Wednesday 21 May 2014

At the LTFF: "Cycle"

You go into some films blindfolded, and thus can only ever be surprised by where they lead you. Dervis Zaim's hybrid work Cycle was apparently shot over several years, yet - as its title suggests - it keeps returning to the same spot in the calendar year: the annual sheep-washing festival held by shepherds living in the hills of Hasanpasa. This weekend of music, prayer and gunfire climaxes with the lambs being allowed to charge through the streets, in a cuddlier version of Pamplona's running with the bulls; the shepherd who steers his flock to a lake at the bottom of the hills fastest is declared that year's winner. Astonishingly, this competition is televised, and even has its own Phil "The Power" Taylor in Ramazan Bayar: an apparently unbeatable veteran who continues to see off far younger contenders.

To label Zaim's film straight documentary would be a little disingenuous, as it keeps falling back on elements of structured reality, as though it were an especially arcane ITV2 docusoap. The competition, certainly, appears genuine, yet between runs, Zaim offers stilted, possibly scripted encounters, perhaps designed to set his subjects at ease: more than once, he cuts to a medium close-up of a shepherd who's clearly been told to look meaningfully at something inferred off-camera, and a final-reel hunting expedition rings patently false. Yet Cycle may be less about these men - lined, taciturn, in most cases only just more forthcoming than their livestock - than it is about the rituals they're engaged in. There's a little of 2010's leftfield arthouse hit Le Quattro Volte in the way Zaim describes the interactions between the shepherds, the seasons and the landscape, while painterly cinematography does for this region in daylight what Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia did for it at night.

It goes somewhere new around the halfway mark, as one of Bayar's young rivals elects to break away from the herd and tries to make a go of it in the city, though we see how the job he ends up in - working the slaughterhouse floor in a halal butchers - entirely reconfigures his relationship with the sheep: where once he was content to jolly them along, now he's expected to slit their throats. (This may be A Metaphor for Capitalism.) A slightly lazy dichotomy - country good (because its people look out for one another, and step over spiders), city bad (because everybody's rude and on the make) - becomes apparent around this point, pushed through by Zaim's fondness for contrasting the sunbaked hills with precisely framed studies of the young shepherd freezing his ass off in the cold. Its partisanship can be forgiven, however, for the stunning images it beams back from this corner of the world: awkward and fumbling as it sometimes is about it, it is finally a film that takes off the blindfold.

Cycle screens at the Rio Cinema on Sat 24 at 6.45pm, and again on Tue 27 at 2.15pm.

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