The move from village to city has become a leitmotiv of the past century, as traditional cultures struggle to keep pace with modernity and urban centers fill with struggling immigrants. In Journey to the Sun, two such drifters cross paths on the streets of Istanbul. Gentle Mehmet (Newroz Baz), a recent arrival, uses his sharp ears and a long, delicate instrument to spot underground leaks for the water company. He sleeps in a windowless room with four other men, and his girlfriend, Arzu (Mizgin Kapazan), works in a laundromat. Berzan (Nazmi Quirix), a member of Turkey’s embattled Kurdish minority who was forced by political turmoil to flee his tiny hamlet near the Iraqi border, now sells music cassettes from a pushcart by the Bosporus. An unlikely friendship forms between the two young men, though Berzan keeps his continuing involvement in the Kurdish underground a secret. When Mehmet is mistakenly arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, he learns the true value of their bond.
Director Yesim Ustaoglu was trained as an architect and found the inspiration for this, her second feature, among the burned shells of evacuated villages in southeastern Anatolia, which stand as desolate monuments to a culture on the brink of extinction. Without dwelling at length on the specific details of the Kurdish conflict (a subject of extreme censorship in Turkish society), she courageously suggests a government bureaucracy flirting with totalitarianism, where the least signs of dissidence are cause for repression. With an architect’s skilled hand, she fits place to character, tracing the fragile network of odd jobs and temporary shelters that serve the capital’s immigrant community.
Hers is a remarkably vivid portrait of a teeming third-world metropolis, with its combustible mix of tourists, workers, soccer fans, and fundamentalists. Istanbul, a traditional meeting point between East and West, comes into focus as a place of surreal juxtapositions, where prostitutes prowl in the shadow of minarets and cows graze on the city garbage dump. Lives are easily lost or go astray amid random acts of state terror and crowds that turn suddenly violent. Peasant families stream in, speaking only Kurdish, bearing bales of hay and sheep in the back of pickup trucks. Ustaoglu sets affecting scenes of unspoken tenderness between Mehmet and Arzu, and Mehmet’s growing awareness of Berzan’s political predicament, against this unstable background. Their friendship is the only home they have.