While everyone else in the U.S. was watching the fourth season of The Crown, I dug into a Turkish series: Bir Başkadır, Ethos in English, (though that is not at all the translation. I’d translate it as “something different.”)
The story is simple enough: Girl meets boy. But nothing in Turkey is simple. Türkiye bir başkadır…
Immediately from the opening scene it was obvious that the viewer was in for something totally different. For five and half minutes there is no dialogue. Silence. We follow a young woman, Meryem, from a run-down home out in the countryside, getting on the bus then walking across a throughway in İstanbul, Turkey’s largest city. She continues to a shiny sleek high rise. She enters the apartment. Sets her things down but then reaches for something in her pocketbook, then faints.
We’re taken back to the preceding year. Meryem sits in front of a ballerina like older woman with a stern gaze. She is Peri, a psychiatrist. Meryem is there to get to the bottom of her fainting spells. You can tell right away that Peri disapproves of Meryem and looks down on her — for Meryem’s headscarf, rural accent and simpleton, almost childlike ways. That comes into clear focus when a few moments later Peri sits down for her therapy session with Gülbin, a fellow therapist, where she admits that she is angry not at Meryem personally, but who Meryem represents.
“There is something inside of me that I can’t escape — an anger. Öfke….Whenever a covered woman sits down across from me….” But then she comes back from abroad, spending time in the U.S. and she realizes that Turkey is a “completely different place.”
“They are the powerful ones. They are the majority… All the power is in their hands.” That sets the arc of the series.
Today’s Turkey. It is a country caught between the polarization between the religious conservatives, which the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, represents and leads, and the secular elite whose days of wanton rule are over.
Yet, Berkun Oya’s series avoids pushing the narrative into a Hatfields and McCoys struggle between “us” and “them.” He mostly refrains from cliché and predictability, allowing his mostly well-developed characters to own the storyline. As a result, it becomes their tale and, therein, ours. Meryem, Peri, and Gülbin show us that life is multi-dimensional.
There are eight episodes in this series where we meet a variety of different characters, each that unravels a separate storyline. We peer further into Meryem’s life with her brutish and perpetually angry brother Yasin, his wife chain smoking and puffy eyed Ruhiye, who suffers from depression, and their darling children. Oya slowly revels the source of Ruhiye’s condition. In other, we dive into Hayrunnisa’s world, which is caught between being the head scarfed daughter of the local imam, the hoca and the unveiled and disco-going partner to a wild and rebellious brunette. Oya is never explicit about their relationship. It is an example of his ability to control the story, never veering into melodrama.
We also get to know Gülbin, a Kurd whose sister, Gülan, is a head scarfed AKP supporter and a disabled brother. Gülbin and Gülan bring to life the confrontation between the secularists and religious conservatives, quite literally as we watch them physically attack one another viciously.
There is an attempt to get to know the one-dimensional Sinan, the man whom Meryem works for, cleaning his apartment. This falls flat. He spends a lot of time getting laid or sitting on the toilet, which only leads me to believe that Oya agrees that he’s full of shit. In this way, they represent the men of Turkey, full of bluster, immaturity, and narcissism. They desperately yearn to be taken care of, but insist on being in charge — but, of course, not responsible.
It is the women that drive the story forward in Ethos. On the surface, it appears that each represents a certain aspect of Turkish society. Oya’s brilliance is that while he sets up each of these characters to be symbols, he also goes to lengths to show that they do not exist in their echo chambers. Silos don’t work in real life. In Ethos, Oya breaks down each woman’s world and looks at them as they are — complicated. He also shows us how they are all connected to one another and, as a result, must not only learn how to exist, but be heard and understood — not just by the world, but themselves.
The acting, along with the cinematography, is across the board stellar. The lead character, Meryem played by Oyku Karayel does a phenomenal job portraying the young but hopeful woman. She brilliantly combines naivety and street smarts. Peri and Gülbin are less interesting, though still perceptive. Yasin does an excellent job playing the overbearing and angry brother.
Ethos is not without its flaws. There are storylines that could have been cut out. We really didn’t need to try to understand Sinan. Sorry. What we could have spent more time exploring is who Hilmi, a local young man from Meryem’s neighborhood is.
Oya’s Ethos wisely leaves a number of questions unanswered. The one thing it does leave is a feeling that while Turkey’s troubles are real, so too is the possibility of overcoming them. It’s not maudlin. In fact, it is because it doesn’t try to create a fairy tale or whip up passions that it is so effective. We root for Meryem, Peri, Gülbin, and even Yasin, his troubled wife, who has her own storyline, and the local hoca, who shows us that people aren’t predictable. They respond to circumstance and interaction.
A decade ago, sitting with a prominent entrepreneur about becoming one myself, I was told “I don’t have what it takes” to become one. (Look at me now bitches.) Recounting this to my mother, she reminded me of something that she had always said growing up, “Don’t let someone else hold the pen to your story.” Oya takes Turkey’s and shows that it is a tale still being told.