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About Dry Grasses Review: Everyone Wants to Matter

A character looks at the camera covered in snow in the film About Dry Grasses

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses centers on a village unknown to the outside world with a lead character unable to see beyond his own sense of self-importance. 

I’ve often wondered about the lives that are lived in the places we never see on big screens. Towns you get a glimpse of while on a road trip, places you notice while driving from the airport to your final destination, the towns and villages in between where you came from and where you planned to go. Seeing these towns I’ll never know firsthand even implores me to think about all the places I’ll never get to see. They’re not along a path I’d travel or perhaps a destination I’d never even know to set as a goal to see one day. About Dry Grasses (Kuru Otlar Üstüne)  is a film that takes place in a village in Eastern Turkey far off the path of anywhere that someone may desire to travel. 

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film leans into the desolate area as a character of its own. It’s a village with only two seasons, winter and summer, and this story takes place during the long, unforgiving winter. With a desolate backdrop and a genuinely unlikable main character, the film stands as an interesting character study about those who want a better hand than what life has dealt them

The film opens in pure whiteness, caused by the unrelenting snow. From the nothingness comes our main character, Samet (Deniz Celiloglu). He has just returned to his small village in eastern Anatolia from school break to his home he shares with fellow teacher and housemate Kenan (Musab Ekici). Samet is known around the village as “Teacher” and has settled into the community as he works as an art teacher at the local school. He is contracted to work at this particular school under a four-year mandatory service, but his time to transfer schools is on the horizon and he has big aspirations of being moved to a school in Istanbul. 

While unhappy with where he is in life, he finds hope in a young student named Sevim (Ece Bagci) who seems to embody all the things Samet lacks: unbridled potential, natural kindness and easy popularity. Samet’s adoration begins to cross over to a hyper-fixation and after stealing a love note that Sevim wrote to another student, Samet clearly wishing it was about him, their relationship quickly turns sour. Soon after, both Samet and Kenan are called to the school district’s main office to be told they have been accused of inappropriate conduct by two students. 

About Dry Grasses is a film about a man who believes he is owed more than what life has given him. Samet is a disgruntled, even hateful man who harbors the weight of a massive chip on his shoulder, desperate to mean something to somebody. He is a truly dislikable character who takes his anger carelessly out on others. After being accused, he lashes out at his class, telling his young pupils they would be nothing but beat farmers, and physically intimidates Sevim and tells the other students to isolate her completely as punishment. 

a man looks at a lake surrounded by nature in the film About Dry Grasses
About Dry Grasses (Janus Films)

It comes across that Samet is jealous of his students, even if he won’t admit to it. He is jealous that these children are at the very beginning of their lives: even though they come from this remote, rural town, they do have a future of endless possibilities ahead of them. Sevim serves as the cumulation of all the potential that Samet lacks. Samet blames this village on his lack of opportunity and the fact he feels stuck in life, but in truth, it feels that Samet wouldn’t even know what to do with the potential he so desperately desires. 

Samet is set up with a fellow teacher, Nuray (Merve Dizdar) a young woman who lost her leg in a terrorist attack who chooses to teach in this village as it’s close to her family who stands as the only character able to call Samet out on his self-pitying ways. Nuray points out that he blames all his problems on his environment, but that is not what is making him miserable: it’s his outlook on life. She acknowledges his selfishness and brings into perspective that he is not a victim of circumstance as he believes but rather a victim of his own selfishness. 

Samet is such an unlikable character that it makes the film hard to watch. His motives are so thinly veiled, his entitlement is so aggressively arrogant and his hatred and disdain towards his life in this small village is proof of his inability to see beyond himself. The best part of the film is when Nuray tells him exactly the kind of man he is, but this moment is frustratingly ruined by Samet’s inability to grasp her incredibly spot-on points. 

Nurary and Sevim are the two characters able to see Samet for who he truly is. Merve Dizdar and Ece Bagci play these roles with a subtlety and ease that speaks volumes to their talent. They are able to convey so much without having to really say anything. While Deniz Celiloglu’s performance is impressive, as he is able to relay his character’s inferiority complex in a way that truly infuriates the viewer, these two women steal every scene they are in. They exude a level of comfort in these characters, really selling the concept that Nuray and Sevim are just comfortable in their own skin, that is enough to understand why Samet finds them characters worthy of such envy and admiration.  

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has created a film that stands as a truly intricate study of an unlikable character. However, Samet is not a character an audience needs a three-hour runtime to dislike and understand why. There are some worlds built in film that are so intriguing and so complex, you feel almost saddened when the credits roll and you have to return to reality. About Dry Grasses is not one of those films, it feels more so that it overstays its welcome. 

About Dry Grasses: Trailer (Janus Films)

While there are certain creative decisions Ceylan takes that really utilize the environment the story takes place in, there are also some decisions he makes that seem hard to justify. At one point, Samet walks through a door revealing a sound stage, full of working crew members, and takes a walk to a different indoor set. Not only does this moment feel completely out of place with the themes and premise of the film, but stylistically it does not make sense either. The film imposes on itself at times, reproving points that felt sufficiently made earlier on, and drags on seemingly not knowing what is completely necessary to keep and what scenes are not needed to prove the points the film wants to make. 

About Dry Grasses is not a comfortable viewing experience. It’s a film that wants to make you uncomfortable from its subject matter to the lack of a character arc Samet has (if he has any growth throughout the film it is virtually undetectable). The treatment of Sevim and the other students throughout the film is deplorable, not to mention the complete hatred he has for the village he has called home for the past four years. It is interesting, however, how all this animosity Samet has for his surroundings really stands as a reflection of his hatred for himself. He is unable to act, almost cowardly in his approach to life. He is surrounded by children who have their youth and their full lives ahead of them while he withers away in a village unknown to the outside world, helplessly longing to be someone more than who he is.

About Dry Grasses will be released at at Film Forum (LA) and in select US cities on February 23, 2024.

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