The Güney Trilogy: Sürü (Turkey, 1978) by Yilmaz Güney


Sürü (The Herd)

Director: Zeki Ökten

Writer: Yilmaz Güney

Country: Turkey 1978

Run time: 129 minutes

”There’s to go and to never come back. Then there’s to return and to not find.”

(*spoilers ahead*)

turkish filmmaker yilmaz güney was serving a prison sentence throughout the production of Sürü, his 1978 epic about a nomadic sheep-herding family whose bitter rivalry with a local clan expells them into an arduous cross-country journey to sell livestock in the city of ankara. as is the usual with güney, the prison term was not completed--his sentence was based on a variety of dubious claims by which the turkish government tried to keep him away from the camera--he escaped in 1981 and fled to france where he was immediately slapped with a Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival for his film Yol (1982), one of the best films i watched last year. another one of his films i saw last year was Duvar (1983) which in turkish means ‘the wall’; so between 1978 and 1983, güney cranked out three films that all have iconic single-word titles (in turkish Yol translates to ‘the road’) and take a protracted and unflinching look at the regressively patriarchal culture in a turkey on its way towards modernization, capitalism and all its attendant and foreign morals. these films are often unsympathetic in their gaze (hence the intense dislike of güney by the country’s authorities) and yet his stories are told not from a higher moral ground, but with the investedness of a patriot and paced with the patience of a documentary. none of these films achieve any kind of closure for its suffering characters, nor is satisfaction of our expectations their ultimate goal. Yol is the tortured poetry of infidelity teased by redemption, and Duvar is a miserable account of several prison-breaks attempted by children, in the style of bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). of the three, however, Sürü takes the misery-cake with its tale of two mangled lovers that promises as much freedom and joy as it delivers desolation and tragedy. it’s the first in what i refer to as güney’s Herd Trilogy, and the most complete affirmation of his status as one of the most compelling characters in 20th century turkish arts and culture, and a filmmaker worthy of the global stage.   

Sivan (tarik akan) son of Hamo, the egomaniac shepherd of a peasant family known as Veysikans, marries the daughter of one of the Hallilans, who are bitter rivals to the Veysikans. the marriage was an attempt by both clans to reach a truce, but after the death of the three children by Sivan’s wife, Berivan (melike demirag), and her failing health, Hamo develops a vicious hatred of her, and shuns her as representative of everything he dislikes of the Hallilans. his feud with the Hallilans results in having to embark to the city of ankara--an unfortunate distance from their home in eastern turkey--in order to sell a herd of three hundred sheep. the rest of the film thereon is something of a road movie, not from one destination to another but, in essence, from one era to the next. the film ends with a final shot of Hamo running through the streets of ankara trying to find the last of his relatives, who suddenly disappears into the crowd in order to escape him and his dominion. the camera zooms out on the scene as a chasm of anonymity swallows him up along with his status as a Veysikan and his alleged superiority over the Hallilans. i was reminded in that final scene of what was said earlier in the film by one of the Hallilans as they run after Berivan’s departing train, pleading for her to return: ‘There is to go and to never come back. And there is to return and to not find’. it’s the latter of these sentences that is more terrifying, for it suggests the kind of irreversible change that time and space alone can’t account for.

it would be interesting to investigate just how much of vittorio de sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) inspired Sürü, there’s no doubt güney saw and move affected by that film. both films examine the transition from the communal accountabilities of rural family life to the obstinate anonymities of city life. the final scene of Sürü is conceptually identical to that of Bicycle Thieves: the camera pans out as the main character is lost in the walkabout crowd of urbanites completely oblivious to the brief epic to which the hapless protagonist has just succumbed to. but by almost every metric, Sürü is the much more devastating contemplation of the anonymity, alienation and amoral relativism that Bicycle Thieves became famous for.

one fact that perhaps best captures the power of melike demirag’s performance is that she won The Golden Orange (turkish film award) for best actress for her portrayal of Berivan, the catch being: throughout the over two hour film, of which she is in the majority of scenes, her character never speaks. her silence is not from a lack of words--her eyes are too active for that--but perhaps as a protest against her husband’s forbearance of his father, against the broader injustices of her circumstances, and as a quiet vigil to mourn her three attempts at motherhood. her only possession, which she leaves behind for the journey, are two separately caged birds. she tends to them as if they are all she has to say to her husband. both of them are trapped, one in less obvious confinement that the other: her by a viciously patriarchal society and by him by his unthinking allegiance to the herd-instinct that prevents him from leaving with Berivan to the city for better medical care. 

as a storytelling gimmick, her silence is an effective source of suspense throughout, a what-in-the-box mcguffin inside of which the film’s moral compass might be found. but because this is a yilmaz güney film, and joy is therefore always a thing in the rearview, Berivan takes her silence to the very end, without so much as a knowing wink, nor smile in the direction of hope. 

despite the language barrier and the four decades since production, this film can still find lasting connections with an audience today. the topic is an everlasting one: the challenges of leaving one’s native herd, and the more difficult feat of thereafter being at peace with the herd instinct within. what every city promises, in this respect, is to solve the problem of which herd to join via the most enigmatic allegiance of all: anonymity. 

in summa summarum: i give this film 11.11 thicc turkish mustaches out of 15 stolen sheep.