“Die to divorce”Begins and ends with an on-screen counter, which spins as fast as a zealous taximeter – if only it was measuring something so mundane. Instead, it is a representation of the appalling rate of femicides in Turkey in recent years, with the screen under the counter filling up with the names of women murdered by their partners, as the number over- above increases worryingly. As the screen fades before a total is reached, the point is solemnly made. Examining the country’s culture of patriarchal violence and weighing it against the systemic rot that allows it to fester, British docmaker Chloë Fairweather’s first feature has plenty to do in 80 minutes, and if it fails to finish all of its arguments, that doesn’t diminish the power of a film about a crucial unresolved problem.
Although this is a British production – and duly listed as the UK’s international Oscar submission – “Dying to Divorce” largely avoids the point of view of an outside journalist, instead of s’ anchor in the cultural and political peculiarities of Turkish society. Fairweather addresses the intimidating subject matter of her film through the We Will Stop Femicide platform, a Turkish activist collective that also works on court cases involving victims and survivors of domestic violence. As we are told early on that one in three Turkish women experience such abuse from a partner (the highest rate in the economically developed world), their jobs are severely cut off for them.
Across the platform, we meet the film’s three main human subjects – two of them being survivors trapped in horrific legal battles, one being a provocative lawyer fighting for his part. The testimonies of the former make viewing difficult and infuriating. Featured with archival footage from her former life as a Bloomberg TV presenter, Kubra is barely recognizable today: After being punched several times on the head by her husband, she suffered a brain hemorrhage that affected both his mobility and his speech. Arzu is also handicapped by her husband, having been shot in all four limbs at close range while filing for divorce. Under a Turkish legal system rigged against them on numerous occasions, the two women face significant obstacles in bringing their attackers to justice, and even in securing custody of their children.
Their horror stories aren’t even exceptional in the professional routine of Ipek Bozkurt, a lawyer specializing in cases involving women’s rights – who serves the film as both a warm and empathetic ally and as a jaded storyteller of hard and ugly truths. “Dying to Divorce” strives for a similar balance in its own perspective, finding isolated points of optimism in its depiction of community feminist gatherings and modest and inevitably compromised legal victories.
Still, Fairweather isn’t ready to coat the proceedings with a false uprising. The more we zoom out to see the big picture, the darker it darkens, especially as the film shifts from individual victim accounts to a more generalized view of Turkish institutional corruption. An extended passage is devoted to the 2017 constitutional referendum, the specious outcome of which gave the incumbent greater unchecked power – a blow to activists like Bozkurt who are pushing for progressive legal reform against all odds. The film’s micro-to-macro focus changes aren’t entirely smooth. Viewers less familiar with Turkey’s political landscape should assume the spillover effect of systemic change or stasis. The progression of Kubra and Arzu’s gripping court battles has been tightly condensed into the edit, and “Dying to Divorce” could support longer runtime and increased procedural detail.
Even where the film falters structurally, however, its emotional impact is constant, driven by the courageous frankness of its participants – the survivors above all, of course, but also their champions and their families, including the few men in their corner. One of the film’s most moving interviews is with Urzu’s once-conservative father, as he berates himself for allowing her marriage at just 14, to the man who nearly killed her. “I ruined the lives of my children just to stay in the tradition,” he admits. The new traditions of the Turkish Patriarchate are a long way off, but this little bit of self-awareness is a start.
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