Director Asli Ozarslan first saw Leyla Imret in a newspaper.
Director: Asli Ozarslan
Country: Germany 2017, 1h 11min

Brought up in Germany from a young age, Imret returned to her hometown in South Eastern Anatolia twenty years later, and became Turkey’s youngest Mayor. At the time, Ozarslan was searching for a subject for her graduation film. Intrigued by the picture of this bold woman with long blonde hair, decided to find out who Leyla Imret was. But, what started as a film portraying a young Mayor, took an unexpected turn when political tensions arose in the South East of Turkey during the 2015 national elections. In the end, Dil Leyla became not only the portrait of a young politician, but an intense and eye-opening account of Turkey’s inflammable political climate.

The film opens with images of violence between Kurdish civilians and Turkish authorities. With a predominantly Kurdish population, Cizre – Leyla’s hometown – has been part of the scene of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict for decades. Leyla’s father was a known Kurdish guerilla fighter. When he was killed, her mother decided to send the then five-year old Leyla to Germany, to live with relatives and be safe.

While living in Germany, Leyla always felt something was missing in her life. And when she returned to Cizre twenty years after her departure, she rediscovered a world she remembered vaguely. Things seemed to have reached a period of calm in the region, so she decided to leave Germany, and go back to help rebuild the town of her childhood. The conservative society she left as a child now welcomed her back, and saw the future in her. She planned to create a normal life for the community, building parks and playgrounds, and giving the children a chance to have the childhood she never had.

The film does not aim to shed light on what is an old and very complex conflict in Southeastern Turkey. Instead, it focuses on a woman who took a personal decision driven by a sense of belonging, responsibility and hope, and who inevitably ended up as a part of the web of political and social complexities in the region. After taking office, things seem to go well at first. Only Leyla’s mother is skeptical and worried about her daughter’s return and political involvement. But, her worries can be dismissed as a mother’s concern.

The first half of the film follows Leyla through her daily work as Mayor. These scenes are combined with the stories she tells, and with images of her time with her family in Cizre and in Germany. Yet, no matter the circumstances, she never seems to forget that she is a politician, and has an official role. It is difficult to read her emotions; even though there is no doubt she has them. When asked if she is afraid, she replies that she is afraid for her people. It feels like the more we see her, the more of a mystery she is.

But paradoxically, her unbreakable composure points to something touching. While mingling in the crowd, shaking hands and visiting construction sites and neighborhoods, there are so many moments in which she seems terribly alone. She is never completely part of her environment. And it is perhaps this very contrast, between her composed appearance and her silent loneliness, which makes you want to get closer to her.

The film takes an unexpected turn around the general elections in November 2015, when tensions quickly escalated into violent conflict. Turkish Security Forces besiege Cizre and place an eight-day curfew on the town. Leyla is removed from her office on charges of inciting hatred and supporting terrorism and has to go into hiding. A second curfew follows in December 2015, and lasts almost three months.

Filmed in hiding, Leyla seems changed. No longer Mayor, she becomes a young woman in danger. The old ghosts of the past come back to life and her hope and determination quickly melt into fear and despair.

From that point on, the narrative is no longer character-driven; instead it follows the course of the political events and the consequences they dictate. The film crew has to leave Turkey. The images of Leyla in hiding are the last images filmed of her for the remainder of the film. Her family’s concerns and the lack of footage leave an empty space, and make you want to know more, wondering where she is now, and whether she is well. By this point, her mother’s fears become reality and the world that Leyla hoped to change sucked her in and made her disappear from her own story.

Dil Leyla was screened at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague this spring. Leyla Imret was invited as a guest but could not attend. She is currently not allowed to leave Turkey and faces a lengthy prison sentence. At her family’s request, the film was not screened in Turkey, and will probably not be screened there any time soon.