Turkish Crime Miniseries ‘Persona’ Explores Collective Memory and Forgetfulness 

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In 1956, teenage sweethearts ​​Duane Bogle and Patricia Kalitzke were killed while somewhere on a lovers’ lane in Montana. The case garnered national attention at the time, but as the identity of the killer continued to elude detectives, interest in the case dwindled and eventually ran cold. 

65 years later, Bogle and Kalitzke’s case has once again made national news, becoming possibly the oldest case in the United States to be solved with genetic genealogy. People who didn’t know Bogle and Kalitzke’s names before might know them now, or people who were around in 1956 who had long forgotten about the sweethearts might experience some glimmer of familiarity at their names. But what about the rest of the country’s unsolved, forgotten cold cases? We’re so quick to forget victims’ names if too much time passes with no satisfying answer. We remember the names of serial killers, but not their victims. How do we decide which crimes we remember, and which we forget — or who decides for us? 

The Turkish miniseries Persona explores that very question. It’s an intriguing, unique take on the typical cat-and-mouse detective show, and while it sometimes feels spread a bit too thin on the ideas it means to explore, it fiercely tackles the theme of crime in the public consciousness and the melancholy feeling of forgetting with a sharp point of view. 

Persona centres on Agâh (Haluk Bilginer), an old man who has just learned of his early Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and Nevra (Cansu Dere), a slightly people-averse detective who has just become the first female cop in the Istanbul police force. They’re both mired down by their connection to a small-town cover-up, and both have their own ideas about how best to deliver justice to those responsible: Agâh decides to start killing them, while Nevra tries to track Agâh down and decipher the strange clues he leaves her. As the cover-up unfurls, Agâh and Nevra both start to understand what consequences forgetting — or remembering — the truth might bring. 

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Directed by Onur Saylak and written by Hakan Gunday, Persona’s filmmaking sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill detective show, with stylistic choices that feel like they’re more suited to a film. Saylak makes great use of light and colour, and captures movement in a languid, yet hyper-focused manner. One of the opening sequences in the show’s first episode depicts a Flamenco dancer, the camera exploring her from multiple angles, all deployed to capture the frenetic tension of the dance. Saylak frames each shot in the show meticulously, using dutch angles to provoke anxiety in the audience, and often using planimetric composition to evoke a sort of deadpan, comic quality for certain scenes. While there isn’t as much planimetric composition in Persona as there might be in, say, a Wes Anderson movie, one can’t help but think of Anderson when these shots arise. The Anderson comparison and the obvious care with which the show was crafted makes it that much more interesting to watch — there’s a real artistry at play. 

Like in an Anderson film, there are more than a few off-beat, humorous moments in Persona, but the show works better as it becomes more serious and engrosses the audience in its strongest theme: collective memory and by extension, collective forgetfulness. Multiple characters, whether they be detectives, journalists, or regular citizens, are given strong, well-written moments where they’re able to articulate their thoughts on crime in the public consciousness. 

“I’m in the forgetting business,” says a journalist bleakly about his role covering crime for a local paper, scared that a professional lifetime of writing about the symptoms of crime and not the infection only leads to history repeating itself. “Do you think you’re the only one with Alzheimer’s,” says a disgruntled crooked cop to Agâh, laughing in the face of Agâh’s fear that the public and police will never stop looking for him. The message here is clear — crime as entertainment has made the need for a narrative central to a crime’s commercial and media success. Once the story becomes too murky or unsatisfying, something new will come to take its place. 

The horror of commercialised crime is not a new idea, but Persona explores it through fresh eyes by narrowing the theme down to two characters. The duality of forgetting and remembering is fused together nicely through Agâh and Nevra. Both have connections to Kambura, the small town that serves as the location for the story’s main crime, a fire that killed a husband and wife and their children. Nevra grew up there, and Agâh worked in the town’s court house for a short time. Agâh knows more about the crime than Nevra does at the beginning of the show, but as his Alzheimer’s diagnosis catches up with him, he becomes desperate to help Nevra remember her own connection to the crime — lest he forget before she remembers, making it so no one remembers at all. 

The show’s performances also grow stronger the further the show delves into the theme of memory. As Agâh, Haluk Bilginer delivers the tension of kindly — albeit crotchety — old man and vigilante with a quiet rage, and Cansu Dere plays Nevra with a sort of purposeful blankness that makes her emotional moments later on shine as the mask breaks down. As the show, its themes, and its performances rise to a crescendo, in its last moments Persona takes a strange turn. It hedges a bit, preferring to end with a sort of trite commentary about justice instead of something more original. But its lackluster ending doesn’t detract from its poignant ideas about memory, and the struggle to make sure we don’t forget those who are lost. 

Persona will be available to stream on Topic from December 2nd

by Sammie Purcell

Sammie is a news writer for Reporter Newspapers in Georgia, covering the communities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody in metro-Atlanta. She has previously written about film and television for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine, and holds a Masters in Journalism from Boston University. For more fun insights about movies, life, or Florence Pugh’s character-defining turn as Amy in 2019’s Little Women, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8

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