Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Handan Ipekci
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Turkish, Kurdish
Opens June 12 at Tokyo-to Shashin Bijitsukan in Ebisu
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Turkish director Handan Ipekci’s “Hejar” is a small, quiet film, about a small, quiet Kurdish girl and the elderly Istanbul lawyer who reluctantly looks after her. Slow-moving and understated, and yet never deliberately oblique (a la Hou Hsiao-hsien, Gus Van Sant, et al.), it’s the kind of sincere art-cinema for which there isn’t much of an audience these days.

That’s a shame, because though “Hejar” may take a while to hook you in, the performances here are nothing short of incredible. Dilan Ercetin, a mere 5-year-old newbie, plays opposite Sukran Gungor, a 76-year-old veteran, and the two build a relationship that’s both moving and believable.

Plenty of films feature a gruff old man being forced by circumstance to care for a cute little kid, and eventually melt into a mellow softy for a feel-good finale. Few, however, resist cliche. “Hejar” admirably takes us on a journey with these characters where we don’t know where they’ll end up, and leaves us with an ending that’s heartbreaking and yet somehow affirms an essential kindness in human nature.

The issues Ipekci seeks to deal with — majority Turkish cultural and political repression of that country’s Kurdish minority — may be obscure to many audiences here, but the film makes it all clear enough without going into too much detail. However, it was apparently too clear for some, as “Hejar” was banned by the Turkish Ministry of Culture several months after its release, around the time it began picking up some awards, both domestically and internationally.

We meet Hejar (Ercetin) as she arrives in Istanbul with Evdo (I. Hakki Sen), a kindly old man from her village. With both her parents casualties of the conflict in the Kurdish areas, Evdo has brought Hejar to Istanbul to stay with the only relatives he could find. The relatives, a young couple with no children, aren’t too pleased, but Evdo insists.

Shortly thereafter, the couple’s flat is raided by the police, and both of them — Kurdish separatists — are killed in a shootout. Hiding in a cupboard, Hejar escapes the notice of the police. After wandering into the hallway, she’s quickly snatched up by the neighbors who live next door, a retired lawyer named Rifat (Gungor) and his maid, Sakine (Fusun Demirel).

Rifat wonders why the little girl won’t speak. When he hears Sakine talking to her in Kurdish he understands, but orders his maid to stop speaking to the girl, except in Turkish, which she obviously doesn’t understand. (The Kurdish language was banned for years; the law was only recently relaxed.)

What follows is almost a Jim Jarmusch-esque study in miscommunication. Rifat doesn’t understand anything Hejar says, and vice versa; every time one of them starts to warm to the other a little bit, some misunderstanding derails things. Sometimes this is funny (the stubbornness of small children is only equaled by the rigidity of the elderly), but more often than not, it’s just sad: Hejar weeps for her mother, her home, the gentle Evdo, while Rifat finally invests a little kindness in the girl and is crushed when it’s rebuffed.

Rifat first plans to shelter Hejar only long enough to get her to safety, to some other relatives. But like a stray cat, the longer she’s in his flat, the more he becomes attached to her. Whether washing Hejar’s hair to get rid of the urchin’s fleas, or taking her to buy some new clothes, Rifat constantly finds his exasperation turning to affection.

Ipekci’s direction relies on her actor’s faces, with the constant use of close-ups to let them hint at what’s happening in their heads and in their hearts. Ercetin isn’t required to do much other than look pouty and exceptionally cute at the same time (which seems to come naturally), and occasionally shout some very rude Kurdish insults (which is also cute). But she manages to hit the mark every time she has to change moods within a scene, no mean feat for a 5-year-old.

Gungor, a stage actor who’s been in more than 80 productions, never resorts to the showier style that comes naturally to theater actors who have to play it large. He knows that when the camera pulls in, the slightest gesture can carry a scene. This was Gungor’s last film before he passed away in late 2002, and it’s nice to see that he got the award for Best Actor at the Ankara Film Festival shortly before his final curtain call.

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