Currently in its fifth year, the UCSB Human Rights Film Festival — opening tonight and wrapping up on Monday, April 26 — is a showcase of international cinema that highlights pressing human rights issues. Continuing in this tradition of foregrounding a wide breadth of underrepresented perspectives, the festival kicks off tonight in Campbell Hall with a powerful selection of films, including the 2007 Turkish film, “Bliss.”
“Bliss,” directed by Abdullah Oguz from the bestselling novel by Ömer Zülfü Livaneli, acts as a perfect opening night selection and very much typifies the sort of films that will be on display over the course of the festival. As with many prior festival selections, “Bliss” attempts to dramatize and discuss infrequently talked about and very rarely filmed human rights issues. One specific issue that the film sheds light upon is the underrepresented act of honor killing, or the concept of a village sentencing one of its members to death on the grounds that that individual’s sin has stained the village and that only through that individual’s death can collective absolution be attained.
This is the situation in which the film’s protagonist, Meryem, finds herself. Meryem has been raped, and her unwillingness to talk about the details of her trauma — details which would to some degree exonerate her — as well as her inability to kill herself, which is expected by many in the village, leads the village elders to the conclusion that she must be taken away to urban Istanbul and killed, in order to restore the village’s moral homeostasis. Appointed this gruesome task is Cemal, a native son and returning soldier, who though clearly conflicted, intends to follow through with his orders. This culminates in one of the film’s most dramatic and artful scenes, in which Cemal, forcing Meryem to jump from a tall pillar underneath a bustling freeway overpass, relents at the last minute and saves Meryem’s life. Not only does this scene highlight the moral ambiguities and nuances implicit in honor killings, but also ranks as one of the film’s most beautifully composed moments, as balletic camera movements give the scene an almost mythological quality that furthers the film’s function as a morality tale.
After this climactic rebellion, the two realize that they can never return to their village. However, homesickness may not be their only obstacle in adapting to their new urban environment. In one beautiful shot, the anachronistic nature of this pair in the urban space is highlighted as they walk slowly alongside a freeway of seemingly unnaturally fast moving cars. Along these lines, the rest of the film is a portrait of Cemal and Meryem’s attempts to adapt to a much less morally hierarchical atmosphere, one in which women can wear bikinis, men and women can dance, and one in which women do not have to feel guilty or ashamed for the atrocities perpetuated against them.
Ultimately, the film covers a lot of ground and intersects with human rights issues through generational differences, gaps between rural and urban lifestyles, and the discrepancies, in human terms, between morally complex and morally simplistic world views. Screening tonight at 9 at Campbell Hall, immediately following a screening of “War and Love in Kabul,” this film is an excellent example of the enlightening fare we can look forward to in this year’s Human Rights Film Festival. Tickets for film screenings are available at the Arts & Lectures box office and online.