(Les Lunes Rousses )
Belgium, 2019. 97min
Tülin Özdemir’s sensitive and moving story about a Turkish woman taken to Europe as a nine-year old and married off at 13 to a stranger five years her senior, is a timely tale of the iniquities of the age-old practice of arranged marriages in some cultures.
Red Moon is tightly focused around the close relationship between the village-born Hafize and her niece – for whom she was effectively a surrogate mother in Brussels during the first four years of her life in Belgium. The two women, separated in age by little more than 10 years, are collaborators in a joint expedition to unpick the generational damage poverty, paternalism and arranged marriages have done to them and the women of their clan.
A story of poverty, hopelessness and ancient rigidities emerges
Hafize’s journey is all about sifting through the identify that was thrust upon her as a child-wife, mother and carer – as she seeks liberation from a past that still weighs heavily upon her heart and soul.
A change of identities
The film begins and ends on grass-covered limestone cliffs high above the sea, as Hafize tells her niece of a bureaucratic mistake that meant, aged 6, she was identified as a boy and given a blue Turkish identify card, rather than pink.
The situation was only resolved later in a complex sleight of hand whereby she assumed the name and identify of an elder sister following the death of another sister.
Hafize – then Tüscany, which is normally a boy’s name in Turkey – eventually received the correct colour-coded card, though that did not stop her later being sent Turkish military call up papers in Tüscany’s name.
It may seem a rather obtuse entry point for the story of a woman the film’s teaser refers to as having been trafficked as a child to Europe, but for Red Moon’s heroine, this is almost an original sin, a proto-theft of identity that was to hound her through much of her life.
In her girlish imagination Belgium was a place «just beyond» nearby hills
As aunt and niece walk through the mostly deserted, overgrown streets of Hafize’s home village on a dusty Turkish plain – framed here through a narrow window in her old, now abandoned school, or there, in a wide lens along the road she walked with her father the morning she was sent to Europe – a story of poverty, hopelessness and ancient rigidities emerges.
Conversations between Hafize and her aged mother – who herself was married off to a young soldier she also only met on her wedding day – set the scene for one of several ‘reveals’ dotted through the film: that it was her own older sister who asked for her to be sent to join her in Brussels, where she too was already a young bride in an arranged marriage.
Nine-year old Hafize was excited and curious: «I thought I’d be away a few days, or weeks», she says, adding that in her girlish imagination Belgium (of which she knew nothing) was a place «just beyond» nearby hills.
Handed over by her father
In the end, after a long walk at dawn (which we see reconstructed by aunt and niece in a long shot that ends with them receding into the distance as a car-mounted camera accelerates away), Hafize was handed over by her father with barely a word.
«Give your sisters my regards,» Hafize’s father told her, before stroking her hair and leaving without a backward glance. She never saw or spoke to her father again. It is only towards the end of the film in a wrenching scene where she finally confronts a lifetime’s pain in a conversation with her long-dead father at his village grave, that this betrayal – the one she cannot forgive of the many – is addressed.
It is an open wound in a journey where there is virtually no other conversation with the men in her life (we see only two uncles and hear, briefly and obliquely only from one).
«No one in my life hurt me as much as you,» Hafize addresses her father’s silent grave. «Why?»
The nine year old, confused and abandoned little girl in her, desperately yearning for healing is still raw, nearly 40 years later.
«I would like to forgive you, but I cannot» – Hafize
«I would like to forgive you, but I cannot,» she says, before turning and leaving without a backward glance.
Interspersed with scenes from a contemporary rural Turkish wedding, Red Moon closes with a final act that concentrates on the beginnings of reconciliation between Hafize and the older sister responsible for her coming to Belgium. A younger generation of women, including Hafize’s daughter, a songwriter and photographer, also strive to bring healing to their elders, in closing scenes that move to bring the story full circle.
Red Moon has enough therapy to offer hope, and sufficient pace to keep audiences on board a heartfelt and touching story.