In “Brother’s Keeper,” the landscape is stark, the buildings are too, and so is what happens inside them. This is a Turkish boarding schools for several hundred Kurdish students of various ages, who are told by one teacher that there is no such thing as the Kurdish region. They speak Turkish, have to work, and are constantly harangued, harassed, and bullied by the adults who are responsible for them. Cruelty is part of the game, as is neglect.
Cruelty, neglect, harassment—all are infectious, and some of the students learn from their teachers how to torment their peers. Eleven-year olds Yusuf (Samet Yildiz) and Memo (Nurullah Alaca) are among the youngest and smallest and when Memo gets sick after one such experience, no one but Yusuf is concerned and it’s left to the young boy to tend to his friend and insist, quietly, respectfully, carefully, consistently, that care must be given. He continues doing so even as feelings of loneliness and helplessness take over.
As the adults wake up to the need to do something about the by now unconscious Memo, a blizzard closes the roads, the heat has stopped working, secrets are revealed, accusations and insinuations abound, incompetence becomes obvious, and everyone tries to shift the blame to others. Eventually surprising things are revealed.
As Yusuf, Samet Yildiz is outstanding. Shy and quiet, yet alert and taking everything in, he embodies the lone child with one friend, who sees and hears and incorporates everything. Director and co-writer Ferit Karahan was a student in a boarding school like the one depicted here and, like Yusuf, he reveals subtle dynamics in addition to the crass ugliness. A lowly worker, almost off frame, takes his hat off despite the freezing temperatures when he is called to answer the headmaster’s questions. A quick but shocking moment of a teacher walking in the hallway at night with a small student while all the others are in their beds. The headmaster sending Yusuf and another student to get tea for all the adults who congregate in the sick room but not for the students who’ve been keeping vigil over Memo. A sick room with a door that doesn’t open and nothing usable other than aspirin.
This is an excellent film, adding to all too few others about the horrors of boarding schools for minority children in other parts of the world. Check out “Rabbit-Proof Fence “(Australia), “Sami Blood” (Sweden) and “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School.”