The Yusuf Trilogy

Semih Kaplanoglu’s Yusuf trilogy traces the evolution of character from middle-age to childhood.

The past is continually revisited, reviewed and reminisced upon. Through works of film, theatre, literature and art we interrogate past actions, significant and not-so-significant events, and the manner in which they have shaped our world today. Taking his cue from psychoanalysis, Semih Kaplanoğlu reduces this interrogation into the microcosm of one man and his world. The Yusuf trilogy is an intriguing feat of Turkish cinema, whereby the lead character of Yusuf is witnessed in retrograde at key moments in his life.

Over its three instalments, Yumurta, Süt and Bal, the trilogy explores the middle-age, adolescence and childhood of the central character, Yusuf. Conversely Kaplanoğlu chose to begin his trilogy at middle age, deciding to “start from the place I know best, that is the age of 40.” Yumurta follows Yusuf as a failed poet, travelling from Istanbul to grieve at his mother’s funeral. Returning to his small town, Yusuf revisits his old life and “goes through an internal evolution rediscovering hope and future.” In reviving his relationship with his mother upon her death, Yusuf sets in motion a journey of discovery of himself and the small town from which he has come. Kaplanoğlu describes Yumurta as being about “life’s continuity and rebirth” and its dual position at both the beginning and end of the trilogy enhances this double-edged sword. Süt revisits Yusuf at the beginning of his burgeoning poetry career. Already a published writer, the 18-year-old is at a cross-roads of his life between “future and now, the city and town, women and mother,” as he discovers the transgressions of his mother through her secret affair. Contemplating this shift in his relationship, his academic failures and his desire to become a successful poet, Yusuf faces the loss of innocence and heightened awareness of every adolescent. He encounters both doubt and decisiveness in his actions and challenges the road ahead while coming to terms with his past. In many ways, while Yumurta is a termination, Süt is very much a point of departure.

In Kaplanoğlu’s writing evolution, the narrative of Süt was where the trilogy initially started: “In late 2005, I was working on a short story about an 18-year-old aspiring poet living in the countryside and sending out his poems to literary journals. It was provisionally entitled Bright Day. Then I wondered what would have happened to the same character in his adulthood and childhood. For instance if he would be able to keep writing poems when he is 40, what would he be doing for a living? Did he deal with the issues he had with his father?” Kaplanoğlu began to question the context and motives of his character, and concocted the idea of a trilogy as a way to explore this. What is unusual about the work is its evolution backwards through time. In order to discover the context of an 18-year-old character, we are led to his childhood, but Kaplanoğlu inverts this and instead begins the journey of discovery from his adulthood. It’s a novel approach, and almost as if Kaplanoğlu is writing each subsequent character imagining his future actions (because they are already committed to film) rather than those of his past. This perpetuates the underlying theme that Kaplanoğlu discusses of life’s continuity.

Penning the trilogy in collaboration with co-script writer Orçun Köksal, Kaplanoğlu chose Yumurta as his somewhat macabre starting point: “After a certain age, one focuses on the past rather than the future. Maybe it’s something to do with drawing close to death or because the times we have lived are more than the times we will live.” By beginning at the end Kaplanoğlu has the tools to start interrogating the past by knowing what it has created, “psychoanalysis does the same thing in order to return to the past to figure out what was wrong.”

Naming the installments Yumurta, Süt and Bal, Kaplanoğlu infuses the trilogy with an inherently organic quality. Literally translated as Egg, Milk and Honey, each part references the land, foods and habitat of Yusuf’s upbringing in rural Turkey, as well as the giving quality of nature. While Egg clearly references the mother-son relationship and its inception before birth, Milk interprets the strengthening of this bond through infancy, and to Kaplanoğlu Honey conjures images of a child’s memory and imagination – “for me a poet’s childhood is like honey gathering in the beehive.”

In alluding to these metaphors, Kaplanoğlu engages with the organic evolution of the human character and the importance of the past in contextualising our character today. “The whole existence and unity of the universe and of course humanity is inside this moment we are living in. I am talking not about a horizontal but a vertical concept of life, and this is what I’m trying to make my audience sense in my films.” Although the past clearly influences our future experiences and informs our character, Kaplanoğlu offers an alternative view of the life lived as one single moment in time, so that everything is concurrently the past, present and future, and the narrative of existence ceases to be a simple linear progression and becomes a more complex relationship of experiences simultaneously affecting us: “When one thinks about his current being, existence and or self, one certainly thinks about one’s past too. I believe that we live in a ‘now’ that we partake in as soon as we are born.”

As the final installment, Bal has won the director attention and international acclaim, achieving the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival in 2010. Coming as it does at the end of the trilogy, but chronologically at the beginning, Bal represents the full achievement of Kaplanoğlu’s filmmaking. Set in the beautiful Turkish countryside, the film conjures a fairytale land of forests and beekeepers around the mysterious natural phenomenon of the bees that have become sacred to Yusuf and his family. Each day Yusuf’s father, Yakup, retreats into the forest to collect the rare honey from the lofty treetops. This honey supports his family’s modest requirements but the bees, through reasons left unexplored in the film, are dying out. Faced with this threat to his livelihood, Yakup is forced into taking ever-greater risks to reach ever-taller and more remote parts of the forest. His honey-collecting excursions start to take the father away for days at a time until eventually Yusuf and his mother suffer a prolonged absence when his father fails to return. In its rural setting, Bal represents a very traditional and slowly deteriorating way of life that is still being lived by thousands of Turkish people today. In this manner, it becomes an integral part, not only of Yusuf’s evolution through the trilogy, but also that of millions of other rural immigrants across the world. Appearing in a mountain village, a rural town, and a city, Yusuf completes the cycle in Yumurta in his return to his hometown “and his eventual rediscovery of himself. The clash of modern and traditional was the problem of the past century. There is a new situation today that is the existence of what is modern and what is traditional side-by-side.” The forest of Bal is steeped in mysticism because it jars so markedly with the easy, hectic familarity of the urban environment: “Absence of spirituality in modern man’s life has led to mystification of nature, which is almost expelled from our lives.” Although Kaplanoğlu easily explains this quality, it retains its resonance, and the atmosphere and the landscape becomes a primary character in the film, evocative of growth and contemplation.

In addressing the plight of the bees, Kaplanoğlu discreetly references the world outside Yusuf’s rural microcosm, and provides a subtle critique on the machinations of increased industry and the environmental issues of today. The oft-discussed but rarely considered topic of the bee’s decline is given a human face and a human heart in the plight of Yusuf, not through loss of livelihood, but through loss of his father, an incident that affects his later life: “The effects of the father’s loss is most apparent in Süt. Adolescence is a crucial period in one’s life where sexual identity, anxiety about future and many other traumatic things are experienced.” Indirectly also, Yusuf’s loss of his father pervades his adulthood and most notably his relationship with his mother, to an extent that the strain between the two is only fully explained on viewing Bal. Yusuf from the start of Bal is characterised as a daddy’s boy. Following his father into the forest each day, practising his reading with his father each morning and discussing his dreams with him in confidence, Yusuf and his father have a bond that creates a distance with his mother. When Yakup disappears we witness the slow, quiet breakdown of Zehra, Yusuf’s mother, who, though a continually supportive parent, fails to engage with Yusuf and particularly with his studies, as his father once did. In witnessing this fractured relationship, some of the film’s most moving scenes are played out to the audience. There is love and affection between Yusuf and his mother, but his father also bonded them together and so at points in the film his loss is almost total. Watching Yusuf hopefully gulping down the milk that we know he detests in an attempt to raise a smile from his grieving mother is both heart-warming and futile, and it is a testament to Kaplanoğlu’s slow and steady pace of filmmaking that such overlooked moments are awarded such attention.

These moments are given reverence by the remarkable abilities of the lead actors, most notably Bora Atlas who portrays the young Yusuf. His performance is astonishingly well-observed and incredibly natural, in a manner that makes the audience yearn for his happiness and for him to do well, achieving his ultimate goal of a red ribbon for reading and writing in school. On establishing the cast list Kaplanoğlu looked closely at the actors as well as his script: “I believe that everyone has a common emotional memory. I find it more genuine to bring their own experiences into life rather than imitating or acting out the emotions of the character written in the script.” In his struggles at school, Yusuf is isolated and vulnerable. He suffers from a stammer that makes the other children laugh and hampers his achievements in reading and writing, making him the last child in his class to achieve the coveted red-ribbon-reward from his teacher, and while Atlas’s personality “is the opposite of Yusuf in the film, very sociable, energetic, talkative,” he drew on his own experiences of his father’s illness, and on Kaplanoğlu’s through the script, to create a diverse and complicated character for such a young boy. In casting his three Yusufs, Kaplanoğlu sought “an irrevocable expression that would interconnect all these characters” to achieve a coherence between their expressions over mere physical resemblance. Most importantly for their convincing portrayals, however, Kaplanoğlu did not allow the actors to see any of the other films from the trilogy: “Normally one always wonders what kind of person he will turn out to be, but he can never know.”

Through Atlas and Kaplanoğlu, Yusuf becomes both a very unique character and a sort of “everyboy” of childhood anxieties and struggles. Kaplanoğlu describes the trilogy as having “autobiographical motifs” but it is not “thoroughly autobiographical.” He adds: “I had questions about myself just like Yusuf in Yumurta. I had questions regarding my existence, regarding truth and time [and] I’d like to note that I was the last child to get that red ribbon … This trilogy came out during my search for these questions.” Through these underlying links between director, landscape, script and actor, Yusuf becomes a motif for the implicit relationship between past, contemplation and growth. An atypical poet, Yusuf is naturally introverted and subdued, and the ostensibly slow pace of each film perpetuates this contemplation, creating a beautiful work of cinema based on the growth and evolution of personality, but in a retrograde manner.

Bal was released on 15 July 2011.

Ruby Beesley