The Palace (Director: Anthony Maras): Perhaps it’s fitting that so soon after hosting the first Shorts That Are Not Pants screening, I was asked to review a batch of shorts in contention for this year’s Oscars®. First up is The Palace, a pocket-sized war film about the 1974 invasion of the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus by Turkey. Almost forty years later, the island is still divided, with the Turkish-occupied territory of Northern Cyprus unrecognized by the UN as a separate nation. I remember this conflict vaguely since it was one of the first interventions by the UN’s “blue helmets,” a peacekeeping force in which Canadian troops served a major role.
The film wisely chooses to keep the focus on one small event during the invasion, letting the tension stand in for the entire conflict. Stella (Daphne Alexander) is a young mother caught up in the conflict who must keep her cool even under the most terrifying circumstances in order to keep her children safe. Hiding out in an opulent house, she and her children become separated from her husband. She and the children, including a fussy baby, hide in one wardrobe while her husband crowds into another where an old couple are already hiding. A group of soldiers and their sergeant soon enter the house, looking to loot the place. Young conscript Omer (Erol Afsin) bemoans the fact that he’s here rather than in London, where he’s due to audition for drama school, while his rather dimmer comrade Mehmet (Tamer Arslan) seems more suited to a soldier’s role. Stella’s attempts to keep the baby quiet keep the tension rising and even the Turks seem on edge. Until they discover a turntable and for a few short minutes everyone breathes easier as The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” plays, lending some absurdity to the scene. But soon it’s back to business as the sergeant (Kevork Malikyan) hears a noise from one of the wardrobes.
Shot mostly through the louvered doors of the wardrobe, The Palace is able to maintain the tension while refusing to paint the young soldiers as villains. But the fact that their superiors are ordering them to kill civilians and loot their houses doesn’t go unnoticed by the viewer. The film is able to portray just a tiny part of the human tragedy of a conflict that has never been resolved. It reminded me quite a bit of Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, another depiction of a place with seemingly intractable historical grievances. And though there’s no time for backstory, both Alexander and Afsin bring humanity to their roles. Each is helpless in a different way, and neither will be able to forget the tragedy played out inside The Palace.