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Documenting the Past and Gender: Istanbul Film Festival, 38th Edition

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By N. Buket Cengiz.

Held only a couple of days after a social democrat mayor has won the elections in the city after long years, Istanbul Film Festival, organized by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) for the 38th time on 5-16 April 2019, has been attended by over 110.000 cinephiles in this extra special spring atmosphere. Even though the festival did not have a sponsor this year, it managed to screen 175 feature and 11 short films from 45 countries and host various events such as festival talks and panel discussions. Lynne Ramsay, Nadav Lapid, Moe Dunford, Barbara Miller, Catherine Corsini, Gaspard Ulliel, and Philippe Lesage were among the festival’s guests this year. Lynne Ramsay presided the International Competition Jury which decided to award the Golden Tulip to House of Hummingbird (Bolsae, 2018) by the South Korean director Bora Kim “for its delicacy, beauty, emotional impact and skill, beautiful portrayal of a young girl struggling to find her place in the world, waiting for the moment that her life will finally shine [1].” At the International Competition, Special Jury Prize was given to Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari, 2019) appreciating its mastery in conveying a subtle message of hope against the background of silence wreathing astonishing horrors. A Tale of Three Sisters (Kız Kardeşler, 2019) directed by Emin Alper was awarded with the Golden Tulip for the Best Film in the National Competition, while in the National Documentary Competition, the Best Documentary Award was given to Do You Think God Loves Immigrant Kids, Mom? (Tanrı Göçmen Çocukları Sever Mi Anne?, 2019) directed by Rena Lusin Bitmez. While receiving the award Bitmez told that she took the award in memoriam of all children who lost their lives on migration routes as well as the late director Aram Gülyüz, whom she perceived as her master. The film is a warm and poignant portrayal of Armenian migrant families in Istanbul through the eyes of children experiencing all sorts of hardship of being in a foreign land. Their struggle is traced in the film against the background of a school located in a church basement where they are taught by volunteers. Decembers (Diciembres, 2018) by Enrique Castro Ríos “for its capacity of being poetic and thought-provoking at the same time” received the Human Rights in Cinema Award at this year’s festival.

Confronting the Past through Documentary

Like the previous years, this year’s festival had numerous superb documentaries. The Silence of Others directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar (2018) was one of them. The film follows the struggle for justice of those who have suffered the terror of the Franco regime in Spain and their relatives, leading to the case taken by an Argentinian court as crime against humanity. The multi-awarded film, co-executive produced by Pedro Almodóvar, excels on an extremely well written script bringing together personal memoirs, archive footage and step-by-step story of the current legal fight as much as it does on mesmerizing photography. At the center of this photography are the statues by sculptor Francisco Cedenilla in the Jerte Valley commemorating the victims of Franco (and bulleted on the very day of its launch), recurring throughout the film as an image telling many things words will never achieve to do.

Santiago, Italia (2018) by the acclaimed Italian director Nanni Moretti took the audience to another shameful historical period, the coup d’état against Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile. But the film is about the never ending solidarity and hope as it tells the heartwarming and inspiring story of the Italian embassy in Santiago opening its doors to the dissidents of the country at the time and, the welcoming of the Chilean political refugees in Italy following the coup. The experienced director makes perfect use of material such as interviews, re-enactments and archival footage in this masterly documentary.

El Pepe A Supreme Life (El Pepe Una Vida Suprema, 2018) made a perfect match with these two documentaries, the three almost creating a special thematic section. In this film about José “El Pepe” Mujica, director Emir Kusturica uses a thorough interview with the legendary socialist El Pepe who was Uruguay’s president from 2010 to 2015 while he follows him getting ready to the handover of the presidentship ceremony at the end of his term of office. Similar with the characters in the two films above, El Pepe had also suffered from the terror of an America-supported coup in his country resulting in a twelve years long prison sentence. The contemplation resulting from those years of solitude is at the core of the film as much as it is of El Pepe’s identity. Added to that is an unforgettable compilation of tango songs flowing throughout the film almost unfolding the soul of El Pepe who at one point describes his enthusiasm for this music with the following words: “In order to appreciate tango, you have to have suffered a few defeats in life…”

Dealing with Gender Issues in Cinema

This year’s festival was rich in terms of films dealing with the issue of gender. One Day (Egy Nap, 2018) by Zsófia Szilágyi, a highly realistic portrait of a middle-class mother of three in Hungary was one of them. Tracing this dedicated mother throughout one day of her life, what makes the film so striking is its capacity to make the audience think over the fact that even in Western societies the gender roles are still very much to the detriment of women. It achieves this with a blend of accomplished directing and acting. Diane (Kent Jones, 2018) was another worthwhile portrait of a woman at the festival. A well-made character drama about an elderly North American woman neatly touching the complex dynamics of motherhood together with many issues about aging lonely as a widow, the film had a distinctly warm taste to the like of the audience.

Angel (Un Ange, 2018) by the Belgian director Koen Mortier, came to the fore at the screenings as an outstanding film bringing together the gender issue with that of race and class in an utterly unique love story between a Senegalese prostitute woman and a French celebrity athlete. Through the masterly photography direction of Nicolas Karakatsanis, especially in some stunning moments shot at a heavenly Dakar coast and Soulsavers’ atmospheric music, the film is romantic in a fascinating edgy manner. Mortier achieves to catch the quality of his Ex-Drummer (2007) in this film where he tells the story of a universe completely different from the former.

#Female Pleasure (2018), a Swiss-German co-production documentary film directed by Barbara Miller, which received Special Mention in the Human Rights in Cinema section touched the hearts of the audience for its pure and sincere way of telling the liberation stories of five women from different parts of the world. In a film that could easily be too much documentation with inadequate visual dimension, this work ends up being the contrary owing to its beautiful photography depicting the different parts of the world where each woman is based.

Stephan Talneau’s Saz – The Key of Trust (2019) which had its world premiere at the festival had a woman musician’s journey at its center: Petra Nachtmanova who falls in love with the musical instrument saz and travels from Berlin to Horasan tracking the history and current players of this instrument in this engaging documentary film.

The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Tchelovek Kotorij Udivil Vseh, 2018) directed by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov was a worthwhile film in this year’s festival subtly locating a homophobia story in a Siberian taiga village, in a deeply psychological way as it connects the issue with our difficult encounter with the fact of mortality.

Gems from United Kingdom

United Kingdom made its presence felt at this year’s festival not only with Lynne Ramsay’s participation but also with some outstanding British films. The young audience of the festival found the opportunity to see Ramsay’s multi-awarded debut Ratcatcher (1999) at a theater twenty years after its first screening. Bait (2019) by Mark Jenkin, another impressive example of British social realism, was one of the best films of this year’s festival. The film’s unique way of editing is utilized skillfully conveying its multi-layered messages about class dynamics in a violently gentrifying Cornwall, at the beautiful southwestern coast of England. Answering a question on the time-gaps in the film, Jenkin made the following comment in the Q&A session following the screening: “We constantly see a time shift in the film. This is mainly due to how I see the world. I don’t see the world in a chronological order. Flashbacks give clues about what we will see in the future and I love how that works in film.” Finally, although Mark Cousins’ elegant documentary The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018) had the legendary American director at its core focusing on his works as a graphic artist, it was one of the accomplished films from UK at this year’s selection.

Like every year, various films from different parts of the world will be remembered as highlights, some obvious some secret: Such as, Hotel by the River (Gangbyun Hotel) by the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, with its beautiful black and white photography perfectly matching its tender story; My Masterpiece (Mi Obra Maestra, 2018) by Gastón Duprat from Argentina with its clever dark humor which is a signature trait of its director; Saf (2018) by the Turkish director Ali Vatansever which invites the audience for contemplation about the ruthless urban transformation going on in Istanbul and; the following two biopics set in countries very far away from each other: Yuli (2018) in which the life-story of the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta is told delicately and; Agnieszka Holland’s latest piece Mr. Jones (2019) which received great interest for creating a honest portrait of the dedicated Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who was a victim of Stalin terror.

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s decease with a special section entitled Factory of Masterpieces: Kubrick, the festival treated the Kubrick fans with the screening of the director’s entire filmography this year. Q&A sessions with directors, Meetings on the Bridge platform’s workshops for novice film-makers and numerous side-events altogether filled the city with the spell of cinema for eleven days once again, while the festival has approached a bit closer to celebrating its four decades in two years’ time.

For more information on the festival: http://film.iksv.org/en

Endnote

Quotations are taken from IKSV’s official website.

Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and arts, focusing on music and cinema. She holds a PhD in Turkish Studies from Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as a lecturer.

 

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