How can one stay healthy and feel good about oneself in this modern world of conflicting information and impulses? The tragically comic Çirak or The Apprentice (2016) by director Emre Konuk explores this issue through the neurosis of his main character and a visual style that always matches his mental strife.
Alim is the eponymous apprentice. A middle-aged man, he has been the assistant to an elderly tailor for almost all of his adult life; a life dominated by his neuroses and fears. The entire style of The Apprentice, from framing to camera movement to staging to editing, serves to convey the inner workings of his mind. This is where Emre Konuk and his team shine. From the very first, almost too tight close-up of Alim’s head lying in bed, while his mental discomfort keeps him up at night, Konuk communicates Alim’s mental state with his distinct visual style.
This style therefore elevates Konuk’s tight script and the acting of the lead Hakan Atalay. When the camera closes in on him, his claustrophobia is palpable, both by the look on his face and by the way his body or even his head is partly cropped out of the frame. He doesn’t fit, and he knows it. Alim is stuck in his life and in his own head.
When the camera pulls back and allows him more space, he cowers in the corner. In wider, often symmetrical shots, Alim is often positioned on either edge of the screen. At other times he’s framed within more frames in the image, with windows or furniture enclosing him or objects in the foreground, blocking off part of the screen.
One significant visual device Konuk repeatedly uses to illuminate Alim’s state of mind, is the triptych mirror in the tailor’s shop. For most of The Apprentice, when the mirror appears on screen, Alim is only visible in one of the side panels. Again he is in the corner, either hiding from life or being held back by his fears.
But then there is one moment when he feels happy, confident and comfortable, thanks to the trust and affection of his landlady and the new tailor-made suit the old tailor made for him. Now he himself appears within the frame with the mirror and his reflection beams back at him from all three panels of the mirror. A glorious moment, both emotionally and visually.
This rare moment of happiness is preceded by many moments of insecurity and nervousness, sometimes so absurd it makes Alim both a tragic and a comic figure. Often, he is told or overhears a piece of news that will terrify him or make him change his life spontaneously. Increasingly, his hearing this news becomes the set-up for jokes, with his overreaction as the punchline.
When he hears that cars with LPG engines can suddenly explode, and later remembers this while carpooling, he gets out of his friend’s car in the middle of the night, inspects the engine and refuses to get back in. Then he proceeds to call a cab, only to dismiss the cabbie as well after checking the engine. His overreaction is completed by choosing to move into an old building across the street from the tailor’s shop, only to find out that old buildings are especially in danger of collapsing during earthquakes.
It’s not just his fears of external dangers that drive Alim. When told coffee is actually good for one’s health, this already very tightly wound man, who avoided coffee all his life, becomes a staunch coffee drinker. But he needs sugar to get past the taste. Until he learns that sugar is bad. The look of utter despair and confusion on his face when he finds this out is as hilarious as it is tragic, in a sense, a feeling that returns every time his desire to stay healthy drives him to slightly absurd changes in his behaviour.
Alim’s fears and neuroses have kept him from fully reaching adulthood, which is reflected in his dependence on the elders in his life, his landlady and the tailor he is still only an apprentice to. Alim is only able to truly embark on his quest for self-worth when he is finally forced to fend for himself. Actually succeeding in fixing a flickering lightbulb by himself – an earlier attempt sent him bleeding into the arms of the landlady – provides hope for his future. A fitting way to end The Apprentice, where surface, subtext and style are so wonderfully wedded.