Dispatch from Sarajevo:
notes on the political correctness of differential laughter

by Emre Caglayan

My experience of the 22nd Sarajevo Film Festival (12-20 August 2016), which I joined as a participant of its Talents program, reminded me of a conversation I had with an academic about his paper on the films of Roy Andersson at a conference the previous summer. Despite my appreciation of Andersson’s bleak humor, I confessed to having problems laughing at his then latest film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), particularly during the scenes involving two novelty salesmen. Here were two people leading a pathetic life, and laughing at it would be dismissing what is a very real and pressing existential problem, or so I felt in unease. Upon my declaration, we talked about the difference between laughing at and laughing with fictional characters, which I rarely thought about in the context of viewing films and the unsettling dynamic of collective hesitation on when to laugh in movie theatres.

Thinking about this made me realize how rarely I laughed with genuine enthusiasm at jokes that others commonly received with exuberance when watching movies. Indeed, I often chuckle at things nobody finds amusing, but at other moments I am clueless as to what prompts people to giggle. Perhaps part of this confusion about what to laugh can be attributed to an early onset of a middle-age crisis: Am I supposed to laugh at this? Is this really what characterizes today’s sense of humor? Occasionally, it might be easier to concede my lack of knowledge concerning a specific cultural reference that informs the punch line of a joke, though more frequently, my personal tastes and distastes determine its evaluation. Sometimes, however, there is an element of uncertainty involved in laughing: an uncertainty based on whether laughter is the most suitable or proper type of reaction to a joke, which is deliberately rendered obscure and vague in its intent or context.

The distinction between laughing at and laughing with, when combined with the conundrum of hesitation, brings about an interesting set of tensions on how different audiences react to the same film. While laughing to keep oneself from crying may happen in film viewing, thinking of laughter as a pretext for other latent reactions is especially pertinent today. Now is a time when laughter, alongside mockery, is regularly deployed against political figures as a means to resist or critique prevailing political discourses, or it may simply function as a coping mechanism to relieve us from surreal developments in contemporary politics. The audience at the Sarajevo Film Festival was responsive to films in different ways from me, and this discrepancy between my own and others’ reactions led me to question some of the ethical implications of humor in some films. This was particularly evident during two screenings: Amat Escalante’s Sangre (2004) and Mehmet Can Mertoğlu’s Albüm (2016). Both films are feature-length debuts, raw and audacious outputs of artists wanting to make a strong impression by investigating sensitive issues. It’s a risqué strategy that is simultaneously beguiling and provocative, albeit in all engrossing and productive ways.
On many levels, Sangre and Albüm are very different films, but what attracts me to both is their investment in realism – that old, sketchy concept, upon which much of film theory engaged in decades-long skirmishes via delineating it as a political weapon of choice. I will not summarize the theoretical undercurrent of the conceptual enigma that realism poses here, but as a critical tool, here realism can help unlock and provoke fresh discussions of how these particular films provide commentaries on their respective cultural politics. Both films depict situations ordinarily observable in day-to-day life, but by framing these situations via unusual perspectives and through unconventional film style, the films deliver trenchant criticisms of social attitudes and assumptions. Much of this political critique depends on transgressing ethical boundaries and positioning the subject matter according to an ambivalent politics of humor. On the whole, the films are characterized by a deadpan, farcical and absurd sensibility – but with an ambivalence that ultimately has the potential to induce and sustain a degree of ethical sensitivity on part of its spectators.

On description, Sangre sounds less a comedy than an unflinching, psychological investigation of the thin line between fidelity and independence, filtered through quotidian details of a particularly squalid Mexican setting. It concerns the isolated lifestyle of a working class couple in a provincial town who, despite their public-oriented jobs, have built a delicate private life with little interaction with the world outside. Diego, a cross-eyed, chubby doorman at a governmental institution, whose responsibility is restricted to counting the number of people that enter the building, seems accustomed to and content with the daily rituals that he shares with his spouse Blanca. Their favorite pastime is watching television: cuddling together on their scruffy sofa, snacking on junk food, excited at the incessant roll of serial soap operas. Indeed, their emotional investment in fictional television has infiltrated their own code of conduct. This is a couple that live their lives as if in a soap opera. At work, they are seemingly restrained, modest and minding their own business, and yet at home, they are nothing short of two lovebirds. Regularly copulating in different rooms, their passion is as intense, exaggerated and intractable as in any melodramatic soap opera.

This perfect routine is soon disrupted by a phone call, nervously picked up by Diego – it’s a lifeline sought by his daughter, presumably from a previous marriage, asking to move in. For Diego, this is all too distressing, and he initially refuses in order to avoid having Blanca’s jealousy. But, out of decency, he arranges a temporary hotel room for his daughter to settle in, only to find her lifeless body on the floor the next day. This situation pushes Diego to make profound changes to his daily routine. The scene, which sits at the peak of the film’s emotional progression, is depicted through an astonishing choice in direction: Diego sits on a bed, eyes down on the girl’s body, takes a deep breath, and utters “help...” with an intonation half-way between an awareness of nobody present and a hope for someone or something reaching out.

In many ways, Sangre ticks all the boxes for a minimalist, festival film from Latin America. It has an introverted and laconic leading male lead, long takes that exhibit protracted and banal daily rituals (for instance, a lengthy scene where Blanca takes a long time to prepare breakfast, only to have it burnt by Diego in a matter of seconds – in itself a singular example of cinematic irony), a narrative pacing that is bound to be labeled slow, and a baffling closing sequence leaving Diego’s existential conflict largely unresolved. Nonetheless, Escalante’s aesthetics is more deserving than run-of-the-mill Latin American miserabilism, and brings to mind a Bressonian sensibility in direction and staging. It has a notable use of non-professional actors, or more specifically toneless delivery of dialogue, inscrutable facial expressions, robotic body movements. It also has an austere precision of shot compositions, sparse mise-en-scène and a hushed sound design. It was by no surprise that Escalante mentioned Robert Bresson as a prevailing influence in the post-screening Q&A, moderated by Sight and Sound editor Nick James. Indeed, Sangre builds on several motifs that Bresson was renowned and praised for. Long-remembered are Bresson’s static camera positions rarely in movement, tight framings that frequently fragment surrounding space and bodies of actors, a deliberate misuse of editing conventions in regards to ordinary cinematic punctuation (for example, direct cuts for temporal ellipses or fade-to-black for continuous scenes), and, most famously, the deployment of what Bresson called “human models.” These were amateur actors cast for their physical traits (Bresson defined those as a “movement from the exterior to the interior”) and according to Bresson, important “not [because] what they show [us] but what they hide from [us], and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Sangre borrows Bresson’s human models… ..who are non-professional actors used to concealing emotions.

But this Bressonian asceticism did not fare well with the audience at Sarajevo. On the contrary, large groups of audience members collapsed in derisive convulsions and muttered what I interpreted as dissatisfaction or ridicule on viewing scenes that were peculiar, in terms of both the aesthetics and subject matter. Presumably, the source of this collective and uncontrollable laughter partly resided in the film’s eccentric style, its ostentatious display of unappealing bodies, and its frank sexuality, all of which were misconstrued as grotesque or perhaps even intolerable. Even more problematic for me were the ways in which certain audience members sniggered at Diego’s physical attributes. In particular, the acting style seemed to be greeted with derision and denigration. It was as if the audience laughed at the film because it violated the rules of the game, that viewers disdained the transgression of cinematic conventions as inferior filmmaking – or in layman’s terms, they thought it a bad film, and that it was only fair to sneer at the filmmaker’s ineptitude and treat the film as a second-rate picture. This unexpected audience response strangely fuelled my own excitement over the film, albeit against a more dominant discernment of mockery insofar as the rest of the auditorium was concerned.

Sometimes laughter was warranted, though it was merely a side effect of the film’s overall design. For example, I admit that I submitted to the collective laughter during the scene where Blanca bent over a plastic table and demanded Diego to take her hard, only to have the table break down in a moment of Chaplinesque comedy. The staging in this scene is typically Bressonian and, understandably, the humor arises from the incongruity between the indifferent acting style and the couple’s purported passion for each other, a contradiction that transformed sexual intercourse into a peculiarly mechanical activity. But there is more: the scene not only functions as a comedic interlude, but also illustrates how this relationship, despite its hyper-melodramatic passion, rests on a tenuous foundation and functions as an indication that the relationship is to be threatened further along in the narrative.

Now, the question here is not whether laughter is the appropriate response, but the ways in which different types of laughter are inextricably tied up with notions of value judgments. This is where I think the distinction between laughing at and laughing with figures significantly, as it has the capacity to serve as an indicator of how we evaluate aesthetic merit. More importantly, it helps us to discern a distinctively humanistic quality: the aptitude for empathy. If the flatness of Bressonian “human models” conceals emotions, then it liberates the viewer to explore and ascribe emotions as pertinent here. In this case, what makes us laugh brings out what is in us. In other words, laughing with or laughing at Diego is a matter of choice – a choice that distinguishes empathy from contempt.

Images from Albüm:
Opening scene of Albüm, a man waits for a cow to arrive… … to assist both the copulation…
… and the following birth. The film starts with images of artificial reproduction, asking how such standard operating procedures could animate social behavior.

While Sangre is inspired by Robert Bresson, Albüm features a wider range of cinematic references. Its bizarre opening sequence, for example, reminds me of Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing Sátántangó (1994), in which a godforsaken village is slowly taken over by a group of loose, bellowing cattle wandering through its streets. The village’s fate then is dramatically changed with church bells announcing the return of two deranged outcasts. Equally mystifying in its formal arrangement, Albüm uses both the cattle and sound motifs to a different effect. Here, at a slaughterhouse somewhere in Turkey, animals are controlled by humans: a bull is chaperoned by men to copulate, followed by a young calf pulled out of a cow’s womb, while such automation of cattle breeding is strangely accentuated through screeching industrial background noise. The function of this prologue, combined with the ensuing microscopic image depicting the artificial fertilization of an egg, elucidates the film’s main theme. In a world where sex and fertility have become so routine, habitual and culturally standardized, what happens to sterility? How do people cope with infertility and the perceived social pressures of procreation?

The Bahtiyaroğlu family here facing an adoption agency, visibly uncomfortable. To overcome the social pressures of fertility, the couple decide to document a pregnancy that did not quite exist.
Although these days taking a picture might just stand in for reality, and indeed they know how to stage different aspects of their life… … to the extent that a midwife and a doctor become instruments to a purported birth at the hospital.

Albüm answers these questions by presenting the quintessential middle-class Turkish couple: husband Cüneyt and wife Bahar, or the Bahtiyaroğlu family, the cipher they use to introduce themselves to adoption agencies. This is a couple wanting to adopt a baby, but in a self-imposed way they fabricate their entire lives in order to preserve their social acceptability. So the film begins with a series of scenes in which the Bahtiyaroğlu family pose for pictures – collected, presumably, for the eponymous title of the film – during a bogus period of pregnancy. Most of the film is in essence a comedy of manners and a satire on the extent to which this couple will do anything but admit the truth insofar as the adoption is concerned. The film suggests that infertility as perceived in Turkish society is something to be embarrassed about, something inherently tied to notions of social status. In order to construct a convincing lie, the couple document their deception with forensic detail and perseverance, going as far as bribing a doctor to recreate a spurious hospital scene following the purported childbirth.

The film is composed of long-take set-pieces overlaid with a deadpan sense of humor, echoing the absurdist visions captured time and again by the likes of Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor, 2000) and Tsai Ming-liang (Vive L’Amour, 1994), and revamped with an incisive and subtle social criticism characterized by the Romanian New Wave. Indeed, the scrupulous cinematography is the result of a Romanian connection, Marius Panduru, who previously shot Police, Adjective (2009). The key to the film’s humor is defamiliarizing what is familiar, suggested invariably through meticulous staging, distended temporality, and exaggeration of behaviors that have strangely become customary. In doing so, Mertoğlu mocks the practices associated with an emblematic 21st century phenomenon: documenting one’s own private life through various social media applications, so as to construct a social identity ostentatiously conformist in its outlook.

… showing sleepy heads on tables, with never-ending queues… … arriving at Bahar’s desk: apparently it is a typical day at work.

And yet the film’s sardonic take on contemporary Turkey is not simply limited to the ways in which digital technology awakens a narcissistic creature inside all of us, but it features a wide array of astute observations on other important issues, ranging from class relations to social behavior, from racial tensions to bureaucracy. For example, Bahar is introduced as a white-collar worker, at a public office so mind-numbingly tedious that employees appear to have fallen asleep on their desks. The extremity of this mundane and humdrum occupation is represented in an impressive long take, where the camera tracks along a corridor, moving in between nearly identical office rooms. The obvious reference here is the infamous traffic jam sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), which likewise features a tracking shot moving alongside a horizontal line perpendicular to a long queue of cars stuck on a provincial road. While for Godard such traffic jams conveyed the ridiculousness of capitalism, Mertoğlu seems to suggest institutional bureaucracy as some form of postmodern malaise analogous to eternal sleep.

There are, however, moments in which the film’s humor moves to a whole different level in penetrating sensitive issues in Turkish cultural discourses. For instance, in their first interview at an adoption agency, the couple is shown a baby with a darker skin tone, which is refused on the basis that it looks Armenian or Kurdish. This is a daring moment in which the film abandons political correctness for another reason, namely demonstrating the disgust and abhorrence regularly found in the treatment of minority populations in Turkey. Is it okay to laugh at this provocation? Isn’t there an ethical boundary that has just been crossed? Does chuckling at it not simply reaffirm the extent of that particular attitude, even reinforcing the widely held, state-influenced disrespect for ethnic minorities? Prescriptive answers may not do justice to the complexity of the problem, but surely the type of laughter elicited after such stunts could hint at the extent to which the film subverts principles of political correctness mainly in order to provoke a response from its audience. Personally, I was among the group that broke into a hoot of laughter, quickly followed by criticizing myself, realizing that perhaps I had fallen captive to the film’s overt cynicism. Nonetheless this is a good example of how cinema has the capacity to transform social attitudes by using humor as an unlikely instrument, or how it can be political without the radical political aesthetics so entrenched in our writing about film.

Another, an even more cynical scene, reflects an aspect of social reality in such a way that it ceases to be amusing altogether. Following their successful adoption of an infant, the Bahtiyaroğlu family moves to a conservative Anatolian town where they make friends with another local couple. We watch as the women hysterically pamper their babies in one room, while in another, men sit and watch football, cursing loudly at the television with what may be the most offensive and degrading use of language towards women in all of film history. Indeed, the scene lays bare a misogyny that afflicts Turkish society and the ways in which it is ingrained in language, through largely untranslatable idioms. While swearing on screen often cause entertainment and delight for film viewers, rarely does withholding one’s laughter function as an ethical and political act and a form of resistance.

In this respect, Albüm is not only a comedy film, it is also a film about the nature of comedy: it features question marks about the extent of comedy, and about its ethical and political implications. It elicits laughter, but immediately demands an assessment of that laughter in terms of its political implications. Like Sangre, Albüm is powerful and beguiling because it mirrors social life and comments on it. Both films beg the question – they demand we talk about problems in daily life that viewers may otherwise miss. In a way, the films echo a Bazinian idea that the camera reframes the world in such a way as to awaken our senses. In other words, these are common scenes from everyday situations, though not typically recognizable in our own daily routines. We rarely dwell on the mundane and the banal, but cinema transforms the quotidian into something worth investigating. With this, these films use comedic realism to also confirm one of cinema’s greatest achievements: its capacity to provoke self-reflexivity on the level of the audience response. In this instance, to watch a screen is to look upon it and see oneself, and see daily life in all its bareness from the outside, as if in a daydream.