Grain (Bugday)

Turkey (2017) Dir. Semih Kaplanoglu

Manmade ecological disasters is a fertile subject for filmmakers but being too heavy handed or didactic with the message is a perilous concern. Running that risk is Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu, who uses as part of his inspiration a passage from the Quran in his plea for us to go back to being kinder to nature.

Set in a near post-apocalyptic future, the world has been divided into two halves in order for humanity survive – agricultural zones and remnants of the cities – both of which are run by corporations to benefit the elite. Electromagnetic barriers keep refugees from the inhabitants of the cities, where everything is manufactured, including oxygen, but due to a genetic failure synthetic crops are dying, and harvest shortage would be fateful.

The corporation Novus Vita summons Professor Erol Erin (Jean-Marc Barr) to ask what can be done but he has no answer. He is told of an exiled seed geneticist Cemil Akman (Ermin Bravo) who was fired for writing a thesis on the problems with genetically modified seed. With the help of outlaws Andrei (Grigory Dobrygin) and Alice (Cristina Flutur) Erin escapes the city to find Akman.

Grain starts as an ecological drama – at least I think it did – but ends up a becoming a preachy polemic on the evils of genetically modified foods with a spiritual coda about man being one with wheat. It is one of those films that will polarise audiences, even the ones who do enjoy arthouse and challenging cinema, who will find it either a sluggish, impenetrable bore or profound essay on humankind’s attack on Mother Nature.

As a perennial fence sitter and master of ambivalence, I found it somewhere between the two – I didn’t fully understand it but some interesting points where raised, especially on the front of corporate greed inequality of wealth. Semih Kaplanoglu credits witnessing a pilgrimage to Mecca as the inspiration for Grain, noting the make-up of the crowds that made the journey was diverse in terms of wealth, status, and nationality.

Kaplanoglu also found it hard to reconcile the fact he would visit countries with high levels of poverty and starvation, citing the Sudan as an example of famine yet wheat would still be farmed and export in neat packages right under their noses. In the context of this film, this separation is represented by the invisible wall to keep the undesirables from the city, yet inequality exists inside it too.

Detroit in the US doubles for the rundown neighbourhoods the “ordinary” people live in whist the elite live in hi-tech penthouses that overlook a glittering metropolis. Erin falls into the latter category as a reward for his solution to a crippling issue with soil, but opts to leave this comfort to find Akman, achieved by meeting Alice in the grim urban decay of the city outskirts.

Anatolia and Germany provide the harsh, barren landscapes and austere rural bleakness for the early stages of Erin’s journey, creating an effective bucolic existence for Akman and a suitably open world for Erin to “lose his ego”. According to Kaplanoglu (via Akman) man is too wrapped up in himself to take responsibility for the damage inflicted on the earth and to others around them so losing that ego will help them find the answers to their problems.  

In commenting on materialism and the advancements of technology, Kaplanoglu chooses an obtuse approach, in which quotes from the Quran about the universe “being human” and “when we wake up we’ll die” are passed off as pearls of wisdom from Akman, the enlightened guru with a wide-eyed disciple in Erin, himself a learned man, now hanging on his every word.

Coupled with the occasional reference to Christianity and the oblique final act which offers little in the way of answers, it all feels like a cryptic exercise in shaming us into feeling guilty for our scientific progress and not staying as cavemen. Of course, I’m thick when it comes to deciphering messages in films when they’re buried beneath layers of symbolism and ambiguity so maybe I got this one wrong too.  

But, the points Kaplanoglu raises about synthesising naturally growing produce has merit, and the idea that by going too far, returning to the very basic roots of it all (which they do with the importing of fertile soil) is the only solution which should have been the way in the first place stands up, but could have told in a more compelling manner. 

The issue of inequality and the succumbing to ego as our success and status is measured by material wealth is also evident but again, the preference for “tell” but no “show” does undermine the urgency of the statement being made. Without exploring the city life in greater depth to offer or contextualise Akman’s homespun philosophy, it is hard not to see this as a self-indulgent whinge on Kaplanoglu’s part.

Yet, Kaplanoglu holds our attention for 123 minutes through the excellent performances of Jean-Marc Barr and Ermin Bravo and the masterful cinematography of Giles Nuttgens. Shot in monochrome to ensure consistent anonymity between the international locations, there is a wealth of stunning tableaux that could be framed and hung on the walls of any art lover, be they landscapes or compositions like dead bodies floating in a lake.

In keeping a sense of plausibility to this future dystopia, the technology featured isn’t so far advanced it is likely to be dated if viewed in 20 years time, aside maybe from the scouting ships which could simply be passenger sized drones, which quite possibly could be a thing in the next decade or so.

When a film makes you feel thick it is difficult to be overly positive about it, thus Grain is frustrating in that I wanted to like it but found it too dense to understand what exactly was being imparted, whilst I appreciated it on an aesthetic and artistic level. One for the intellectuals I fear.