Toronto 2018: Saf review


Turkish director Ali Vatansever returns with his second feature, Saf, a social drama that examines the human cost of urban renewal. Out-of-work Kamir (Erol Afsin) seems perpetually on the brink of destitution. His faultless insistence on doing the right thing means that he won’t take a job with the construction company who are exploiting Syrian workers on the cheap.

Kamir’s unbending sense of right and wrong lands him in hot water with his wife, Remziye (Saddet Aksoy), frustrated that his principles are preventing him bringing home a basic pay cheque. Meanwhile, Kamir’s residents’ association is split. The majority is in favour of selling their community properties to the development company bulldozing their homes to make way for modern tower blocks. Meanwhile, the stubborn minority are digging in their heels in a vain attempt to save the community

The ideological space between these tensions – between Kamir’s principles and Remziye’s pragmatism – forms the core thesis at the heart of Saf’s ideological thesis. The drama arises when both parties begin to move from their rigid positions. This initially comes when Kamir reluctantly takes a job at the construction company. Working for the same rate as the Syrian immigrants, he raises the ire of his Turkish colleagues, who perceive the Syrians and Kamir as driving down the value of their work.

It’s telling that the same othering discourses with which with westerners are familiar are replicated by the native Turkish against the Syrians, particularly given that the opposing groups in Saf are routinely othered as a homogenous group themselves in western media. As those discourses slowly work their poison on Kamir, he attacks a Syrian worker whom Kamir is convinced has stolen his job. The confrontation does not go well for Kamir, who goes missing, prompting his wife to search for him.

Saf’s greatest strength how it explores the ways that systems of economics, community loyalty, moral relativism and prejudice interact with each other in often harmful ways. So although Kamir’s attack initially feels jarringly out of character, his turn is resolved in retrospect as the focus shifts to Remziye – marginalised in the film’s first half, but brought to the fore in the film’s second and third acts. As she investigates her husband’s disappearance, the film becomes much more interested in humanising the Syrian who Kamir attacked, culminating in a devastating conversation between he and Remziye.

Shot unflinchingly and bolstered by Askoy’s stunning performance, their climactic discussion is stands out among the film’s strengths. For English-speaking audiences accustomed to the kitchen-sink dramas of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, it’s sobering to see that anti-immigrant racism and the destruction of communities by indifferent corporate interests is not limited to the west.

The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell