Content note: This article references sexual assault
Like all of the films in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Dry Summer comes with an introduction from Marty himself. He says he didn’t see the film until it was rediscovered as part of the Project, and after watching it, I had a hard time believing that could be true. I’d have a much easier time believing him if he listed it with Paisan and The Red Shoes as the movies that made him get into filmmaking, because its antihero Osman could be the model for every antihero Scorsese would create in his career. Violent, impulsive, obsessed with carnal pleasures, and unconcerned with who he hurts in pursuit of them, but still undeniably magnetic. Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Harry Hill, Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, Bill the Butcher, Nicky Santoro — they’re all right here.
That may seem like an odd thing to say about star Erol Taş. With his mustache, little cap, big, round nose, and high-pitched voice, he seems at first glance more like Super Mario than Robert DeNiro. (“Let’s-a go clean the scum off-a these streets!”) But his performance as a water-hoarding landowner is untouchable. The industry may not have had room for Dry Summer’s brilliant director Metin Erksan — don’t worry, we’ll get to that — but as far as Taş went, they knew a good thing when they had it. Dry Summer launched him to a long and happy career, including anchoring a horror series as Dr. Satan.
Osman isn’t quite that evil, though a list of his crimes might give that impression (to start with, on top of the water hoarding, you have rape, murder, selling his own brother out for said murder, and lying about his death to more easily move in on his wife). What makes him so compelling is he’s not satanic — his monstrousness is deeply human. This is a struggle for property, but he’s not your typical corporate villain. He’s such a sensual being you wonder if these economic concerns would interest him if they weren’t centered around something as tangible as water. The scenes of him splashing around in the newly dammed canal, reveling in the water even as he wastes it, suggest he wouldn’t.
But Osman is still nearly as larger-than-life as someone like Dr. Satan, and not just because of his ‘30s-circus-strongman physique. Before his greed for water turns him against his brother Hasan and sister-in-law Bahar, he arranges their wedding by firing a shotgun in the air to signal Bahar to sneak out of her mother’s house, belly-laughing all the while. When the lovers get ready for their wedding night, Osman interrupts them to demand plenty of boys. Even when Hasan shoves a dresser between them, Osman just pushes the drawer out so he can continue kibbitzing.
The conflict would seem to be one-sided: give or take a lawyer Osman calls in from the city, the whole village is against Osman’s dam. Even Hasan and Bahar support him only reluctantly and intermittently. And yet Osman hangs on for the whole running time. When a half dozen armed men come after him, one of them ends up dead and Osman walks away. But charismatic as Osman may be, Erksan never lets us forget how deeply corrupt he is. Just three years after Psycho, there’s multiple scenes of Osman watching Bahar undress through a hole in the wall. And if anything, Erksan’s imagery is more disturbing than Hitchcock’s with his extreme close-ups on Osman’s wet, slimy eyeball.
So that’s the story, but what’s most striking is the way Erksan tells it. He’s one of the few filmmakers I can think of who’d think to block his actors vertically. But once you see it, it seems like the most natural thing in the world, since so much of this story is about power — who’s above who — and those struggles are centered on the conflict between the spring at the top of the hill and the valley below, or the many terraces of Osman’s house. Vertical or horizontal, every shot is as carefully and beautifully composed as a Hiroshige print. Even when the camera moves within a single cut, each position it takes forms a perfect image. When Osman tries to flirt with Bahar as she picks peaches, we see her dump her basket on his head from his POV as fruit crashes into the camera. That means that when the image turns chaotic, as it does in the proto-shaky cam fight scenes, it’s all on purpose.
Erksan’s craftsmanship is astonishing on its own, and it only becomes more so the more you learn what went into it. He says he filmed the whole thing in 47 days and all but literally counts his crew members on the fingers of one hand. The early tracking shot of Hasan and Bahar walking together through the reeds is already impressive. It becomes twice as impressive when you learn that Erksan had to shore up the swamp to get the shot and that he filmed it by belting himself to the cameraman so they could walk backwards in front of the actors.
I can’t speak to this movie in cultural context — in fact, it’s the only Turkish movie I’ve ever seen, at least until the copy of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia I ordered from the library gets here. But learning about that context from people who do know reveals Erksan was innovating in ways that wouldn’t even occur to me. In his essay for the World Cinema Project box set, Bilge Ebiri discusses Erksan’s radical use of language: Up until that point, all Turkish films would use “proper Istanbul Turkish” no matter how far out in the boonies they took place. But Erksan recruited nonprofessional actors from his Aegean setting and let them speak their own language.
Despite Erksan’s limited resources, there aren’t many horror stories from the set. His trouble only began when the movie was finished. First, the government said the plot of Osman stealing his brother’s wife would demean Turkey in front of the international audience. Erksan points out that in his native Anatolia, that’s not only acceptable, but a longstanding tradition. He doesn’t point out, maybe because it goes without saying, how ridiculous it is that out of everything Osman does, that was what the censors objected to. A friend had to smuggle it out of the country for it to compete at the Berlin Film Festival — and when it won the Golden Bear, the Turkish government suddenly loved it.
If the censors saw trouble in Dry Summer’s scandalous plot, others saw opportunity. In line with the leftist ideals he promotes in the film, Erksan unionized the Turkish film industry. But then he found himself in a dilemma: he couldn’t run both the union and his studio. He passed the studio on to his friend Ulvi Dogan, who plays Hasan. Sadly, Dogan turned out to be the kind of friend who makes enemies redundant. Once he had control of his companion’s artistic masterpiece, he filmed new sex scenes and turned it into an exploitation film called, in Erksan’s paraphrase, I Screwed My Brother’s Wife, which no doubt had a lot to do with this once-acclaimed film’s disappearance into obscurity.
It deserves to be unearthed, but I won’t pretend it’s perfect. Erksan’s images belie his no-budget circumstances, but the post-dubbed sound makes Dry Summer’s ragged origins more obvious. But that’s to be expected — even Fellini was no better. And Erksan knows how to use sound where it counts, with a score from Ahmet Yamacı and Manos Hadjidakis that combines folk music with jazzier, more dissonant tracks depending on the needs of the scene. And then there’s the shattering moment where the music suddenly drops out altogether as Osman drops the dog the neighbors shot in Bahar’s lap.
The script presents a more serious issue — it’s probably to the movie’s credit that it took me three viewings to notice, but half or more of it is just characters bluntly describing the plot, often over and over again. But it’s hard to know how much to blame on Erksan and his cowriters Kemal İnci and İsmet Soydan and how much on the translator. I know this much — any translator who describes ripe fruit as “mature” can’t be totally blameless.
I think the reason the script issues never bothered me in my previous viewings is that however it’s conveyed, the story’s elemental enough that it can’t help but bowl you over. Not just in terms of its conflicts between brothers, between rich and poor, good and evil, loving and abusive masculinity. Because it never lets you forget it’s about the most elemental thing there is: water, “the earth’s blood.”
Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin recalls discovering Dry Summer when he saw a news item saying his film Head-On was the second Turkish film to win the Golden Bear, and he says he fell in love with it immediately. So did I. Hopefully you will too.