Friday 3 December 2021

Please release me: "Dying to Divorce"

The documentary Dying to Divorce, an equal parts grim, emotive and illuminating dispatch from the Turkish gender wars, opens with a bleak set of facts. One in three Turkish women are reported to have been victims of domestic violence. Divorce remains frowned upon, and a running counter of femicides in the year 2015 - the year the film opens - ticks up to 293 before director Chloe Fairweather cuts away. Any corrective seems unlikely to come from the top down: we see Prime Minister Erdoğan being roundly applauded for a speech in which he baldly states "You cannot put men and women on an equal footing. That's against nature." It may however bubble up from the ground, in the form of Ipek Bozkurt, head of a team of activist-lawyers Fairweather fell in step with midway through the last decade. Bozkurt has her hands full, but tailing her as she goes about her daily activity gives the filmmaker uncommon access to any number of stark, sobering stories. Dying to Divorce is barely a quarter-hour old when it introduces us to Arzu, a woman whose husband took a shotgun to her arms and legs so she couldn't leave him; said husband subsequently walked away to be with his mistress, and is currently imprisoned on a separate charge of rape. (Arzu's father admits he may have made a mistake marrying his child off at 14.) Observing Bozkurt's meetings with clients such as Arzu also opens up a revealing contrast. On one hand, Fairweather shows us the modern, metropolitan Istanbul, with its trams, Facebook pages and female lawyers. On the other, however, we spy attitudes and atrocities that look and feel very much like holdovers from the Middle Ages.

Fairweather, a British documentarist, is here walking in the footsteps of the pioneering Kim Longinotto: her film would make an instructive double-bill with Longinotto's 1998 film Divorce Iranian Style, or an instructive triple-bill with 2005's Sisters in Law. Yet her approach isn't as strictly fly-on-the-wall as Longinotto's would be: she's giving an overview of many years, and with the help of editors Andrea Cuadrado and Paul Dosaj, she structures her material for maximum impact. We hear the story of how Arzu was gunned down before we see the full extent of her wounds; later, we're introduced to another of Bozkurt's clients, former TV anchorwoman Kübra, as a garrulous on-camera presence, before Fairweather cuts to her as she is today - motionless and struggling to form a sentence, having been brained by her ex. ("She really loved talking," notes the mother who now serves as her full-time carer and interpreter.) Considerable effort has been made to banish any grey areas or ambiguities, those mitigating circumstances that let abusers off the hook: these women's stories are properly shocking, and being deployed not just to make a case against the ingrained chauvinism and misogyny of the Turkish state, but to comprehensively clinch it. Around them, Fairweather skilfully knits in exterior events. In this context, the attempted coup of 2016 becomes a public manifestation of what had previously gone on behind closed doors: another terrifying eruption of male violence. The 2017 referendum that handed Erdoğan even greater powers, meanwhile, is reframed as not just democratically suspect, but suggestive of how this entire country finds itself in an abusive relationship with its so-called strongman leader.

In both cases, Dying to Divorce alights upon material that illustrates how hard it is to overturn a certain patriarchal mindset, and just what the women Fairweather places front and centre are up against. Bozkurt exhibits the tenacity and optimism you'd expect from the heroine of a documentary such as this, but as the film proceeds - and her cases slalom through the courts - the walls seem to close in on her. This is no easy breeze to social justice, but a genuinely testing period that takes in terror attacks, soldiers in the streets, the loss of that referendum, and the arrest of her friends and colleagues. There's a moment around two-thirds in when you genuinely start to worry about her ability to make it through to the end credits in one piece - which, of course, is the film's point: that under regimes such as this, even an educated, successful woman - one with a network of friends, relatives and professional contacts - is at threat. For the time being, Ipek Bozkurt speaks up because Kübra finds it hard to; she moves and fights, because Arzu cannot. But she knows, as any woman knows, that all this could just as easily happen to her, too. In the final moments, we watch hundreds if not thousands of feminists, young and old, defying the authorities and flooding the streets of central Istanbul for 2019's International Women's Day March, deemed an illegal act of protest by the Erdoğan administration. It's an image that conveys a fragile yet stirring sort of hope - until these women come nose-to-nose with the heavily armoured, predominantly male ranks of the city's riot squad. The struggle goes on.

Dying to Divorce screens this Wednesday at the Cameo, Edinburgh.

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