It seems as though Turkish independents are getting a slimmer chance of distribution in the time period between autumn and spring, since all the theaters are being booked by mega-budget Turkish and American films during this period. Furthermore, it’s becoming an acknowledged situation that distributors do not want to take chances with these small films because they know that financial returns will not be very satisfactory while they can make larger profits with safe bets such as “Conquest 1453.” The Turkish cinema distribution system is a subject that must be dealt with all on its own, but it must be noted that it is films like “Kırık Midyeler” (“Broken Mussels”) that are already incredibly hard to finance which are being chewed up by the system.
One of the competition films of the 2012 İstanbul Film Festival’s National Section, “Broken Mussels” did not end up with any major prizes despite good reviews. Tokmak has previously directed several documentaries, one that has been traveling in the festival circuit (“Dream Gang”). In this first feature, Tokmak and scriptwriter Kenan Kavut turn their camera to the outskirts of İstanbul, namely Kumkapı, as they follow the lives of a group of marginals who try to make ends meet in the jungle of İstanbul.
The main characters are two Kurdish children, Hakim (Uğur Barış Mehmetoğlu) and Faysal (Seydo Çelik), two cousins who have come to İstanbul from Mardin. But İstanbul is not the end of their journey, since Hakim, the older and more sharp-witted one, wants them to save money in order to move to Germany to live with their relatives. The two kids live in a shabby pension run by Cevat (Engin Benli), a bully and a crook who makes money off helpless illegal refugees and penniless minorities. Faysal befriends a Bosnian mother and daughter, Medina (Selma Alispahic) and Elma (İpek Kızılörs), who are living in the same pension. Medina has come to Turkey in order to seek medical treatment for her daughter’s heart disease; unfortunately, she also depends on Cevat to make the required amount of money for Elma’s operation.
There is also the African refugee (we never learn which country he is from), Babatunde (Enzo Ikah), who Hakim believes can help him travel to Germany, but Babatunde, who always belittles Hakim, has other escape plans that do not include any children. Oksana (Maria Akgüllü) is the live-in Russian prostitute who is also trying to run away from Cevat, who is presumably her pimp and lover.
While Cevat seems like the source of all the troubles of these desperate souls, he is only a symbol of greed and anguish, for in the bigger picture he is no different than the people he exploits as he himself is weak and desperate.
Hakim believes that his way out of this desolate life is by starting to sell mussels, much like many of his compatriots. He convinces the naive Faysal -- who was more than happy to work as a dishwasher until Hakim unintentionally gets him fired -- to steal some mussels and sell them on the streets. Faysal’s dreams, unavoidably, will be shattered to pieces just like the mussels he is trying to sell. It seems there is no way out of this life where the weak and poor are constantly exploited by the bigger fish. Nevertheless, Tokmak shows us that despite everything, maybe a thread of compassion and friendship is what keeps us going, not the drive to achieve against all odds.
Amateur actors Çelik and Mehmetoğlu comprise the heart of this film, their undeniable screen chemistry and genuine performances (they don’t look like they are acting but channeling a part of their own lives and experiences) makes the viewer cling on to this story and empathize with their lives. The film is very careful not to take an approach of pity and patronizing sympathy while dealing with its characters, which is what makes “Broken Mussels” a strong film, even though I found that there was a lack of pace at times. Cinematography by Mehmet Zengin is mesmerizing -- the shots of İstanbul in the wee hours of the morning especially make for quite a meditative and visual pleasure. This film deserves a chance. Go watch it before the distribution system crushes it in a couple of weeks and this misfit film shares the fate of its characters.