“Dying to Divorce” begins and ends with an on-screen counter that ticks as fast as a zealous taximeter – if only it measures something so mundane. Instead, it is a representation of Turkey’s horrific rate of women’s killings in recent years, with the screen under the counter filling up with the names of women murdered by their partners as the number above rises alarmingly. As the screen fades out before a total is reached, the point is solemnly made. By examining the country’s culture of patriarchal violence and weighing it against the systemic rudeness that allows it to tease, British documentary maker Chloë Fairweather’s clear debut feature has a lot to tackle in an 80-minute time frame, and if it fails to complete that. all its arguments, it does not diminish the power of a film about a crucial unsolved problem.
Although a British production – and duly recorded as the UK’s international Oscar post – “Dying to Divorce” largely avoids the eyes of a journalistic outsider, embedding instead in the cultural and political features of Turkish society. Fairweather’s path into her film’s frightening subject is via the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a Turkish activist collective that also collaborates in lawsuits surrounding victims and survivors of domestic violence. As we are told early on that every third Turkish woman experiences such abuse at the hands of a partner (the highest rate in the economically developed world), their work is deeply cut off for them.
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Through the platform, we encounter the film’s three most important human subjects – two of them survivors caught in ugly legal battles, one a defiant lawyer fighting their corner. The testimony of the former makes it difficult, furious to see. Kubra introduced with archive footage from her past life as a Bloomberg TV anchor, is almost unrecognizable today: After being hit several times in the head by her husband, she suffered a brain haemorrhage that has affected both her mobility and her speech. Also left disabled by her husband is Arzu, who has been shot at close range in all four limbs when she filed for divorce. Under a Turkish judicial system rigged against them several times, both women face significant obstacles in bringing their perpetrators to justice and even securing custody of their children.
Their horror stories are not even unusual in the professional routine of Ipek Bozkurt, a lawyer specializing in women’s rights cases – who serves the film as both a hot empathetic ally and a dull narrator about harsh, ugly truths. “Dying to Divorce” aims for a similar balance in its own perspective and finds isolated stains of optimism in its depiction of municipal feminist meetings and modest, inevitably compromised legal victories.
Still, Fairweather is not out on sugarcoat cases with false uplift. The more we zoom out to see the bigger picture, the gloomier it becomes, especially as the film turns from the victims’ individual narratives to a more generalized view of Turkish institutional corruption. An extended passage is dedicated to the country’s constitutional referendum in 2017, whose bizarre outcome gave the incumbent government greater uncontrolled power – a blow to activists like Bozkurt, who pushed against the odds of a progressive legal reform. The film’s micro-to-macro shifts in focus are not entirely smooth. Viewers who are less familiar with Turkey’s political landscape are left to assume that systemic change or stas has a seepage effect. The progress of Kubra and Arzu’s gripping legal battles has been closely condensed in the editing, and “Dying to Divorce” could withstand a longer driving time and increased procedural details.
However, even where the film falters structurally, its emotional impact is consistently driven by the brave openness of its participants – the survivors most of all, of course, but also their proponents and families, including the few men in their corner. One of the film’s most touching interviews is with Urzu’s former conservative father, as he admonishes himself to allow her marriage at the age of just 14 with the man who nearly killed her. “I ruined my children’s lives just to stick to the tradition,” he admits. New traditions of the Turkish patriarchy are far away, but this quiet tab of self-awareness is a beginning.
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