‘Present Tense’: A woman’s film in a coffee cup
Emrah Güler ANKARA – Hürriyet Daily News
The film follows Mina, a young woman worried about her prospects for the future.Neither the very fine grounds, nor the way it is prepared, nor boiling it with a specific type of pot, makes Turkish coffee distinctive. It is the centuries-old ritual after the coffee is long finished and the remains are left to cool that makes it unique. Every other woman becomes a medium in gatherings in Turkey, telling the other women’s future by staring intently into the empty cup.
Well, not empty, as the dried, fine grounds of coffee actually turn into little shapes and patterns that are juxtaposed to the stark white inside the cup. Not being born into this common ritual, nor not having spent time in the company of women in Turkey, will give you a whole different viewing experience when watching Mina reading the future through empty coffee cups in Belmin Söylemez’s debut feature “Şimdiki Zaman” (Present Tense).
I would be easy to reduce Sanem Öge’s Mina to a medium or faux-medium trying to collect enough money to leave the country, if you didn’t know that reading the future from coffee cups is less about divination, and more about suspension of reality, a pleasant break in a conversation that is stagnating by the minute, and storytelling at its cultural best.
“Şimdiki Zaman” follows Mina, a young woman going through a low point in her life, scared that the low point is here to stay, and that there is no hope in her future. Divorced, unemployed, and with no family members and friends to lift her off the ground, she finds the ultimate solution to a better future in moving to the U.S., and starting off a new life on the other side of the world.
Her hopes are crushed as she is denied a visa. Wandering on the streets of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu, she spots an ad in a café looking for a fortune-teller through coffee cups. Inherently, she knows that the ideal skill for the job is not being psychic, and that all she needs is a bit of women’s empathy and a penchant for storytelling. So begins Mina’s quest to have a stable job and collect money for her trip to the U.S. at some point in the unforeseen future.
Diverse women with similar frustrations
Similar in their suffocation and in the acute sense of feeling that they have no way out are her boss Tayfun (Ozan Bilen) and coworker Fazi (Şenay Aydın). They are different in the sense that they have no solid plans, if any, for a better future, unlike Mina’s American dream. As Mina begins telling the futures of a diverse group of the frequenters of café, diverse yet similar in their frustrations, she ignites what could be described as a kind of self-therapy.
With a strong sense of empathy, Mina tells stories of the future to her clientele, as well as to herself. In those coffee cups, she sees the much-needed hope and possibilities of inspiration. She is able to make the women she sits down with take control of their lives and helps them open paths to self-discovery with an empty coffee cup. But this is no so easy for herself, as she ignores an impending eviction from her apartment for a gentrification project.
In last year’s “Festival on Wheels” in Ankara, writer and director Söylemez was among the festival’s guests. Söylemez said the inspiration of the story came when she “was staring at an empty visa form,” and how she “found it reductive to define a person and her history” in that way. “The idea came from the visa form, and eventually turned into ‘Şimdiki Zaman,’” she said.
Söylemez called the story “an inherently autobiographical” one, and shared her own experiences. “I went through a similar period. I wanted to go abroad, but I wasn’t able to. Some of my friends went through similar experiences as well. So I experienced that sense of urgency to leave and uncertainty first hand. Years later, I see that many young people are going through the same experience today,” she said.
Whether autobiographical or not, the film is, at its heart, a women’s film. It not only offers its protagonist as a multilayered, complex woman, but puts its supporting - and some fleeting - female characters and their problems at the center. Responding to a question on the failures and disappointments of urban women, Söylemez has said before, “I think it’s highly important that there are more independent women in Turkish cinema, women that are ready to spring out of the roles deemed fit for them.” Indeed, she has set one such example herself.