Home Theatre: Bir Başkadır (Ethos) - Intersecting lives
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Ethos (Bir Başkadır), streaming on Netflix
It's a small world — this oft-repeated phrase forms the basis of the new Turkish Netflix original Ethos (Bir Başkadır). Over the course of this eight-episode series writer-director, Berkun Oya shows us a varied cross-section of people living in and around Istanbul, whose paths intersect in unexpected ways. At its centre is Meryem, a conservative young woman from the outskirts of the city, who lives with her brother, sister-in-law and their kids, and works as a part-time cleaner. The show opens with a prologue of Meryem making her way to work at one of the houses she cleans and fainting after looking at something she pulls out of her bag. We then go back a year to when Meryem first starts seeing psychiatrist Peri for her fainting spells.
Peri is from the other end of the spectrum — an upper class, Western-educated, secular woman with a prejudice against 'covered women' like Meryem. Peri's own therapist Gülbin, meanwhile, comes from a middle-class family divided along religious lines — Gülbin is secular while her sister Gülan is a devout Muslim. We also meet several others, including the family members of each of these women and the family of Meryem's Hodja (local religious leader/elder).
On paper, these characters may seem like archetypes, almost as if Oya worked with a checklist and wanted to include one of each kind. The success of Oya and the excellent cast of Ethos (Öykü Karayel is particularly spellbinding as Meryem) lies in converting these archetypes into living, breathing characters and laying bare their psyche. The series tackles themes of religious and political divides that are specific to the Turkey of today but also, unfortunately, resonant on a more global level. When Gülbin says, "How did this happen to my sister? Don't you see how they have us at each other's throats?" to Gülan, it only hits too close to home for us here in India. Ethos also touches on more universal themes like feminism (it's refreshing to see a cast made up of a majority of women), trauma, loneliness, etc. But it never turns didactic. It's always about the characters first.
Ethos packs in plenty of drama into its eight episodes and is, in fact, a rather dense show (several details only reveal themselves on repeated viewings). But, it's also one that takes its time to unfold. The atmosphere of the show is very unhurried and melodrama-free as made clear right at the start with the aforementioned prologue. This is a 5+ minute dialogue-less sequence that is not even burdened with a score; all we hear are diegetic sounds. This immediately draws us into this world and makes it feel very real indeed.
At the same time, the cinematography gives the series a touch of poetry. Several frames resemble paintings, and there's one particularly lovely sequence of guests leaving the house of a bereaved family. All we see are their feet as they wear their shoes and go out the door. To the grief-struck girl seeing them out, they are nothing more than just a certain number of feet that paid a meaningless visit.
Another striking feature of Ethos is the number of match cuts it uses. It's almost disorienting at times, particularly when cutting between sessions that Peri has with Meryem and the ones she has with her own therapist. It is, however, an effective way to underline the similarities that exist even among so diverse a group of people.
Ethos is also a dialogue-heavy series, but it's all about what's between the lines. Characters say a lot, but what's left unsaid, what's avoided says more. Meryem and her brother Yasin often side-step uncomfortable questions, her sister-in-law Ruhiye can only mutter what she really feels when her husband is not listening. Despite taking on such heavy themes and often having a rather gloomy mood (the show is rated 18+ and comes with a self-harm warning), Ethos ends on a surprisingly positive, hopeful note. I really was not expecting to smile as much as I did when watching the final episode.
There are plenty of cultural signifiers strewn about the show — a photo here, a book there — that go over our heads, but there's a universality at the core of Ethos that gets through to us. The series is not interested in offering answers to all the issues it brings up, but it does leave us with a vital question. We humans may have many things that divide us, but there are as many things that connect us. When our lives intersect thus, why must we try to tear each other apart?