on board

In Turkish filmmaker Serdar Akar’s On Board, the captain and three members of his crew spend the lonely evening hours on a silt-cleaning ship gorging on food and wine and pot. Theirs is a mundane existence of routines. The captain seems to tell the same story every evening of an encounter he once supposedly had with a buxom woman. Time stands still, and they simply live on, filling their bodies with food and medicating their minds with pot.

Then on one random evening, their lives take a surreal turn when one of the four—a younger man simply referred to as Boxer—comes back from ashore beaten and robbed. The four set out on the town to track down the gang of culprits, and they do so to disastrous consequences. The captain strikes a man who gushes blood and passes out. And a foreign prostitute who was in tow with the gang ends up unconscious and in the crew’s custody.

They come back to the ship, and Boxer and Ali, another younger member of the four, eventually take turns raping the attractive prostitute who somehow turns out to be a virgin. This complicates matters as in their culture taking a woman’s virginity is an act that requires the man to marry that woman. Kamil, the de facto first mate, takes a passive and amoral stance. He watches the action in hiding and even pleasures himself. The captain, a gruff and often abusive authority figure who still serves as the moral compass and anchor, gets angry and disciplines the two young men.

This is a film in which most of the action that sets up the narrative takes place outside of the diegesis. What we see is the interaction between the characters. We do not know what exactly happened when Boxer supposedly got mugged and robbed. We also do not see all of the action when Ali goes ashore to find out what happened to the gang they encountered and assaulted.

Both stylistically and thematically, the film is highly reminiscent of the Hungarian film The Fifth Seal by Zoltán Fábri. They are both chamber dramas that feature a small tight-knit group of men who must react collectively to events that happen outside—and eventually inside—their claustrophobic settings. Adding to the stressful situation is the presence of the foreign prostitute as a silent and omniscient observer. The captain unties the woman and lets her roam about chaperoned. While this is a kind act, it complicates the matter of how the four will extricate themselves from this moral quandary.

The woman does not understand the Turkish language, so she can only guess at the men’s intentions and conversations through tone and body language. However, it is not entirely dissimilar to our status as the audience, as we also only have partial information. A silent observer privy to all of their actions has a profoundly jarring effect upon the psychology of the men. As odious as what the two young men have done to the woman, the four men as a collective unit serve as a self-regulating being of conscience and ultimately try to send the woman back safely.

While the film’s setup tests our suspension of disbelief, the four characters react to the bizarre events in an utterly human fashion. As Aristotle himself argued in his Poetics, the ultimate value of a drama may lie not in the probability of situations but in the believability of the characters’ reactions. And based on this criterion, On Board serves as a nuanced and realistic examination of the entire spectrum of behavior, in all of its depravity and decency, that makes us human.