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Film Review: Leylak
by Kathryn Loggins

US Narrative Short
Directed by Scott Aharoni and Dennis Latos

When my friend, and amazing talent, Iliana Guibert mentioned that LEYLAK, the short film she executive produced, was accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival I couldn't have been more excited for her, but when I saw the film I was even more impressed. And I wasn't the only one. Leylak, directed by Scott Aharoni and Dennis Latos, received a Special Jury Mention at the Festival and had its world premiere at a live outdoor screening in front of six hundred people, who received it exceptionally well. I was sad to miss that event in person, but I was extremely privileged to be able to interview Iliana, the directors Scott Aharoni and Dennis Latos and writer Mustafa Kaymak (Green).

LEYLAK sets its characters right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the themes directly deal with the pandemic, but one of the main goals of the film was for it to be timeless, Scott Aharoni told me. He and his filmmaking partners wanted it to be about “heart, feelings, emotions, grief, stress, sadness, loneliness, all those emotions that we were experiencing during the pandemic, but that you could also feel at any time in your life.” They wanted to tell a real and genuinely human story about a father and his daughter, while also giving voice to a marginalized part of society, namely gravediggers. This idea was conceived from an article that director Scott sent to writer Mustafa at the beginning of the pandemic of a gravedigger standing in front of hundreds of empty graves. The look of hopelessness and despair on the man’s face inspired Mustafa to dig deeper into this character and write his story. Scott was also fascinated by the fact that these unsung heroes are most likely undergoing the most physically and emotionally demanding time in their lives because of the onslaught of rapid deaths around the world, but their stories aren't being told. It seemed the perfect way to speak to the moment and also use this as an opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity. It was clear after talking to the filmmakers that they were unified in their vision for LEYLAK and I think they succeeded brilliantly in telling their story.

The film follows Yusuf, a Turkish gravedigger played by Nadir Saribacak (Ivy) living in present day Queens, New York, who is burdened with a devastating truth he’s unable to come to terms with. Directly paying homage to that heartbreaking image in the article that Scott sent to Mustafa, the film opens with a meticulously crafted continuous shot of Yusuf working in the graveyard, digging a hole and filling it with a casket. As Yusuf and his fellow workers move in and out of frame the camera pans around the bleak landscape with purpose and a sense of foreboding. Director Dennis Latos reasons that this type of one-shot opening immerses the viewer completely into Yusuf's world, which was the primary goal. Mastering this type of shot is no small feat and it took creating their own graveyard on a friend's property in Upstate New York, digging through bedrock and roots, perfectly aligning the camera with the sun, changing little things on the fly and many, many takes to perfect it, but it was worth it. The resulting shot is both beautiful and highly effective at enticing the viewers immediately, while also capturing the realness of the situation the main character is faced with.

After the opening shot the story moves to the gray streets of Queens, where Yusuf goes to his home to pick up his daughter Renk, exquisitely played by Isabella Haddock, and it’s clear something's not quite right. They are meant to go visit her mother in the hospital and even sweetly pick up fresh lilacs on the way, but Yusuf finds an excuse to keep them from going. Renk is confused and upset, but Yusuf can’t bring himself to tell her why they aren't going to visit her mother. In contrast to the almost brutally bright opening shot, these scenes have a more muted color palette, but the camera work is still just as deliberate, with a focus on the realism of the moment and the sincerity of the character’s emotions. The viewer senses the relationship between father and daughter is fractured, but not beyond hope. The writing in these scenes is uncomplicated, earnest, flawlessly executed by Nadir and Isabella, and wonderfully crafted. There is such specificity in every word of dialogue - whether it’s Turkish or English - which is meant to help represent not only the generational difference between Yusuf and Renk, but also the fact that he’s an immigrant and she is first-generation Turkish-American. The way that they engage with each other even in moments without dialogue speaks volumes to who these characters are at their core and lets the audience engage and empathize with them.

As the evening progresses and Renk is still upset with her father, Yusuf is visited by his sister Tulay, played by Gamze Ceylan (Ben is Back), who encourages him to be honest with his daughter or he might lose the most treasured relationship he has left. He spends a few moments in silent reflection in front of his wife’s sewing machine, picking up a homemade face mask and indulging in his memories. As he wrestles with his own grief, he chooses to share the truth with his daughter, without knowing what kind of toll it might take. As the film ends there is a sense of hope that surrounds our characters, because although the grief isn't gone, Yusuf and Renk can openly help each other through it now that the truth is laid bare. They have each other to lean on and they can move forward together. During the interactions within the home, particularly between Yusuf and Tulay, the camera moves in close and lingers on its subjects, making the scenes intimate and raw. The lighting is dark and natural, furthering the sense that what is seen on screen is happening in real time and in the moment. In the final shot of the film, we see father and daughter riding the subway, hand in hand, and without saying a word they ride into a tunnel as it cuts to black. This tender and deeply affecting shot fully embodies the change and growth both father and daughter have experienced and leaves the audience assured that even though not everything is right, everything will be. They will face more darkness, like all of us do in our lives, but together they - and we - can get through anything. Scott said that they wanted to make sure that the film ended with the truth that “there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”

The filmmakers dedicated LEYLAK to the essential and frontline workers and all those who have lost their lives due to the pandemic.