Director: Michael Onder
Tokyo International Film Festival review
With a title referencing Texas hold’em, a game of probability and psychology, Turkish director Michael Onder’s debut Taksim Hold’em incorporates the game literally and symbolically into a dark comedy about morality, differing values, and political unrest. While the film never states when the narrative takes place, interviews and descriptions of the film reveal that it’s set during Turkey’s 2013 Taksim Square anti-government protests. In fact, because Onder’s work never explicitly references this setting, the final product (especially for those unfamiliar with Turkish politics) shapes itself into a story about human connection and self-exploration during periods of political difference, an experience that is surely relatable worldwide.
The film begins with contrasting tones, as it alternates between snippets of riots playing on a laptop, and a 30-something male’s (Alper, played by Kenan Ece) preparation for his friends’ arrival for poker night. The sequence sets up the film’s underlying theme, the question of how much personal freedom an individual feels s/he need give up in order to contribute to a larger fight – in this case, taking part in the riots. According to Alper, playing poker is a form of resistance because it prevents the government from taking away his individual rights. He explains, “the more they ban, the more we should enjoy life.” In contrast, his friend Altan (Emre Yetim) is appalled by the group’s desire to keep playing and drinking while they can hear protesters and police yelling from right outside their window.
As Alper’s guests arrive at his apartment, both invited and unexpected, gradually this question of morality and how to fight for one’s freedom is posed numerous times, all while the camera never actually leaves Alper’s apartment complex. The group plays poker and offers refuge to protesters seeking shelter from police tear-gassing, including Alper’s fiancé Dafne (Damla Sonmez), a journalist who doesn’t understand why Alper is not more politically active. The discussions begin with a friend mentioning his marital problems with the host, but they escalate and deepen as more guests bring their own values and secrets into the residence.
The choice to shoot the film in one space gives it an almost theatrical quality, allowing the viewer to feel immersed real-time in the characters’ interpersonal drama and moral discussions. Another interesting stylistic choice is the complete lack of extra-diegetic sound aside from the credits and last shot of the film. The film begins with a twangy song playing through Alper’s headphones, but once his friends arrive the only sounds are the characters’ dialogue and the outside rioters. This choice matches the real-time feel of the story, but it is also a reminder that while the group is sitting snug in Alper’s apartment discussing their values, they can still hear the protests in the background.
The last third of the film becomes a bit too focused on Alper and Dafne’s relationship, and it feels slightly superficial and out of place with the rest of the scenes. But overall, Onder does a wonderful job of creating a story that is relatable to many types of viewers. Whether someone is a political activist, apolitical, or simply unsure of their position on the ideological spectrum, Taksim Hold’em suggests there is still value in seeking connections with those who are different from us.
Taksim Hold’em screened as part of the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival.