‘Yurt (Dormitory)’ Review – Crisis of Faith / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


When telling stories about fraught historical periods, the most intimate perspectives prove the most rewarding. In addition, centering a young character can underline the lack of agency and voice felt by those most anxious about their country’s future. The demands faced Ahmet (Doga Karakas), the teenage protagonist of Dormitory (or Yurt), are nuanced and thorny: he must grapple with centuries-long religious tensions, match his distant parents’ projected desires, and keep himself safe in both secular and religious spaces. In Nehir Tuna’s feature debut, coming of age is no easy thing.

The political and cultural dominance of secularism in 20th-century Turkey pushed back at the perceived “Islamization” of the country. After Turkey’s Republic was declared in 1923, the philosophy of “Kemalism” forbade religious organizations and communities from interfering in state politics. Even so, Sunni Islam remains by far the most popular religion in the country. A microcosm of the tension between religious and secular sects is visible in one of the many dormitories that male Muslim youth were housed and taught in across the country.

Dormitory begins in 1996, when the existence of Islamic hubs of shelter and education was incredibly controversial, and were subject to raids, protests, and discrimination from Turkish society. Unlike many of the poor and vulnerable young Muslims whose families depend on the dormitory’s support, Ahmet comes from a wealthy middle-class family, and must contend with his strict father trying to impose his specific, restrictive definition of what a good Muslim should be. 

Tuna shoots in unfussy, observant angles that feel like they draw out Ahmet’s innermost feelings and behavior. The crisp, highly contrasted black-and-white tones are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, underscoring not just the naivety of these young students but the polarized world they inhabit. None of the characters feel simplified, however, and Ahmet is anything but one-note. So many of his natural instincts as a teenager, a student, even a romantic, are diminished and numbed by the conflicting models of behavior he must live by.

Even when he’s under the oppressive gaze of the dormitory’s staff or praying alongside his peers, Karakas breathes a fidgety and aptly adolescent energy into Ahmet, bringing to life the character’s visible discomfort and insecurity in the role he’s been told to inhabit. When soldiers raid the dormitory and the boys are told to hurriedly hide or destroy any Islamic material, Ahmet tears through rooms throwing pages of Arabic script into the air—an explosion of frustration at being asked to live in secrecy.

Tuna’s script balances showing his characters’ psychology with both transparency and opaqueness. By so carefully laying out the conditions under which Ahmet must live his faith—hiding his Muslim identity from classmates, faking returning to his parents’ house when he gets the bus home every day, abiding by the punishing (and sometimes violent) rules of the dormitory—we quickly read all his behavior as a reaction to what’s being asked of him. And yet, so much of how unsuited Ahmet is to dormitory life makes him feel inadequate; his crisis of faith feels exactly like God has not deemed him worthy of love.

If Ahmet wants to make the painful journey into a self-actualized existence, he must realize there exists no true escape

Ahmet’s main anchor throughout the troubled chapter of life that Dormitory depicts is Hakan (Can Bartu Aslan), an older boy who is well-versed in the dynamics and politics of life inside the “yurt.” Ahmet and Hakan grow to be something different from (or perhaps, better than) friends: they find, in an unspoken blend of affection and fraternity, safety with each other. This is compounded by the stretch of the film set over the holiday break where an abusive teacher tricks Ahmet’s parents into leaving him in the dormitory for Christmas—Ahmet’s only other companion is his protector, Hakan. The empty corridors and stark staircases take on a Gothic quality in these isolated sequences, as Ahmet tries to map out a repressive space that he’s been told he must, above all else, treat like a home—Hakan is a limited but crucial lifeline.

What’s so compelling about the pair is their intimacy despite knowing relatively little about each other. Throughout their time together, Tuna hints at secrets they keep from one another. It’s as if the dormitory is a hermetically sealed space where reality can be ignored, where friendships can form between people like Ahmet and Hakan because of their immediate shared struggles and not the ones they suffer outside the dormitory’s walls.

When the pair do attempt an escape from their school, and the film shifts from the harsh blacks and whites to warm, soft colors, we feel a rush at realizing the full spectrum of emotion and possibilities entering Ahmet’s life—but it also becomes clear that he is entering an existence that is incompatible with Hakan’s. Terrible resentments and guilt fill the space between them; the optimism felt when indoctrination loses its grip is replaced with a piercing, punishing reality.

This is a truth that can’t be avoided no matter what extreme of the Turkish political dichotomy you exist within. The dormitories offer respite from the secular world for a reason, and if Ahmet wants to make the painful journey into a self-actualized existence, he must realize there exists no true escape from the punishing conditions of secularist society or religious education. The only true freedom can be found in truly knowing ourselves.

Dormitory is a religious film, in that it believes the most basic and fundamental place religion exists is in the hearts and minds of believers, not in the institutions that consolidate against the danger of non-believers. Under what conditions can faith flourish, especially for a young person who feels ungrounded in history? Tuna’s film, a work of both personal and historical fiction, is less interested in religious and political theory, or assessing history from a distanced perspective. It draws an imagined world from real events, and pulls us close to a singular but symbolic individual. Look at how he’s been asked to live, Dormitory asks us. Is such a thing fair?

Read our exclusive interview with director Nehir Tuna here.

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