A Netflix original series
Coming down with a bout of COVID-19 gave me a perfect excuse to binge an entire Netflix series in the space of a weekend.
Turkish drama series are popular exports, particularly in Latin America, and also in Pakistan and elsewhere. Turkey comes second only to the USA in terms of global TV distribution – but little Turkish TV has made it onto UK and US screens.
I started out watching big budget Turkish supernatural thriller The Protector, but it was just too silly (not in a good way – it was big-budget implausible and hammy without being enjoyably camp). So I moved onto eight-parter Ethos or Bir Başkadır (2020), which had received a rave review in the BFI’s Sight & Sound.
Bir Başkadır literally seems to translate as something like It’s Something Else (generally with a positive rather than negative slant), which is perhaps a more meaningful title than the one chosen for the English version. The series is a Netflix original, with high production values and an emotionally intelligent script. Ethos is both written and directed by Berkun Oya, and I watched it with English subtitles (though I think there’s an option to watch a dubbed version).
The storyline is set largely in Istanbul and involves a group of people from very different economic and cultural backgrounds, whose lives overlap and intersect in unexpected ways. As a result of these connections and sometimes unlikely (but not totally credulity-stretching) encounters, the disparate characters are forced to confront their repressed emotions and challenge their prejudices in order to move on in their lives.
The main characters include Western-educated, middle-class psychologist Peri (Defne Kayalar) and her patient, Meryem (the very striking Öykü Karayel), an uneducated young woman who is deeply religious and covers her hair, and consults a local Hodja (a sort of teacher/wise man/scholar, played by Settar Tanriogen). Meryem is referred to Peri after suffering a number of fainting episodes.
Meryem is fascinated and intimidated by the lifestyle of the man she cleans for, Sinan, who lives in an ultra-modern, impersonal, high-rise city flat – and who, it turns out, is also sleeping with two of Peri’s acquaintances. In contrast, Meryem lives in a rural location outside the city in a simply furnished home, with her brother’s family.
Peri’s cosmopolitan, super-secular pre-conceptions mean that she vastly under-estimates Meryem, who is resourceful and resilient, even as she is also obfuscating and naive. It is Meryem who provides the emotional scaffolding that supports the family of her uptight, angry brother Yasin (Fatih Artman) and her beautiful sister-in-law Ruhiye (Funda Eryigit), who is deeply mentally unwell.
The characters are nuanced and involving, and the series is very accessible for viewers from non-Turkish-speaking countries and non-Muslim countries.
A Paris Review critic noted that she “could tell the dialogue in Ethos leaned heavily on the fanciful ‘gossip tense’ in Turkish (mish-mush) — a grammar used to describe anything that is only known allegedly, or secondhand … [revealing] the thickly layered social and psychological underpinnings of this grammar” — this then is that tense also spoken of by Orhan Pamuk in his book on Istanbul that I referred to earlier.
The lingering shots of grotty nightclub interiors, impersonal skyscrapers and family washing flapping in a country breeze, together with the retro closing credits that play archive footage of Turkish performers and TV shows from decades gone by also seem to capture that sense of hüzün or collective melancholy of which Pamuk writes.
Again we have that clash between east and west, patriarchal traditions and modernity, and secular life and a stricter adherence to Islam that I pretty much dismissed in an earlier post as clichéd, but which I see more and more is a cliché for a reason: these issues are deeply embedded at the heart of modern Turkey, now perhaps more than ever, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling conservative Justice and Development Party, which attracts strong support from orthodox Muslims, having been in power since 2003.