Copilot: Is all fair in love and war?
What do you do when the person you love transforms into someone you no longer recognise?
That’s the question at the heart of Anne Zohra Berrached’s Copilot, her latest feature inspired by the true story of 9/11 terrorist Ziad Jarrah and his girlfriend Aysel Şengün. Given how often Muslim representation is wrapped up in a terrorism storyline on screen, it’s understandable to approach the drama with caution but Berrached is a filmmaker known for proceeding sensitively into controversial subjects.
Her debut feature Two Mothers focused on a lesbian couple trying to have a child through artificial insemination while her follow-up, 24 Weeks, explored late-term abortions through the eyes of a pregnant comedienne whose unborn child is diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
Now the German filmmaker has applied that non-judgemental, female-focused approach to this stirring examination of a woman whose husband becomes radicalised into collaborating in one of the most heinous acts in modern history.
"Berrached’s assured direction and grounded storytelling delivers an impressive, human exploration of love, duty and the lies we tell ourselves in a political climate that continues to divide and destroy lives"
The fictionalisation, written by Berrached with Stefanie Misrahi, is divided into five chapters, each marking a year in the relationship of Lebanese born Saeed (Roger Azar) and his Turkish girlfriend Asli (Canan Kir), who meet as students in Hamburg in the mid-90s.
The chemistry between Azar and Kir is palpable; with curtains to rival Jared Leto’s in This So Called Life, Saeed, a dental student exudes youthful charisma whose infectious smile and playful personality draws science student Asil out of her shell as she tentatively embraces this new romance.
The background history between Turks and Arabs creates a hurdle of xenophobic, parental disapproval for Asil to leap in order to love Saeed freely. A lot of this subtext hangs in the air of various interactions as their relationship strains under the weight of duty and expectation, which adds another layer of tension to this foreboding story.
A German beach becomes a recurring motif and backdrop for the evolution of their romance. In one early scene, swells of desire and longing engulf the budding lovers as they slowly embrace in the gentle waves. A year later, the sexual freedom Saeed once embodied by the same sea is dampened as he spurns Asil’s attempt at lovemaking on the sands after their mutual friends’ wedding.
It’s one of the many subtle crumbs of change Berrached leaves in order to portray Saeed’s radicalisation from a secular charmer to a reformed party guy becoming more conservative in his adherence to Islam.
But the film is less interested in the how and the why Saeed’s dream of becoming a pilot gets tangled up in his increasingly extremist values and political motivations and more on the toll experienced by a smart research scientist bound by marital duty.
Asil runs the gamut of emotions as she outwardly stands by her husband, amongst friends and family, but internally struggles with the secrets and long absences he frequently thrusts upon her. Their wedding vows were clearly prophetic as they had promised to, “Always keep my secrets and not share my weaknesses. ”
Her religious faith might be lacking but her faith in love, or faith in his love for her, is unshakeable. Even when the writing’s on the wall, self-denial and duty are hindering her ability to accept what’s written.
The naturalistic cinematography and understated dramaturgical choices avoid the sensationalism a story like this could easily inspire. As he did with Capernaum and The Man Who Sold His Skin, Christopher Aoun brings us closer to these characters allowing moments of beauty to refract in the subtle yet fraught reframing of this terrorist story. Berrached’s assured direction and grounded storytelling deliver an impressive, human exploration of love, duty and the lies we tell ourselves in a political climate that continues to divide and destroy lives on both a global and personal level.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint