Taksim Hold’em is director Michael Önder's first full-length film. Set in Istanbul during the tumultuous protests of 2013, the film follows a group of high-school friends with contrasting attitudes toward the unrest surrounding them. Alper just wants to play poker with his high school friends, but the world outside his apartment windows is aflame with the chaos of mass protests. Simultaneously a biting social commentary and an engaging dramedy, Taksim Hold’em is a joy to watch.
In the eye of the storm. In the summer of 2013, Turkey’s population took to the streets and squares in mass protest against the government’s oppressive policies. The protests were centered on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, from which Önder’s film takes its name. The film opens with a man ironing a poker table cover, the music in his headphones drowning out the shouts of the protesters outside; this is Alper, the protagonist. While his journalist girlfriend Defne is preparing to go outside and join the protesters, Alper is waiting for his high school friends to join him for a quiet night of drinking beer and playing poker. Indifferent to the chaos erupting right outside his window, Alper appears to be the very picture of political apathy. With such a protagonist, the viewers are also placed into an outsider perspective of the events. Instead of portraying the feverish events on the street level, the film confines itself to Alper and Defne’s apartment. It’s a bold directorial choice, but Önder’s knack for crafting multidimensional characters and engaging dialogue makes it work.
The ultimate resistance. Because of its simplistic one-room setting, Taksim Hold’em really depends on its characters. Thankfully, the actors do a wonderful job in making their characters feel multi-dimensional and interesting to watch. It can be hard to write dialogue on politics without making it sound dull or pretentious, but Önder manages to avoid these pitfalls. Instead of obsessing about politics, the characters also take their time to explore the ever-so-complicated topics of love and marriage, lightening the tone of the film. The dialogue bounces the convictions of various characters off each other, constantly finding wry humor in the process. One character argues playing poker is the ultimate resistance against the regime’s tyranny of fear, while another thinks not going out on the street is simply cowardly. The hot topic of political polarization is approached in a refreshingly non-preachy way. Caring too much, or not enough, can drive friends and even families apart, so where to draw the line? Önder has no easy answers, but his treatment of these themes feels real and important. After getting character-driven drama just right in Taksim Hold’em, it will be interesting to see what he does next.
Although ostensibly a “small” drama-comedy in a closed setting, Taksim Hold’em manages to explore big themes with a lot of heart. It’s a political film stripped of pretentiousness – a rare and refreshing treat.