Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal (2010) is the most wonderful coming-of-age story I’ve seen so far, especially in the context of Slow Cinema. I remember that I saw this one in cinema, one of the few slow films I had a chance to see on a big screen. I was moved by the depiction of a young boy’s growing up, of his fear of speaking, and of his deep love to his father.
The film is set entirely in the woods. There is the constant sound of the wind in the trees, and the chirping of birds. There is this image of untouched and vibrant nature. It is a peaceful backdrop to an otherwise tragic story, as we learn at the end of the film. The quietness of the nature, I find, is a fitting indicator of the quietness of young boy Yusuf.
Yusuf doesn’t talk much. At home he only talks to his father, and he generally prefers to whisper. It is as if he doesn’t want to disturb anything or anyone. So while we follow the life of Yusuf, our ears are inevitably pointed to the sounds of nature around us, because this is in some ways the main reference point for us in the film.
In some way, Bal follows Yusuf’s struggle to achieve his biggest goal. He wants to get a badge for being able to read in class. The camera is often positioned in such a way that we see Yusuf through the glass in which the badges are stored. You can see that he wants one. But Yusuf only ever reads comfortably when his father is around. Unless he knows the text he is supposed to read, he stutters uncontrollably.
In other ways, Bal explores an intimate father-son relationship. Yusuf’s father collects honey for a living, but bee hives have become rare and he has to travel longer distances in order to collect a useful amount of honey. Sometimes, Yusuf accompanies him. On one day, his father suffers from an epileptic fit and Yusuf looks after him. Later on his father sets out on his own, and you can gather the impact his absence has on the young boy. He is afraid of his father not returning home. Fear, anxiety – these are two key themes of the film.
Bal is the last part of a trilogy. I was a bit annoyed when I read it, because it’s always best to see a trilogy in the successive order it’s meant to be seen. Sut and Yumurta are similar in their (slow) aesthetics, but you can tell that Kaplanoglu has greatly developed his style. What I found particularly interesting is the direction of the trilogy. It is not about Yusuf growing into a man. It is, in fact, the other way around. At the beginning of the trilogy, in Yumurta, Yusuf is a middle-aged man. Bal stands at the end of the trilogy. The film explains a lot about the other two films, especially about Yusuf as such, his way of being, his behaviour.
The Yusuf trilogy is for me a work in progress, although this is perhaps the wrong expression. What I mean is, you grow with the filmmaker. It feels as if he is learning while making these films, and both Kaplanoglu and the viewer end up with this bittersweet, beautifully shot film about the anxieties in a boy’s childhood at the end of his learning process.