Brother’s Keeper has you in a state of ever-increasing frustration as you watch the obstacles young Yusef goes through as he tries to help his friend. A film that does its best to crush your spirit. Make no mistake; this is an assured and effective film from Ferit Karahan.
In the snow-covered expanse of the Anatolian mountains, an authoritarian boarding school provides an uncaring home for 12-year-old Yusuf and his best friend Memo. When Memo falls suddenly ill with a mysterious ailment, Yusuf does his best to find help, despite the bureaucratic obstacles that stand in his way.
As said in the opening, it seems as if Ferit Karahan has done his best in making sure that his audience is as frustrated and crushed as we see how damaging the environment the boys at the school as they go through their daily nightmare in Brother’s Keeper. He paints a damning picture that Kurdish families have to suffer through and still suffer through even now. As the events unfold, it feels as if a knife has been stuck into us.
You can’t believe, yet at the same time, fully believe that things like this have happened or continue to happen to this day. By the time we reach the final act in Brother’s Keeper, Karahan twists the knife that was already in our gut as we find out what happened to Memo, it hurts you to know what the cause was, and as the revel unfurls around us, it comes across as cruel.
Though cruelness is what we have experienced the entire film, from the opening scene of seeing young Memo have to wash himself and his two friends in cold water in -35 degree conditions. To the systematic examples of how the school’s failures to its students, boys being slapped for indiscretions, their heads shaved because their hairstyles are too modern, to not being allowed to speak their own language of Kurdish. It is cruel and the lack of empathy shown at times haunts you.
These boys have nothing and are left to practically fight for their survival at this boarding school, and if it wasn’t bad enough that their teachers lacked empathy for them, the level of pent up anger and frustration within the boys is palpable. So, they let it out on the ones around them and as you will see with this film. It becomes vitally important to see this frustration among the younger teachers. The teachers are as much a victim to this regime as the students are; neither can escape, and thus, that unforgiving cycle continues.
Karahan adds some dark humour to his film as well. As teachers and staff of the school get brought in to help unravel the mystery of Memo’s mystery ailment, they each slip on the shiny surface of the sickroom and place their hands on Memo’s face to declare that he doesn’t have a fever. As these two moments continue throughout Brother’s Keeper, it becomes apparent how unprepared, and frankly, inept the school and teachers are around them. At one point, you have to wonder if it is us that is being mocked as this repetitive nature continue. For example, at no point does anyone try to solve the floor issue to stop people from getting hurt just entering a room; they also never warn the person entering, almost allowing the person to suffer as they have suffered.
That suffering part rings true with two of the teachers who seem to have been former students; they know how and what the students do to circumnavigate around the restricted issues they face at the school. What shows in these instances is how cyclical everything is here. These boys are seen as their families only chance, much like the current teaching staff were probably their families only chance at having a decent earner in their family.
It is dark to think of things this way; still, Karahan never lets us forget the hopeless nature presented for the Kurdish children residing at the school. It is unforgiving yet engrossing; you want it to skip to the end because of how bleak it all is for these boys and for their teachers who are in a no-win situation in trying to raise them. No one wins in this situation; sure, some staff try to eke out a little extra from their roles, but at a push, that is chains for tyres and some of the pocket money, the boys earn. Brother’s Keeper places us in a desperately grim and oppressive setting and rarely gives us a chance of seeing hope in its 84-minute runtime.
Like the food in the cafeteria, nothing is wasted in this film; this is as lean a story as you will see with little to no baggage weighing it down. The moments of silence are punctuated with your frustrations and hope for these boys, for Memo to get better, for the staff to get to the root cause of the issue directly. The way the blaming of one person to the next carries on throughout has you clenching your fists as you can see that as they are trying to find out the reason why Memo is ill, no one is in a position to improve on his condition. Cold stares will not help him.
However, as mentioned before, there is a glimmer of hope in this story; Yusuf is steadfast in his efforts to get the help that Memo needs. Some of the teachers also want to help but are limited in how they can due to the remote nature of their location. We may have a harsh and unforgiving environment presented before us, but some people are willing to try; they are just woefully unequipped to be able to help. Do things after these events work out in a positive manner for Yusuf, the boys or even the teachers? Most likely not in the truth, it doesn’t appear as if their world will alter dramatically anytime soon, maybe though future generations will see some better fortune and that situation that befall boys like Memo at this school never happen again. We can but only hope.
It mustn’t go unnoticed that the younger teachers make the efforts to try and help Memo, who get actively frustrated at their continually failing attempts to get him to a hospital. Also, almost all of the teachers are males, and with that, there is a tendency for those characters to be colder to their students than the one female teacher that we see is. In a small moment, instead of shouting at the boy for dropping his coat, she runs to pick it up and put it on him—a moment of softness and empathy that has not been present at all beforehand.
Brother’s Keeper is a complex picture as it tries to navigate itself around an environment that takes no prisoners, even if those “prisoners” are children with a heartbreaking performance from the young Samet Yildiz, who does his best to haunt you with his eyes throughout. You are left with a memorable, intimate feature that becomes hard to shake off.
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