Not Knowing

Director: Leyla Yimlaz (Turkey). Year of Release: 2021

Early morning, the sound of a treadmill – one of those running machines that people have in their bedrooms, because they want to exercise but are too lazy to leave the house. The camera closes up on a woman lying in bed. She’s not sleeping – how could she be with the constant sound of the running machine? Slowly, reluctantly, she makes her way to the kitchen.

Selma and Sinan have been married a long time – maybe too long. Selma is a doctor in the public health system who’s just started a course for volunteers helping Syrian refugees. Sinan is not so keen that she’s doing this. It’s not so much that he rarely sees her – he can live with that. But she’d already be earning 3 times as much in the private sector, and now she wants to help refugees? Selma retains her sense of self-esteem by flirting with an old work colleague on facebook.

Sinan had ideals once – when he was 25. Now he’s working as an engineer on the docks. He’s just been given the job title General Manager, but he still has to work for someone half his age who has just sacked all the secretaries and installed food machines instead of the kitchen staff. Sinan is asking Selma to sue her brother so that they can gain a little more of some inheritance, presumably from her parents. Isn’t it great when the rich fall out?

Selma and Sinan’s son Umut has exams coming up, and is hoping to win a water polo scholarship (apparently a Real Thing) to the States. Umut has grown up with his water polo team, but is only now getting grief from them. Noting that he doesn’t have a girlfriend, they are continually asking if he’s gay. A trainer, who is unusually sympathetic for a sports teacher, pragmatically asks: he’s at school all day and in the baths every evening. Where’s he going to find the time to get a girlfriend?

Umut’s reaction to the bullying is to refuse to confirm or deny anything about his sexuality. On the one hand, great. What has it got to do with them? (or, for that matter, us, the audience?) The trouble is that, dramatically, it turns Umut into a cipher, with no real opinions of his own. It’s not just that we’re not allowed to know who (if anyone) he fancies. We don’t learn anything that he thinks, whether he has any ideas of his own. It is difficult to fully root for someone with no soul.

The bullying intensifies after a photo of Umut does the rounds. It is, in fact, innocent, taken after he was consoling someone he’d rescued from an attack. Umut’s best mate stands by him, but when he seems too inquisitive whether or not Umut is gay, he is also shunned. A delegation of players go to the coach and demand that Umut be dropped from the team. Although the coach laughs them out of his office, Umut obviously gets wind of this, and disappears.

We can’t be much more than half way through and we’re suddenly in a different film. The water polo team, who up until now have been shunning Umut, now each make an individual video, pleading with him to return (full marks for the wokeness, but do we think that this would happen in real life?) Selma and Sinan’s marriage, which was ropey at the best of times, sees even greater tension, especially after the police ring and ask them to identify a body.

Not Knowing addresses a number of problems which should not still need addressing, but unfortunately society has still to come to terms that someone’s sexuality is only the business of themselves and whoever they want to sleep with. For this reason alone, the world is a better place because this film exists. Having said this, many aspects could be much better, and this is not only down to the minimal budget.

Let’s start with the title. There are at the very least two cases of Not Knowing in the film. We don’t know (and never get to know) about Umut’s sexuality. As I’ve said already, but can’t repeat often enough, this is fine as it’s none of our fucking business. But there’s also the fact that Selma and Sinan don’t know whether their boy is alive or dead. Even the suggestion that there is some equivalence between this and gossip about Umut’s sexuality is either tasteless or poor writing.

Added to this, most of the characters are badly underwritten. I’ve already talked about Umut who is not allowed an opinion, lest he be judged for it. Similarly, Selma and Sinan are mainly there to fulfil the role of bickering parents in a marriage that is slowly petering out. Which is fine, as long as they remain secondary characters in the background. As the focus switches onto them in the second half of the film, there’s little for us to hold on to.

Not Knowing is more a film to be admired than to be enjoyed. It is on the right side of history, and has a coherent story to tell. For these reasons alone, it is worth watching. But the story does not really challenge us, nor does it present us with characters that we care too much about. We’re glad that they’re there, and wish them well, but not much more than that.

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