Deaf-mute brothers get a voice in Turkish film “Brothers of Silence"

Young director Taylan Mintas sought to turn his deaf-mute cousins’ lives into a documentary. After four years and extensive fundraising, but “Brothers of Silence” finally premiered in the prestigious Istanbul Film Festival in April, to much acclaim.

Courtesy of: Mintas Production
Courtesy of: Mintas Production

The brothers and their families spend their summers in the highlands.

Melis Alemdar Melis Alemdar is a staff writer for TRT World. @preciseabandon

ISTANBUL, Turkey After the gala screening of Taylan Mintas’s first feature-length film Brothers of Silence, the audience erupted into applause. The film was screened as part of Istanbul Film Festival’s National Documentary Competition, although Mintas didn’t take home the prize.

He attended the screening at the rickety Beyoglu Theatre. The space is tucked away down in an arcade off Istanbul’s bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Avenue. With him was his older brother Erol Mintas, who produced the documentary and is a director in his own right. Also in attendance were the stars of Brothers of Silence, looking shy, happy and embarrassed all at once. They could see that people were clapping, but couldn’t hear the applause.

Taylan Mintas’s documentary Brothers of Silence, shot over a four-year period, chronicles the lives of two Kurdish deaf-mute brothers, Toso and Cao. They live in a remote Kurdish village called Kucuk Catak in Kars, northeastern Turkey.

Brothers of Silence was shot over a period of four years. (Courtesy of Mintas Production)

A family affair

Toso, the older brother, and Cao, are Taylan’s older cousins. The brothers have granted unfettered access into their day-to-day lives to the 29-year-old filmmaker, at times breaking the “fourth wall” — the unspoken boundary that makes the director seemingly invisible to those he or she is filming — like when they ask Taylan to help them when the birth of a calf goes wrong. The whole family, gathered at the barn, has to intervene to help with delivery.

Toso has had to face challenges years before his younger brother. (Courtesy of Mintas Production)

Other times they forget Taylan’s presence altogether, like the time Toso kicks a cat off the settee for begging for food, sending the audience into uncomfortable laughter.

A few days after the screening, when asked how two brothers who seemingly grew up under the same circumstances can be so different, Taylan points out both Toso and Cao are decent, hardworking and warm-hearted people.

“These brothers are at least 20 years apart. Toso was born before Cao and faces many more things before Cao ... So Toso encounters hundreds of obstacles he must overcome before Cao.”

Adding to the complications is the fact that Toso’s grown son wants to establish his authority and challenges his father on a regular basis, especially in a tragicomic scene where the two men come to blows in the field, ready to beat each other up with farming equipment.

“On one hand, you battle [the harsh conditions of] geography. On another, [you battle] animals. On another, people. Then there is the power struggle in the house,” Taylan says. While the film doesn’t overtly emphasise it, the geography and the people in the village where the brothers live are harsh, he adds.

Cao is more outgoing than his older brother and seems to have a sunnier disposition. (Courtesy of Mintas Production)

Whereas for Cao, things are different: “When Cao was born, Toso had already overcome many things. He had overcome the problem of [finding a suitable woman for] marriage,” Taylan says. Toso had married a hearing, speaking woman, the director says, setting an example for Cao and giving him hope that he would "make it" in the world as a deaf-mute, just as his older brother had.

Indeed, both men are married to women who can hear and speak, and more importantly, who seem to be in good spirits most of the time. Toso’s wife, Yaze, and Cao’s wife, Mecbure, are hard-working women who appear as their husbands’ equals in the film, occasionally breaking into giggles when they think the family drama being filmed at the moment will be “seen by everyone” and embarrass the family.

“They’re two very strong women … who don’t just do ‘women’s work’ but do ‘men’s work’ as well,” Taylan says. He muses about politics and women’s oppression for a moment.

“When you look at it from the outside,” he says, “yes, women are oppressed. But men are, too [in that environment].” He clarifies: “There is a mutual division of labour; nobody does injustice to the other; nobody oppresses the other.”

“Which is why the women are so comfortable in front of the camera,” he says.

The film shows the women cleaning the house, taking care of the children, tending to the chickens and geese and loading up a truck to spend the summer in the highlands.They have also mastered the unique sign language the brothers have developed among themselves, finding humour in their daily lives. They affectionately make fun of their husbands.

Labour of love

Taylan has come up with creative methods to finance his film. In addition to a small grant from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Brothers of Silence also received the post-production support grant from Turkey’s New Film Fund which he says covered the final sound mix, colour, and DCP. The Greenhouse Program was also involved in developing the film, providing mentoring and advice.

He says they needed a way to fund extra copies of the film, so he struck a deal with the head of the post-production company, giving him paintings rather than money.

 Taylan Mintas works across a variety of disciplines, including painting. He traded his artwork with the post-production company in exchange for additional copies of the documentary (Courtesy of Mintas Production)

Taylan's older brother Erol was in charge of production, and suggested Taylan fund the film further by holding an online auction for his artwork. When the crowdsourcing attempt failed to reach its goal, the film’s composer Basar Under put them in touch with a gallery/work space in the seaside neighbourhood of Arnavutkoy.

“The right kind of energy leads you to meet the right person or to spend a life with them,” Taylan Mintas says. (Courtesy of Sedat Akdog)

Taylan gets carried away reminiscing about all the people who helped get him here. His speech quickens, his big brown eyes sparkle, and he excitedly rattles off names who have aided him in making the film like a first-time Oscar winner.

“The right kind of energy leads you to meet the right person or to spend a life with them,” he had said earlier. “It was like this with this project. It had such positive energy that whatever was meant to happen happened, things just flowed.”

He doesn’t need to say it, but it’s obvious: the dedicated young director is probably the source of the positive energy himself. He says he’ll continue working on a feature-length fiction film whose script was a finalist for the Antalya Film Support Fund in 2015. He also has a few more stories that he says he’s working into scripts.

“We’ll decide later which one of them we’ll shoot, what we’ll do,” he smiles. “The process,” he says, somewhat mystically, “will show us.”