Sharp like a razor, Ghosts, an impressive debut by Turkish director and writer Azra Deniz Okyay, dissects the concerning realities of four ostensibly unrelated people. What unites them, though, is that they live in contemporary Turkey and thus suffer from a lack of freedom of speech, dangerous conservatism, and dilapidating moral values, all of them bringing the citizens’ yearning for a better tomorrow to a glaring impasse.

Set within a day in the not-so-distant future, 26th October 2020, Ghosts starts with a hyperbole – “Istanbul has been turned into a war zone”.  We are then introduced to Didem (Dilayda Güneş), a young woman feeling pressured to choose between full employment and thus steady income, or the pursuit of her true passion – to become a professional dancer. Even though most of her friends are proactively partaking in antigovernment protests, she does not seem to be as politically engaged as them. Iffet (Nalan Kuruçim) works as a waste removal specialist, clearing debris from clashes between protesters and the local police force. Her son is doing time for an allegedly uncommitted crime and will be in danger if she does not send him some money. Raşit (Emrah Özdemir) is a vulture who feeds on the looming gentrification process and the constant influx of Syrian refugees. Having a passion for shooting videos on her mobile phone, Ela (Beril Kayar) is a devout feminist activist.

Okyay meticulously uses a non-linear narrative, which engages the audience and illuminates the realities of the common people in the big city – thus, a parallel can be drawn to the critically appraised Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000). Rich in allegories, the film uses Istanbul’s power outage to allude to the lack of hope of the people, on the one hand, and the lack of visibility and hence accountability for what actually happens in the shadows, on the other hand. A subtle, yet powerful symbol is found in the behavior of Didem – she likes to think she is as progressive and open-minded as her friends, but rebukes a younger girl for wearing lipstick in an act of internalized misogynism. Presenting a rather bleak picture of “new Turkey”, the director shows the logical disbelief of her compatriots, as they experience first-hand the suppressive and authoritarian face of the system. Ghosts ends on a strong message – actions have consequences and much-needed change usually comes from young people.

The cinematography by Bariş Özbiçer focuses on seemingly insignificant everyday moments – the introspective front mirror of Raşit’s car and the alternating focus between it and the urban landscape. The sound design is also on point – the use of police sirens and whirring helicopters is deliberate and hints at the state of control, surveillance, and threat people are forced to live under. Conversely, the soundtrack beautifully amplifies the permeating sense of hope, with a final scene of Didem dancing in a trance, fully aware of her unquenchable thirst for freedom and independence.

Without ever biting more than it can chew, Ghosts successfully explores realms of the Turkish society that can spontaneously combust at any time. Singled out, everyone is a ghost; united, though, ghosts are a force to be reckoned with – and can easily cross the line between optimistic dreams and concrete actions to make them come true.