Director: Cansın Erülkebaş
Writer: Cansın Erülkebaş
Cast: İsmail Çelikyürekli, Fatoş Polat, Ergin Karabulut, Demet Şan
Running time: 27mins
To be up-front, I am not an expert in philosophy. My opinions on the matter should always be taken with a pinch of salt – especially regarding Friedrich Nietzsche. With that being said, whatever your feelings toward the works of Nietzsche – and whether the effects of advanced syphilis, or the meddling of his Nazi sister on them compromise their philosophical value – one thing I am sure of is that the meanings of his dense and overlapping tracts are far more complex than simply preaching ‘self-love.’
Unfortunately, we live in the age of BrainyQuote and context-free ‘wisdom’ shared in the format of ‘inspirational’ memes. In that context, most people’s first impression of Nietzsche is probably that he was some kind of 19th century self-help guru. One of these detached segments adorns the opening moments of writer-director Cansın Erülkebaş’ Bana Ne Oluyor? Translated as What is Happening to Me? the film focuses on the declining physical and mental health of Can (İsmail Çelikyürekli) – a beleaguered student, set upon from all sides by people who assert he is less than in various different ways.
The filmmaker chooses to preface Can’s suffering with the famous line: “But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you ambush yourself in caverns and forests.” As with so many pseudo-intellectuals before, the director deploys the quote to give a bland affirmation of ‘individual self-worth’ some unearned ideological depth. By the end of the film, however, it is clear that he was rather less concerned with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or the The Way of the Creator passage from which the quote is drawn.
The full segment of that text suggests that you might be an “enemy” to yourself in more than the direct manner of doubting or blocking your own progress. You may also become a more ambiguous ‘enemy’ to yourself – in that you take actions which alienate yourself from the norms you have been raised into. To become creative, you must be willing to alienate a part of yourself which has been taught that pandering to the will of the rest of society, and fitting in at all costs, is right and natural. There are many ways to read into that, from across the philosophical and political spectrum.
In the case of What is Happening to Me? however, the script chooses to take Nietzsche’s quote as a warning about self-doubt and not much else. Can is under pressure from the self-serving ego of his self-righteous Professor (Ergin Karabulut) to produce a study that confirms all his own biases. Meanwhile he is being berated by his macho ‘friends’ for never showing an interest in girls – they are so ‘worried’ that they have set him up on a date with his classmate Jale (Fatoş Polat), coinciding with the deadline of his floundering studies. And to top it all off, Can’s nagging super-ego of his tyrannical Mother (Demet Şan) scrutinises his every move, comparing him constantly to the shortcomings of his absent brother.
Rapidly crumbling under this mountain of pressure, Can’s physical and mental health decline from early on in the film. Following the news his friends are concerned about his lack of involvement with the opposite sex, Can develops a hacking cough. Initially it seems as though something else is going on here – but the film never does anything with whatever we end up reading into it, so Can’s sexuality does not seem to be something the filmmakers actually considered story-worthy. Then, following a bruising dissertation defence, the cross-examination from his fellow students sees Can projectile vomit into somebody’s face, before discovering he is covered in red polka dots.
It seems that Cansın Erülkebaş is even less concerned with the medical aspects of the story than its philosophical depth – with much of Can’s descent into ill health utterly laughable. His grating cough – which resembles a schoolboy trying to con its mother into allowing a sick day – does not come with any related symptoms such as shortness of breath, while the ‘rash’ he is covered in seems to have been coloured in using his mother’s lipstick. Meanwhile, the semi-hydrated oatmeal he spatters into the face of his classmate draws none of the revulsion needed to at least distract from how little it actually resembles vomit. Nobody so much as blinks – not even the young woman who literally has chunks of it resting on her chin.
As the pressures on him mount, his symptoms only become worse. Worse in the sense he seems to be dying, but also worse in the cinematic sense. Cansın Erülkebaş eventually allows his protagonist to be covered in enough makeup that he resembles Darth Sidious, post-lightning.
This even prompts a child in a café to suggest he looks like a zombie. Out of the mouths of babes… In a moment where we should sympathise with Can – when he lambasts the child for making fun of someone with a serious mental and physical health issue – we are left on the brink of belly-laughing. His ailments have been so poorly handled that he does resemble a zombie – while the child who should come across as ignorant and cruel seems to be the only voice of reason willing to actually point it out.
Nobody else seems aware of how bad things are for Can. He sits opposite them, with grey veins bulging from his neck, and dark rings around his eyes, and the most anyone can muster is “are you sure you feel OK?”
Things come to a head when he starts blarting out blood during his extended coughing fits. Can blacks out, only to be confronted by his subconscious, asking for him to care more about his own feelings by stabbing him repeatedly in the stomach. You know, the standard pep-talk.
When Can comes to, he is aware of what he has to do – something which coincides with the miraculous evaporation of all his previous symptoms. Symptoms which we knew physically existed, thanks to his interaction with the child. But what is the new wisdom he has gleaned from this journey that has caused this deathbed revival? Well, when Mother confronts Can this time, slating him for his academic failures, now he knows that simply sighing, shrugging, and ignoring her will make everything better.
In the movie’s final scene, we are treated to an extended shot of Can cleaning the blood from his stomach. So again, the dream was real, he really took a series of blades to the gut, but simply the ability to ignore his detractors has meant the wounds are not a medical emergency. Aside from the pure absurdity of this suggestion, the negligence of its medical and psychological implications, or its refusal to engage with the philosophy it used to give it an intellectual veneer, this scene shows just how little the team behind What is Happening to Me? understood of the gravity of any of this. If your lead character has been to hell and back by the end of a story, doesn’t he deserve a moment of catharsis with a bit more substance than him washing his belly in the shower of his Mum’s house?
As the credits roll, we are left in a strange, unknowing limbo, unsure of if this was all a joke, or what we were supposed to learn if it wasn’t. Certainly, we have not gone into much detail on how we can be our own worst enemies. We have no signs that Can is determined to go against the grain, to carve out a new path for himself, or confront the systemic causes of his misery. He has just learned how to momentarily accept his situation. In the long-term, he remains committed to concluding his studies next year – rededicating himself to impressing the same ignoramus of a Professor that made his life hell for the last 12 months, and doubling down on his desire to prove to his Mother that he is not a failure like his brother.
He has not embraced any of the creative or introspective elements a Nietzschean man might embody. He has not sought to contradict any of the norms he was previously beholden to. He still lives in his mother’s house. He still has to face the thinly veiled homophobia of his peers. He still has to spend another year grovelling to his tutor. Structurally, everything that was wrong with his life remains intact, and will inevitably continue to make his life miserable. But at least he loves himself, right?
So here again we have a superficial engagement with Nietzsche. One that sells books, but doesn’t honestly do anyone beyond self-help gurus much good at all. Do not look within yourself to fight your alignment with ideas that are causing you physical harm. Look within yourself to simply choose to be happy!
The actors do a decent job of delivering their lines. The lines make most of them look absurd or cruel, but that is not their fault. Beyond that, there are not really any redeeming features on display here. The film’s overall message seems to boil down to happiness being a choice – which is as damaging for people suffering from mental health issues as it is materially absurd. Imagine trying to tell someone with chemical depression that their condition was their fault for having the wrong mindset, or trying to tell someone behind the barbed-wire walls of a death-camp that they were standing in the way of their own happiness. What a reckless and grotesque sentiment that would be.