16th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival
March 16–April 2, 2017
The Museum of Fine Arts
It could be any society in the world—ruled by dictators, oligarchs, or elected officials—for all societies have class divisions. The society we watch in 61 Days, directed by Yüksel Aksu, happens to be Ula, Turkey, in the 1970s, so we witness propaganda songs and daily routine in an almost utopian village celebrating Ramadan. In the surrounding countryside, poor workers raise and harvest the tobacco crop. They sing and make music during and after their backbreaking labor, reminiscent of slave songs in the United States, for in any society with an oppressed element, music lifts the collective spirit, as does belief in a God and following religious codes, in the case of this movie, Islam.
We don’t need to know Turkish history of the 70s, as the class divide in 61 Days is a universal, as is the character Karan’s (Yilmaz Bayraktar) attempt to unionize the field hands. His father owns their labor and takes the largest share of profits, ensuring their poverty. Karan mixes with the farm hands, brings them cases of soda while explaining their exploitation. At night, he and his communist friends paint red slogans on village walls. But the workers aren’t yet ready to form a union—they fear “communism”—but they like Karan and welcome his fraternal leadership.
The protagonist of the movie is Adem (Berat Efe Parlar), the son of field hands, who at the beginning of the movie graduates from elementary school with honors, along with Berna, his rich classmate with whom he shares a childhood love. Adem’s mother proclaims to her fellow field hands, “He’ll be a doctor! He’ll be an engineer!” Instead, Adem insists on working for the local soda seller Cibar (Cem Yilmaz), who spouts Ataturk and religious slogans as part of his mentoring role to the boy. Adem pedals the soda cart from town center to the Aegean seaside, calling out, “Soda! Soda!”
Village life and the soda apprenticeship set the scene for Adem’s journey in this movie: he has potential and ambition, he’s a protégé of both Karan and Cibar, who represent opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum—activism vs. tradition. The backdrop is Ramadan with its meanings and month of fasting. Adem listens to the local imam (Macit Koper) preaching essential codes of conduct—such as not eyeing women lasciviously or lying. Such sins result in having to double the fast to 61 days. Children aren’t allowed to fast, but many do for a few symbolic hours in order to appease their longing to participate in Ramadan’s requirements (though later we see adult practitioners cheating on their fast). Adem secretly takes on the adults’ total fast, which leads to moments of delirium, with animation, as he pedals the soda cart for miles in scorching weather. Viewers may watch his grueling effort and think about the effect of religious indoctrination on children’s imaginations.
The movie has some trouble because of its dual genre: comedy and drama. Village life plays out delightfully: the scenes of peasant life and village hubbub at the open market surrounded by shops create an idyllic community. The mosque scenes and imam’s preachings are laced with humor, such as when the townsmen beg the imam to switch the prayer hour so they can watch the last game in the World Cup. That scene of villagers under a makeshift roof in the town square, cheering at the TV rigged in front of them, becomes even funnier when we see one man on the rooftop holding up a tall antenna. Overall, the villagers know and accept each other, their positions in society, and the rote role of religion in their lives. Their intimacy, even in the mosque, exudes warmth and cohesion. In a way, the people are caricatures, never deeply developed, which fits the comedy’s light mood and aura of blemishless village life. So, when the movie turns suddenly serious with the class issue leading to tragedies, the mix of genres may disrupt the artistic continuity for some viewers—a similar shift happens in Robert Benigni’s comedy/drama Life is Beautiful (1997).
The outstanding parts of 61 Days for foreign audiences are its constant ethnic music, all varieties of it; its rich portrayal of the landscapes and cultural habits of rural villagers in southwestern Turkey in the 70s (harvesting tobacco by lamplight); and the exposure to a child’s experience of Islam and Ramadan. The movie’s light, ironic touch, its playful humor and caricature fall into conflict with the serious class-divide and political material, which then affect a maudlin ending.