Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival Review 2021: Not Knowing

Writer-director Leyla Yilmaz presents Not Knowing, a Turkish drama which features as part of the line-up for the UK’s Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival. This hard-hitting family drama explores the damning effect of rumours as the sexuality of a high school student is questioned. With an understated directorial style and complex emotional undercurrents rippling throughout, Leyla Yilmaz crafts a powerful cinematic experience.

Young water polo student Umut (Emir Ozden) is a quiet and conscientious high school student. After he intervenes to stop the bullying of a fellow student, he shares an emotional moment with the victim – one that leads to rumours about his sexuality spreading around his team. Umut refuses to deny the allegation, apologise or explain himself. The quiet student faces further unsettling dynamics at home where his parent’s fraught marriage and own dissatisfaction with life does not provide the support he craves.

Not Knowing is a quiet, contemplative piece that allows its leading cast to deliver complex emotional turns. Yilmaz’s skilfully crafted screenplay keeps the audience in the dark about numerous narrative developments, keeping much of character’s stories behind closed doors. Umut’s sexuality and his parents, Selma (Senan Kara) and Sinan (Yurdaer Okur)’s relationship issues are not given literal explorations – yet with sensitive, emotional direction we get a sense of the struggles they face. Whether this be Umut’s internal struggles through Ozden’s impressive performance of few words or the hints at an unhappy marriage in Selma and Sinan’s relationship.

Whether Umut is gay or not, Not Knowing captures the anxieties and fears faced by queer youth – particularly in an age of social media and within the context of high school machismo. Ozden captures the spiralling fear of ‘being outed’ when the footage of him consoling the victim is leaked by another pupil. His strength of character amidst this – with no desire to deny or agree with the rumours – gives a sense of the admirable qualities at the heart of this protagonist – something which makes the narrative events unfolding (particularly those of the conclusion) even more harrowing. Alpha-male water polo culture and schoolyard gossip prove damning factors in Ozden’s turmoil.

Selma and Sinan’s inability to get through to their son or to read his conflict take centre stage in the film’s latter act as Umut goes missing. Whilst Yilmaz keeps things naturally engaging through the ‘will he or won’t he return?’ angle, the film’s contemplative tone sees the couple reflect on their own behaviour and relationship and its role in their son’s disappearance. Yurdaer Okur’s skilled performance as Umut’s father naturally coincides with the culture of machismo in the straight male community and notions of emotional disengagement in regards to both his wife and son. Senan Kara’s Selma is caring but pre-occupied without the chance to tend to her son’s emotional needs. Their shared guilt in the film’s final moments is undeniably hard-hitting.

Not Knowing excels through its contemplative tone, naturally understated yet hugely emotive character dynamics and direction, and skilled performances from its leading trio.

For more details on Iris Prize, check here.