Beyond The Hill (Tepenin ardi)

Turkey (2012) Dir. Emin Alper

A remote idyllic canyon is home to old farmer Faik (Tamer Levent) and the land which has been in his family for generations. Along with his helper Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), Faik is fiercely protective of his land which is being put to the test with the arrival of a group of nomads from beyond the hills whose goats have been roaming on Faik’s land. After warning them to keep their goats in line Faik steals one of the goats as revenge, which he uses to feed his visiting family, son Nusret (Reha Ozcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran). But it seems the nomads are not going to let this lie.

It seems when a country not universally known for its arts enjoys a global breakthrough from on its natives the floodgate opens for the disciples to crawl out of the woodwork borrowing heavily from this successful blueprint. For the Turkish film industry that trailblazer is Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Beyond The Hill is one of those films which wears its Ceylan influence on its sleeve.

But don’t mistake this debut offering from actor and first time helmer Emin Alper for a pure clone – the Ceylan comparisons are noticeable but Alper refuses to allow his film to be beholden to totally replicating the acclaimed auteur’s style. The main facet heavily borrowed is the lingering shots and silent longueurs (although by no means exclusive to Ceylan, his films are heavily reliant on them) but with a run time of under 90 minutes, Alper can’t afford to let too much screen time be filed with nothingness.

The plot and the tension gently build around our main cast, through their behaviour and foibles more than anything else as the mysterious nomads are never seen on screen. Their presence is certainly felt which plays with the minds of the Faik family. Son Nurset seems to be in a bit of a funk after the death of his wife; teenager Caner is keen to prove himself a man by getting to use his grandfather’s rifle; and Zafer is a troubled man who is on medicine for an undisclosed reason but it would appear to relate to his former life in the military as he has visions of his ex army squad patrolling the canyons.

As the patriarch of the family, Faik is prone to giving orders and expecting everyone to share the same dated values as him. The others try to persuade him to not to cook the goat but Faik’s mind is made up, believing his tit for tat actions are justified. It seems the smell of roasting goat meat travels far as the night of the dinner is fraught with incidents which set off a chain of events resulting in violent and psychological casualties on both sides.

It needs to be noted that as wild as this sounds there is practically no action whatsoever in this film, with anything remotely exciting happening off screen. The silence of the sunny landscape is broken with the occasional gun shot serving as either a warning of impending retaliation from the nomads or a signal that it has been carried out. Or has it? Alper cleverly throws in some red herrings to obfuscate the obvious and leave the window of possibilities as wide open as possible.

One of these red herrings is Mehmet’s loner son Sulu (Servan Gümüs) who spends his time in the hills with his vicious dog when not herding their own goats. Distant from everyone else and on the receiving end of antagonistic behaviour from Caner, maybe the lad is striking back on his own? Similarly father Mehmet is slowly boiling at the barbed comments and bossy attitude from Faik which is compounded when a slightly tipsy Nusret makes a pass at Mehmet’s wife Meyem (Banu Fotocan); the next morning he is shot in the leg. Coincidence or just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Reading this suggests it all makes for a nicely woven psychological chiller and one which should also result in a bloody finale. But it doesn’t which is part of its appeal – being bold for telling what is essentially a horror story without the horror – although this places the film outside of the mainstream and firmly in the path of arthouse fans only. This is where Alper should have borrowed less from Ceylan – the first thirty minutes stroll along without a care in the world, introducing the cast at random intervals and indulging in the admittedly picturesque setting of rural Anatolia which is beautifully photographed and captured for our delectation.

If you are watching for the story be warned this film requires a bit of patience, unravelling as it does in piecemeal fashion in between scenes of uncomfortable male bonding (Meyem is mostly relegated to staying inside and cooking or performing other domestic duties). When things do eventually pick up in the second act it may be too late for some and just as it seems we are gathering speed the ambiguous ending that teases us into thinking we’ve been watching a black comedy and not a slyly unnerving drama after all.

Perhaps a little too subtle for my personal tastes, there is a lot to enjoy about Beyond The Hill – the wonderful cast, gorgeous photography, stunning location and interesting story top the list. For a first time effort Alper shows a lot of promise, with confident direction and a keen sense of hoe to build tension, but if he can rein in the Ceylan influence on the pacing front and nurture his own voice a bit more, Turkey will have another filmmaker to help widen their international presence.