Why It’s OK to Love “The Water Diviner”

The Water Diviner, or Son Umut in Turkish, is a film about a father traveling from Australia to find his sons lost in the battle at Gelibolu. Russell Crowe, director and star of the film, stated that the main character, Joshua Connor, travels “from the isolation of outback Australia to the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire…. But he never finds the footsteps of his enemy. He finds, instead, more than he could have ever hoped for, and a love that reignites his life.” Sound predictable and tired to you? Yeah, OK, it is at times predictable, tired, and cheesy, but I’m here to say to all my fellow yabangees that it really is OK for you to love this film.

Still from The Water Diviner
So cheesy it’s great?

For a yabangee audience, The Water Diviner is immediately intriguing because it is made by Australians but mostly set on Turkish soil (with some great shots of Istanbul). According to Crowe, the thing that most resonated with him about this script was “the Turkish perspective,” and his interest clearly comes through with important roles for strong Turkish characters. Crowe’s cast includes comedic stars Cem Yılmaz and Yılmaz Erdoğan, and you can see his affection for them on Twitter. There have been other blockbuster films set in Istanbul in the past few years (Skyfall and Taken 2 come to mind), but these films often use Istanbul predominantly as a backdrop. These films are set in Istanbul to use the city’s magnificent setting, but are not so much about Istanbul, and do not make much of an attempt to include Turkish voices, while The Water Diviner is driven by Turkish characters. You can be the judge of how accurate the film is, but at least it can be applauded for its commitment to the “Turkish perspective.”

Watching The Water Diviner on the big screen in Turkey presents a familiar problem: English subtitles are hardly ever provided in Turkish cinemas. For those who cannot stand to miss a single moment of any movie, this will be extremely frustrating. But for those of us living here and still struggling to learn Turkish, we can easily relate to this scenario. In fact, the lack of subtitles makes viewing The Water Diviner in Turkey a unique cinematic experience, and one that most expats will recognize: The viewer only understands what our Australian hero understands, and important issues discussed in Turkish are made clear as they are translated to Crowe. Rather than finding myself annoyed, I could relate to Crowe — I am almost always out of the loop when it comes to Turkish conversation.

Still from The Water Diviner
That’s the city we know and love.

Outside of the language barrier, I can see why it is easy to hate on The Water Diviner. At times, the film is very cheesy, including a slow-motion romance scene in the cisterns. There is also more iconic Turkish imagery crammed into The Water Diviner than in a typical study abroad Facebook album. The stream of postcard images, which include Turkish coffee fortunes, fezzes, whirling dervishes, Anatolian landscapes, sleepy coastal towns, and colorful kahvaltı, among others, can feel contrived, even though they are admittedly beautifully shot. But look past its maybe overreaching attempts, and the film hits home, right in our yabangee feels. If I talk to anyone about coming to Turkey, these are exactly the things I stress, not only because these are classic tourist activities, but because they truly are amazing. The iconic imagery in The Water Diviner is tiresome yet emotionally effective, because it utilizes exactly what makes so many people fall in love with Turkey.

Criticizing portrayals of Turkey is fun and a common activity for anyone who has spent time here. Sitting through the terrible Taken 2 was almost worth it to point out the portrayals of Turkey that I didn’t agree with. Recognizing a lack of authenticity makes us feel connected to our new home.  Like any movie, The Water Diviner may not hit every aspect of historical accuracy or cultural authenticity on the nose, but it is a colorful portrait of what we love in Turkey: rich culture, an Ottoman past just out of reach, and overwhelming hospitality. If you love being a yabangee here, then there is at least something for you to love about The Water Diviner. So just give in, let the tears flow, and admit that you love this movie.

What did you think of “The Water Diviner”? Let us know in the comments. You can also read James Tressler‘s take on it here

Eren Sipahi is a contributor to Yabangee

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Eren Sipahi
Eren is a Turkish American from West Michigan who has made Istanbul his home once again. While improving his Turkish and devising a life plan, Eren hopes to write about Turkish culture and travel like Anthony Bourdain.

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