26 Jun 2007

Hamam (1997): a brave attempt but it failed in its context

Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek

It is a beautiful film if we only consider the technical part of it, and its attempt to talk about homosexuality in an Islamic society is such a brave act. When homosexuality is still a great sin in Islamic views, openly discussing it and placing it in an Islamic society certainly require great courage. Ferzan did it, and he did it ten years ago. This is admirable, but beyond this concern, this film seems superficial. The narrative of the film is plain, the characters' emotional development is neglected, and the discussion of homosexuality in a conservative society is never touched. What is left in this film is only the sentimental music, the handsome faces of the actors, and the amazingly beautiful scenes of Istanbul.

The story line of this film is easy to catch. It is about why Frencesco decided to inherit and reopen his aunt's hamam, the Turkish bath. During his stay in Istanbul, he started to know more about his deceased aunt and accidentally found out that he is attracted to Mehmet, the son of the couple who manage the hamam. The longer he stays, the happier he is, and the journey has forced him to recognize his sexuality.

Why and how Frencesco suddenly realized that he is attractive to men, especially after his arrival in Turkey? Why does the director use his death as the ending of the film? These two questions highlights the feebleness of this film. It seems, when we look at them in a negative way, that the film still shows the stereotype of the hamam as a place where sins develop and of homosexuality as a great sin that whoever commits this crime should deserve only the death. Moreover, this is not the worst that is shown in the film. The emtional developemt of how Frencesco struggles to accept his sexuality is not successfully delivered. It is this lack of emotional development that makes the film fall into the scope of only presenting stereotypes.

The film in fact gives us a very suppressed atmosphere which flows throughout the whole film. It seems to plead the forgiveness for whatever acts that resulted in this tragic ending. But how could we identify with this sorrowfulness when the story line and the required emotions are not successfully conveyed? Lacking these basic elements only makes this sorrowfulness ridiculous, and it furthermore reaffirms that the theme of this film is simply inappropriate and is a sin itself. Homosexuality is not a sin and should not be treated in this way. Due to the Islamic background of Turkey, homosexuality is not such an open topic as it is in other western countries. Presenting hamam as a place that evokes men's sexual desires for other men would become a problem that basically degrades the country's cultural tradition. Ironically, the director seems to anticipate this already, and he arranges the death of Frencesco. Frencesco was stabbed to death by the man who rang his doorbell. Whatever reason that caused this death. It is required because it reflects the sad ambiance the film tries to bring about. However, this death is more like a statement that tries to rectify the wrong image of the hamam, of Turkey, and of Islam.

Talking about gay films is never easy because we are dealing with a topic that is not widely accepted even in our time now. Not long ago Brokenback Mountain (2005), directed by Ang Lee, just raised a big discussion on homosexuality in films. Indeed, Hamam is released way earlier than Brokeback Mountain, and of course its way of presenting homosexuality would be way more conservative than the later one. Time - space difference is a crucial effect on a film's presentation. Brokeback Mountain's success certainly benefits from this time - space difference. We are more comfortable now with this topic, and homosexuality is more acceptable now. However, this is not the only reason why Brokeback Mountain is successful. Its success comes from the highly narrative plot and the strong but subdued emotions that are clearly conveyed in sequence through the lens. It is this combination of the plot and emotions that give the film artistic values which make the film special and worthy to be remembered. Without that, a film is simply a series of images that could not evoke us to feel for it.

But don't forget that even a good film like Brokeback Mountain still receives harsh criticism from some conservative religious groups. Prejudice will always exist. Only when we all do our best to keep talking about it loudly and publicly, could we truly turn prejudice into fairness. Therefore, we should encourage the production of good films on the topic of homosexuality. But we all need to be careful about the context of these films. We must make it as clear as possible so that what we want to say to the world could be delivered to the audience successfully. Hamam is a beautiful film, but it truly lacks that artistic values that could give homosexuality a positive image in the Islamic world.

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