Cannes Review: Emin Alper’s ‘Burning Days’

On the one hand, Emin Alper’s Burning Days is a discreet but telling account of the resurgence of homophobia — a key plank of right-wing populism — in Turkey. On the other hand, it’s a half-and-half genre film: half crime thriller and half western.

In the Cannes Un Certain Regard entry, a conscientious public prosecutor comes from the city to a small town, where he soon finds himself at the wrong end of the townsfolk’s pitchforks. It’s Wyatt Earp, basically, except that city boy Emre (Selahbattin Pasali) is the kind of public official whose integrity is expressed by doing everything by the book. He is also very neatly turned out, even when his water isn’t working. As it often isn’t: more on this in a minute.

Emre is also awkward, unable to find conversational common ground with the local big-wigs. A local election looms; nevertheless, the mayor keeps asking him to dinner, which instinct tells him to avoid at all costs. When he succumbs, the mayor’s son Sahin (Erol Babaoglu) urges him to join the gang next time the traveling brothel comes to town. Before that, they must do a pig hunt! Worse still, doing things by the book doesn’t work here; it’s a gift economy. Even a short walk down the main street means running the gauntlet of proffered cups of tea, each one with a bundle of strings attached.

Actually, only one thing really matters to people. It never rains in Yaniklar. An extended crane shot follows Emre’s car from above as he drives the main road into town. It bisects an endless desert. Most of the town’s water is siphoned from the water table, albeit intermittently and unreliably, which means most houses have hours or days without running water. The current mayor, the kind of tin-pot potentate you could find in any country in the world, is staking his re-election on the promise of a bigger, better groundwater scheme. Anyone who can build a fountain will be mayor forever.

Opposing him are the naysayers who point to the vast sinkholes that have begun to pockmark the surrounding country and have already swallowed a stable full of animals. The next one could eat a city block. They propose diverting water from a distant river, but it’s more expensive and, anyway, there are dark forces ranged against them. Because this isn’t just about how to get water into town; it is also a war of ideologies and personalities: the worst kind. That war is about to land on Emre’s desk, as a family displaced by one of these new craters is demanding those responsible be prosecuted.

It is a complicated backstory, full of administrative minutiae, vaguely explained conspiracies and legal procedure that all too often fogs up the central storyline, which is about the rape of a local Romany girl, Peknez (Eylul Ersoz). Peknez’s learning difficulties and innocent fondness for a party make her an easy target for bullies. The same night Emre is finally persuaded to go to dinner at the mayor’s house, Peknez turns up and starts dancing with Sahin and the local dentist, a giggling idiot called Kemal (Erdem Senocak). Next day, she is in hospital, dazed and bloody.

What happened there, exactly? The raki was strong; Emre is not much of a drinker. He knows he was sick and fell asleep on the mayor’s couch. Sahin and Kemal deny everything, but also hint that Emre woke up and also “had fun.” On the contrary, says their handsome neighbor Murat (Ekin Koc), who happens to be editor of the local newspaper and leading the fight against the mayor on the water issue. He took Emre in for the night. And then what? His dining companions have already dropped broad hints that his sexuality is under question. Now they all think he’s entangled with Murat. Maybe he is. For all he knows, he may be the rapist.

Alper’s plot often gets tangled in its own complexities; he indulges himself with exposition and with spectacle — because the desert, to be fair, gives cinematographer Christos Karamanis a lot of spectacular opportunity — and is so carefully vague about what may be a sexual relationship that you could blink and miss these allusions altogether. His director’s notes say that there are also hints that Murat was a teenage hustler, but these are so subtle it is likely a foreign audience would never notice them. Of course, you know why. Alper wants a Turkish audience to see his film.

Where he is very good is on the miasma of corruption, compromise and concession that will soon permeate any political body that isn’t held up to scrutiny. A local vocabulary grows up that smooths over anything unpleasant; for Sahin and Kemal, “having fun” seems to cover all bases. It also waves the flag for modern values, for education against ignorance, the cosmopolitan town against the kind of place where nobody wants anything to change.

That story can be told almost anywhere. Burning Days is considerably more sober and serious-minded than Deliverance, but you wouldn’t be surprised if Sahin told Emre to squeal like a pig. Yanuklar is that kind of place.

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