, Osman, decides quite suddenly one day that he will dam up the spring that forms on their property, thereby choking all of the other villagers downstream. The decision comes as quite a shock to the younger brother, Hassan. After all, Hassan explains, water is the earth’s lifeblood. You can’t own water. But Osman doesn’t care. The water may belong to everyone, but the spring is on their property, ergo anything it produces belongs to them. Unable to dissuade his older brother, Hassan and his beautiful wife Bahar are forced to help build the dam.
Naturally, this invites the wrath of their neighbors. Without the water, their tobacco crops will die. The villagers appeal to the court system who quickly agree that Osman’s actions are illegal. The dams are destroyed and the water flows freely once more. But literally within days Osman appeals to an even higher court who supports his claim of ownership over the spring.
Meanwhile, Osman lusts for Bahar, spying on her via a peephole while she undresses and makes love. Erksan and his cinematographer Kriton İlyadis frequently highlight Osman’s desire by cleverly framing him so that he is never far away from Bahar. If she is in the bottom foreground, Osman is in the high background. Part of the pleasure in watching Dry Summer is reveling in the geometric variations that such shots provide within the frame’s diegetic space.
An example of Erksan's compositions with Bahar left foreground, Hassan middle background, Osman right mid-ground.
When word gets out that someone with Hassan’s surname was murdered in prison, Osman tells Bahar that her husband is dead. After torturing Bahar emotionally and psychologically for so long she gives to Osman’s advances. I won’t reveal the ending for two reasons. First, most of you have probably already figured out the twist. Second, I don’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure of the final few scenes. It’s rare to see a film with such a violent climax that doesn’t seem forced or unnecessary. The final denouement and confrontation are arise organically.
This may be cloying sentimentalism bordering on hyperbole, but I truly believe Osman to be one of the best antagonists of European cinema. He isn’t a villain that audiences love to hate like Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader. He doesn’t have a grand scheme or plan. He has no reason for hoarding his water. The summer may be dry, but at no point is it indicated that there will not be enough water for everyone. Osman builds the dam for one reason: because he can. Whenever he is confronted, he gives the same excuse that it is his water and he can do whatever he wants with it. There are several moments when Hassan and Bahar rebel and tear down the dam. But Osman has an almost preternatural ability to suddenly appear whenever they do so he can put the dam back up. During one sequence Osman is attacked by several armed villagers. It appears that the unarmed Osman is doomed. But then the scene shifts and we see a battered but otherwise confident Osman re-appear at his house. How did he survive the attack? It’s never explained. Don’t misunderstand me: there is no mystical or supernatural element to Dry Summer. The film instead invokes the techniques and tones of Neo-realism. Osman just has an uncanny (and unfortunate) knack for being in the right place at the right time.
But Osman is not the only reason why Dry Summer stands as one of Turkey’s greatest cinematic triumphs. Take, for instance, the spell-binding black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always believed that black-and-white photography can be more inherently colorful then even the brightest Technicolor when put in the hands of a master. The Turkish countryside in Dry Summer is brought to vivid life in Erksan and İlyadis’ hands. Rarely has water seemed so beautiful and refreshing. Let us not be like Osman and hoard Dry Summer to ourselves. This is a film that needs to be seen, to be respected, to be cherished.
The entire restored film is available to view for free on youtube. Below is the link to the first part of the film. For some reason I can't embed it to this page.