An isolated, run-down coal mine, enclosed by high-sided valley walls, is the forbidding, dystopian setting of Erdem Tepegöz’s impressive third feature, In the Shadows. Shackled not so much by the harshness of their physical surroundings, but unseen omnipotent forces which control their every waking hour, the oppressed workforce dare not step out of line.
In rough grey uniforms, and living in crude huts amid the muck and mounds of industrial detritus, there are no names, no pasts, no stories shared between these individuals. What has brought them here and why do they not try to escape? The precarity of a pitiful existence is immediately clear. Following Numan Acar’s unnamed lead character down into the mine, sparks of light flare menacingly at the corners of the screen. A deep, distant rumble and devastating explosion deafens him, and we brace ourselves for more.
And part of the Turkish filmmaker’s genius throughout is in suggesting, but then pulling back from real physical violence or harm. Along with a flattened widescreen aspect which puts pressure on the frame from above and below, it’s an opening sequence which emphasises the evil lurking outside of our view, of what could happen at any moment. Likewise, when and where In the Shadows takes place is unclear; and ultimately, this is unimportant. His superb writing and direction create a world outside of the physical realm in the terrified consciousness of his characters – and viewers – via all-seeing CCTV cameras and loudspeakers.
Knocked down by the blast, Acar, and others, must undergo a medical check to see whether they are still a viable commodity. Despite suffering a minor injury, he is passed fit. But another is not to so lucky. When, offscreen, this man is heard being sent to the ‘exit area’, minds are left to boggle. It’s a remarkably simple but effective technique, that is employed to chilling effect throughout. Leading the pack and showing the ropes to new recruits, Acar underlines just how important it is to maintain body and machine. When potential tragedy strikes and his own grinds to a halt, he is driven to anxious distraction by the enforced inaction.
More worrisome still is the muffled voices he can hear through a pipe in his lodgings. Is he imagining things? Where does it lead? Again, the world outside of our field of vision and understanding weighs heavy. Low angle shots, which frame Acar from more and more acute angles, exaggerate his own sense of unease and the bubbling, unsettling mood. The Turkish-German actor’s performance is a dogged, physical one. His brow furrowed by confusion and concern, as much as our own, his eyes convey a sense of the bleak hopelessness of this situation, but therein also lies resolve.
When a mysterious illness threatens to unleash collective punishment on innocent bystanders, he takes matters into his own hands. “Here, we’re shaping the past, not the future,” says the perpetually cryptic ‘repairman’ (Vedat Erincin). No easy answers are forthcoming here, but exploring what lurks – or perhaps doesn’t – in the darkness of Tepegöz’s In the Shadows will have you gripped.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63