Venice 2014: 'Sivas' review

★★★☆☆
Turkish filmmaker Kaan Mujdeci's debut feature film and Venice competition entry Sivas (2014) is a well-shot if slight story of a young boy who finds a place for himself in the world as the owner of a fighting dog. Dogan Izci plays Aslan - not the wise lion of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fame, but rather an 11-year-old with heaps of attitude. We first see Aslan setting off fireworks and then scrapping with his mates. He lives in a small village in rural Anatolia with his almost invisible mother and taciturn father and his slightly deranged grown up brother Sahin (Ozan Celik). Beyond the village the land stretches away as far as the eye can see, but Aslan's life is hemmed in by poverty and tradition.

One glimmer of hope comes when the school - following a regional decree - begins to organise a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but Aslan is disappointed when a rival boy takes the role of the prince opposite Ayse (Ezgi Ergin), a girl he fancies. In a sulk, Aslan begins to skip school and even goes to see his teacher in the hope of snatching back the role, but to no avail. Things only begin to look up when he goes to a dogfight. In a long and gruesome scene, the dogs fight until one is apparently killed. Aslan hangs about afterwards and notices the canine Sivas, a Kangal sheep dog, is still breathing. He cares for the wounded dog, building him a temporary shelter, and later, with the help of his brother, takes him home. Aslan appears to have finally found the missing piece to his own character.

The boy's bond with the dog elevates him in his own and everyone else's estimation. His father and brother take notices of him more, as do his school friends and finally Ayse. When his father tries to sell the dog, Aslan is enraged and his no holds barred tantrum make the adults back off. The boy is becoming a man. His own obvious affection for the dog is similar to that shown by Billy in Ken Loach's Kes (1969). Herein though lies the contradiction that will give the rest of the film its dramatic tension. As Sivas grows stronger, Aslan agrees for him to return to dogfighting, and the village elder (Muttalip Mujdeci) takes them to what he calls "a national championship" of the sport near Ankara, evading police roadblocks in the process. The pride and esteem he finally attains comes at the price of harming the dog, and taking away the one creature with which he has a proper relationship.

The dogfights, simulated or otherwise, are gruesome to behold and will for many be a major stumbling block. At the Venice press screening there were walk-outs and the credits were greeted by some loud protests. Yet dogfighting is a part of the lives for these communities and censoring that would essentially mean refusing to look at a part of the world. A wry humour is also in evidence, not only the universal experiences of childhood friendships and jealousies, but also in the hypocrisy of the adult world, the self-serving elder and the teacher who from the sound of his television is obviously watching a porno when Aslan comes round. Despite the ferocious violence of the dogfighting and the stark poverty, a surprising humanity underpins Sivas, making the film more of a traditional boy-and-his-dog tale than it initially appears.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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