Award-winning Turkish film explores lives of Istanbul's cleaning ladies

Published 19.04.2016 23:30
Updated 20.04.2016 00:28
Award-winning Turkish film explores lives of Istanbul's cleaning ladies

'Dust Cloth,' a new film about the domestic exploitation of Istanbul's cleaning ladies, has deservedly won three major awards at this year's International Istanbul Film Festival

There are subtle ways of exploiting others. If the exploitation takes place in a domestic setting then it will most probably be invisible to the outside observer, and the exploiter can act as if the exploitation has never happened. The subject of domestic violence and the abuse of women have been explored in numerous Turkish films. But this other, more sinister method of exploitation, the ripping off of Istanbul's domestic workers has gained much less cinematic attention. "Toz Bezi" (Dust Cloth) sheds light on the issue and explores the economic conditions of two cleaners trying to make ends meet in Istanbul.

Directed by Ahu Öztürk, "Dust Cloth" seems like an example of "neorealismo," the Italian post-war film movement whose members included film directors Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. Neorealismo films came after the decades-long dominance of studio films, melodramas and comedies that carefully stayed away from representing Italy's difficult realities. Exploring the harsh living conditions of Italy's working classes and the poor, neorealismo films breathed new life into Italian cinema. A chief characteristic of films like Vittorio de Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" and Roberto Rosellini's "Open City" are scenes shot on location using non-professional actors.

The cinematography of "Dust Cloth" offers a similar kinetic energy. Shooting the film on location using steady cams, cinematographer Meryem Öztürk brings the viewer onto the busses and streets of Istanbul. There are no postcard-like scenes of Istanbul's old city, no historical monuments, no bridges and no helicopter shots over the Bosporus. Unlike many well-distributed, mainstream Turkish films of the past decade that focus on the lives of upper-middle class, bourgeois Turks, "Dust Cloth" looks at Turkey's social relations from the other end and offers the perspective of the economically oppressed. We navigate the city with the film's protagonists who use public busses and we find it easy to empathize with their continuous concern to be able to pay their rents.

On the face of it, "Dust Cloth" tells the private stories of two cleaning ladies. While doing that it brings to the fore the societal mechanisms that force them to lead two lives. In private, Nesrin (Asiye Dinçsoy) and Hatun (Nazan Kesal) have to be thick-skinned survivors in a violently competitive society. In public they have to play the role of the efficient, down-to-earth and always submissive worker. When they ask their daily cleaning rate to be raised from TL 80 to TL 110 ($28 to $38), the response can be cold and spiteful. Because of the weight of such financial concerns, the distinction between their private and public worlds quickly collapses. We watch the cleaning ladies spend their free time at home, gossiping about the things they had witnessed at the homes of their customers. And at work the next morning they use their private problems at home as excuses for the poor performance of the day.

Nesrin and Hatun have the same job but lead very different lives. Nesrin deals with the absence of her husband, constantly seeking him in the city. Scenes of her bus rides in the city alongside her 5-year-old daughter are heartbreaking. She wants to confront him to ask why he left her. We do not get to see the man - he exists in the film through his absence. In his absence, Nesrin finds it too difficult to survive and one of her customers, a young psychotherapist, advises her to get a full-time job, complete with social security and a decent wage. When Nesrin asks her to help her with the job-seeking process, she tells her off by complaining about her lack of proper education. The seemingly benevolent and altruistic attitude of the well-off woman suddenly reveals its true meaning as well-hidden condescension.

Hatun seems much more confident, thanks to having a savings account and her husband who runs a restaurant. She dreams of buying a house in the city's posh Moda neighborhood. Such a feeling of superiority and membership in the middle class leads her to play the role of a selfish, even heartless, woman of Istanbul. But that changes once she is confronted with a responsibility at the end of the film.

Featured at this year's Berlin Film Festival and the winner of three major awards - Best Film, Best Script, Best Actress at International Istanbul Film Festival - the film's depiction of Istanbul has been praised by numerous critics. In an article on the film, Camillo De Marco wrote about the film's "realist approach so typical of new Turkish arthouse film right from the start. ... The study of the class relationships which Nuri Bilge Ceylan throws himself into so magnificently in his films is turned on its head by the director of 'Dust Cloth.' Indeed, the middle-class citizens of the capital are observed by Nesrin (Asiye Dinçsoy, Yozgat Blues), who works as a cleaner in the elegant apartments of Kadıköy, and her older colleague and friend Hatun (Nazan Kesal, who has a role in almost all of Ceylan's films)."

These social and economic clashes between characters in "Dust Cloth" are part of a large clash, according to De Marco. "Their reality, on the other hand, is built on obstacles and frustration. The 'toil of living,' illustrated through reflective critique in recent Turkish arthouse film, according to Giovanni Ottone in his recent book 'Nuovo Cinema in Turchia' (Ed. Falsopiano). Another piece of the mosaic of a country with a multitude of identities that is trying more than ever, as we expected, to act as a link between Europe and the Middle East."

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