It was in 2004, with a story about a marriage of convenience between two unlikely, displaced lovers, that German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin launched to international acclaim. While some had known him previously through his 2000 road trip film In July, it was instead the apathy and the angst of Head-On — pairing the frustrated, isolated Cahit with the secluded, suicidal Sibel — that captivated both audiences and critics around the world. It was a portrait of anger and loneliness, accentuated with flecks of love.
But with his latest effort, The Edge of Heaven, Akin has brightened his color palate considerably. Which is not to say that he has left all that pensiveness or pessimism behind him, but rather that Heaven is optimistic enough to suggest that there may indeed be a light waiting for us at the end of this long, grueling tunnel.
“I was in a much different mood this time around,” Akin recently said on the phone from Turkey, shortly after Edge of Heaven cleaned up at the German Film Awards, taking home top prizes for best picture, director and screenplay. “With Head-On, I had the opportunity to put in a lot of the anger I had at the time, but I feel different now, and so I’m not surprised that my characters feel differently.”
Unlike Head-On, which operated within a narrow range of emotion, Edge of Heaven is a mosaic of characters of varying ages, ethnicities and emotional states, all tripping over each other in their search for a real connection. In particular, the movie centers around two characters, Nejat and Ayten, who never meet but instead stand at the center of their distinct worlds.
Nejat is a Turkish native teaching at a German university and caring for his homesick father, while Istanbul activist Ayten, whose own mother lives in Germany, forges unexpected bonds with an idealistic German student and her mother.
The movie takes flight when Ayten’s mother has a chance encounter with Negat’s father. A death begets remorse, which then leads to a cross-country journey for all involved — a journey that is all about the nature of searching. Nejat is searching for his life’s purpose. Ayten’s quest is of a more political nature. Nejat’s father is searching for the peace of home, and Ayten’s mom for economic stability.
But it is in Nejat’s decision to return to his homeland that we sense something different in Akin’s worldview. Chucking his college education out the window and deciding instead to buy and operate Turkish bookshop, Edge of Heaven is really about his attempts to reintegrate himself into the place he left, building up to a calm and tranquil denouement in which Nejat tracks down his estranged father at his seaside home and sits on the beach, waiting for dad to return from his daily fishing trip.
“Now that was really an important moment for me,” Akin said. “I’ve never made a film out a novel, but this last shot is based upon the very last line of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, which is about waiting and hoping — hope not only for Nejat, that his father appears, but the hope felt by so many of these characters. That sort of parallels my position right now, one of waiting and hoping.”
Given the critical acclaim the film has already enjoyed in Europe, and the early buzz it is receiving from American critics, it’s clear that these sentiments of patience and optimism are connecting with people around the world. And Akin said that in today’s increasingly globalized society, where borders no longer matter as much as they once did, his stories of nation-less people, struggling with issues of identity and connection, are tapping into a timely sentiment.
“It’s very a much a story about leaving and then returning to your roots and I think now, more than ever, it’s the reality that a lot of people are overrun and beaten down by globalization,” Akin said. “But I wanted to make a movie this time that was more about people coming together, about these people on a quest who find themselves uniting. It’s a sign of being human to have dreams and to chase them — my dream was always to become a director…
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Akin’s characters are thinking more positive, and that his films are becoming brighter. If the dreams of this German-born Turk have come true, then why not those of the next guy?
Opens May 21 at Film Forum