Dealer (1999)

8 05 2014

There’s no one who has seen Thomas Arslan’s Dealer that wasn’t completely sure what they were getting themselves into before hand. Perhaps “Bressonian” is an overused description of style, but where cinema stands right now, Bresson’s aesthetic DNA is over a great deal of things. I mention this because I think it’s a fair description of Arslan’s film, but I mention it in passing because I think dwelling on this shared ethos will yield analytic results that are trying too hard and reaching too far. To clarify, there is something intriguing in where these filmmakers overlap and connect, but it would be a disservice to Arslan to focus solely on how his film works in step with a canonical classic like say, PickpocketDealer is cut from the same cloth, but its print is unique and worthy of our investment.


Can is a drug dealer, but not by choice. He lives with his girlfriend, Jale, in a cozy enough home with their daughter. Jale is constantly trying to get Can to find real work. He says he looks for it, but can’t find anything. She calls him on his bullshit. She’s not the only one giving him a hard time, though. Can is repeatedly visited by a cop that he knew in his youth. The cop gives him the option to work undercover for them, but the persistent act never wears him down. He dreams of something bigger, which is what his boss, Hakan, might offer him. He’s opening up a new bar and he wants Can in on the dealing, but again, he’s getting pressures from every angle.


As one would expect from Arslan and his Berliner Schule peers, everything here is played rather straight. There is no non-diegetic sound, and the things we do here are the unremarkable sounds that many of us are already familiar with. Arslan’s focus is not on the bustling streets of the city, but instead on the outskirts, where the soundscape is dominated by the hum of an air conditioner, or the scattered screams of schoolchildren off in the distant. While Can feels the pressure from his profession, it is not the conventional gritty hustle we so frequently see portrayed in America, or even the images we’re fed on the local news. Can’s environment is not another character itself, it’s something quite banal and unremarkable, but Arslan’s ability to illustrate its ethos is poetic. Sure, its not pointed and romantic, but it is loving in ability to step back and observe.


While Dealer is not a political film, it does reflect a reality that requires some political unpacking. Can, and most of his coworkers are of the Turkish diaspora. Without reading too hard into the  Turkish-German relationship that I don’t know enough about, it’s easy to see it translated to the Black-White relationship in America. The “war on drugs” was launched to criminalize the behavior of young, Black males. Their customers might be richer and white, but the design of such a program was intentional in criminalizing those who turned to drug dealing as a last resort. In America, the war on drugs is a hollow, rhetorical tool used to legitimate abuse impoverished and colored bodies. The same thing seems to be happening in Dealer, where the drug king isn’t hassled nor are the white buyers, but the Turkish dealers are, and they feel the brunt of the apparent “anti-drug” measures made by the law. Arslan’s film observes this, but like everything his camera captures, nothing is made of it. It’s the reality, and Arslan feels no need to point at like a more superficially “social problems” film would. He’s not aloof to the problems. The critique of the system being less pointed makes more biting at times.


What Dealer quietly observes is the reality that many of us face. Immobility might be a problematic term, but definitely the inability to move upwards in society. Can and Jale are ultimately stuck not by his drug profession, but instead the society that leaves him with no other options and then criminalizes his only means to living. As he himself points out late in the film, “They made it impossible to move.” He’s referring to the local police here, but this kind of manipulation, this trapping is something institutional. This kind of critique is not in the discourse of Dealer itself, but instead hidden away in the languid, empty shots of the protagonist looking on. Perhaps I articulate something similar far too often, but this is an effective political film precisely because it is not a political film.





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