31st Istanbul Film Festival Marks the 40th Anniversary of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts
By N. Buket Cengiz.
This year’s Istanbul Film Festival abounded with films about young people, and the winner of the Golden Tulip, The Loneliest Planet (2011), was one such film. Julia Loktev, a Brooklyn-based Russian film director, explores in this film the fragility of a seemingly secure relationship between two youngsters against the backdrop of mesmerizing views of the Caucasus country-side. Utilizing an approach reminiscent of the theories of formalist aesthetics, Loktev and the cinematographer Inti Briones make superb use of the photography of nature in reflecting the theme of the film, which is about how there is no escape from a dead-end once a relationship loses its emotional innocence. The scenes echo the story, by “not showing the top of the mountains, to not allow the sky providing a sense of escape – the sky could only come in slivers.”
Another film at this year’s festival drawing on the youth situation was Detachment (2011) which came forward as one of the most acclaimed films of this year’s festival, if not the most. Directed by Tony Kaye, who acquired a significant following in Turkey as well with his film American History X (1998), this film focuses on a subject which might sound slightly cliché at first: a sophisticated and wise yet tough teacher’s encounter with the outcasts of a school in an area of the USA predominantly populated by the socially disadvantaged. However, Kaye, taking a fresh approach to storytelling, transforms this theme into powerful work of art: his use of flashbacks is elaborated with his skilled photography as well as use of animations and music, while his choice of grainy film adds to the effect. The film is bolstered but not overwhelmed by the superb acting of Adrien Brody, and the story unfolds as a meaningful reminder of the fact that it is not the story but the way of telling it which makes art worthwhile.
The Istanbulite audience had high expectations for Joachim Trier’s Oslo 31st August (2011), as the debut film of Danish director Reprise (2006) received high acclaim not only from the jury but from the audience as well at the 26th Istanbul Film Festival when it took the Golden Tulip. Tracing the stories of the bohemian bourgeois of Oslo, Trier explores similar ground in his second film: an artistic and restless youth struggling in existential anxiety. This is not a simple sex, drugs and rock n’ roll life style, it is more sophisticated, elite and artistically or scholarly creative than that. Trier’s genius is not in finding great punch-lines for his characters; on the contrary, no matter how extra-ordinary his characters are, they remain steadfastly real. We see Anders in his first twenty-four hours outside a rehabilitation centre after having battled a heroin addiction. Back in the city of Oslo, he is surrounded by a well connected social network. He is good-looking, highly intelligent and well-educated, yet the benefits that they bring are not accompanied by a joy of life. In fact, these serve to compound the loneliness that he bears within. With this highly unique cinematic work, in which the city is woven into the story as a metaphor of fall and renewal via the inclusion of the demolition of the 15-story Philips Building in Oslo, Joachim Trier seems to be taking firm steps forward creating a distinct style of his own. This film, which is a free adaptation of the novel Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, took the Special Jury Prize at the International Competition.
A touching road film based on the elegantly told story of the emotional turmoil of two Bulgarian teenagers, Avé (2011) by Konstantin Bojanov was one of the hidden highlights of this year’s festival. Through a journey of hope and requiem which interweave and transform into a delicate love story, this film draws its melancholy from the beautiful photography of the countryside of Eastern Europe, sombre and intimate music, as well as the profound acting of Anyela Nedyelkova and Ovanes Torosyan. Director Bojanov co-wrote and co-produced this debut which premiered in the 64th Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week section.
Acclaimed director of passionate and intense films inspired by marginal lives and subcultures, Michael Winterbottom participated in this year’s festival with a fascinating free adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Trishna (2011). The British director sets his film in contemporary Rajasthan, India, a location which provides him with a great opportunity to penetrate into the psychological reflections of class differences as well as other forms of symbolic power based on gender and ethnicity. A signature characteristic of Winterbottom’s work is his use of music, and this film is accentuated by a masterful selection of songs from indie and alternative popular music, as well as an original score by Shigeru Umebayashi, one of the best composers of music for film in our era. In his third Hardy adaptation, Winterbottom creates a masterpiece through what he calls Hardy’s skill of depicting that the lives of heroes and heroines “are determined or at least affected, by the way in which society is organized.”
In Bitter Seeds (2011), the third and final film of the Globalization Trilogy by Micha X. Peled, which starts with Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town (2011) followed by China Blue, the tough living conditions in India are related through a poetically charged documentary. While this film differs in genre from the fiction film Trishna, it gave the audience at this year’s festival who could watch both the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of contemporary life in this part of the world. This film reveals the realities about how many lives are shattered by the dishonourable business tactics of conglomerates utilizing genetically modified agriculture, as farmers of India who have been living in harmony with nature despite all their difficulties succumb one by one to suicide as they are trapped in the clutches of debt. Director Peled follows Ram Krishna, a cotton farmer, and his family during the course of a season and builds his film around this story as he relates the sufferings of those who have fallen victim to this new form of agriculture. We also watch the events unfold through Manjusha’s account of them, a young girl who is writing her first feature story for a local newspaper in her struggle to become a journalist, and this is a sub-plot which runs through the film as a symbol of the possibility of optimism.
The second film of Peled’s documentary trilogy, China Blue (2011), set in another Asian country powerfully and humanely explores the impact of the world’s system on individual lives. This film, which received the Amnesty Human Rights Award at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, shows how the system of slavery is very much alive in today’s world, but just disguised. Peled’s mastery is revealed by his ability to represent the factories in China as labour camps, and his unique style of narration and editing makes this film an unforgettable criticism of contemporary global capitalism. Like in Bitter Seeds, Peled skilfully explores the female psyche as he navigates the emotional worlds of young female workers.
Urban issues at the festival
Raw Material (Proti Yli, 2011), another telling documentary screened at this year’s festival, also traces the effects of the ruthlessness of contemporary capitalism on the poor with a focus on urban poverty in the periphery of Athens before the financial crisis. Director Hristos Karakepelis uses a poignant cinematic language to shed light on the lives of those who struggle to make a living by recycling waste, much of which is metal to be used as a raw material. Karakepelis noted at the Q&A session after the film that the devastating financial crisis in Greece actually started after he made this film, and this just served to reinforce the film’s impact. Focusing on locals as well as immigrants who work under harsh mental and physical conditions, the film’s mastery is demonstrated in its ability to present individual portraits among the mass of individuals in the film whose lives rendered bleak by the same urban poverty. Karakepelis added in the Q&A that this films attempts to “demolish the lie of Europe, established on the discourse of the ideal state and personal rights” and, as it straddles the gap between the centre and the periphery of the city, the film deserves to be commended as one of the best documentaries ever made about the poverty brought about by neo-liberal economic policies. At the festival, Urbanized (2011) by Gary Hustwit also inspired discussions about the future of life in today’s ever-growing cities through a meditation on urban design projects in cities around the world. The impact of urban transformation and the increasingly bitter struggle of low-income sectors of society to survive in the city is the central theme of Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits (2011), which received the Best Turkish Film award at last year’s Istanbul Film Festival and which was shown at this year’s festival at a special screening in the New Turkish Cinema – Documentaries section. Having been shown at numerous festivals as well as demonstrations, this film has now become a symbol and voice of activism against the urban transformation in Istanbul, which is day by day becoming a blight upon this centuries old beautiful city as efforts ratchet up to make Istanbul a global city serving the whims of international capital. Dogs Story (Histoire Des Chiens, 2011) about the streets dogs of Istanbul and RomanIstanbul (2012) by Özgür Akgül which focuses on the Roma music and culture of Istanbul were other outstanding documentaries at the festival on Istanbul’s past and present.
Damn the Dams (İşte Böyle, 2012) by Osman Şişman and Özlem Sarıyıldız, an intriguing documentary about the ongoing legal and physical struggles of the inhabitants of the village of Bağbaşı in Erzurum, an Eastern city of Turkey, against the power plant to be built in their village came to the fore as one of the most inspiring Turkish documentaries this year. 800 km Hurdles (800 km Engelli, 2012) by Murat Erün, follows two physically disabled friends on their thirteen-day trip on a motorbike and a sidecar along the picturesque coastline of the Turkish Aegean. The film was applauded for its positive message, which encouraged individuals with disabilities to embrace life rather than succumb to self-pity while also pointing out that society needs to take on greater responsibility for ensuring that our environments are disabled-friendly.
Among the more than two hundred films from different parts of the world at the festival, there were such splendid films as Siberia Monamour (Sibir, Monamur, 2011) by Slava Ross from Russia, and Las Acacias (2011) by Pablo Giorgelli from Paraguay, which received numerous awards at various festivals and broadened the horizons of film-goers through the works of these notable directors which are not widely circulated in international cinemas.
Extra events such as master classes by Terence Davies, whose film The Deep Blue Sea (2011) was screened at this year’s festival, Brillante Mendoza, who participated in the festival with his film Captive (2012), and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, as well as workshops and panel discussions and parties brought together a large international community from all walks of cinema together in Istanbul. Like the last two years, on the last day of this year’s festival a protest walk was held on Istiklal street against the demolition of the Emek cinema, the main venue of the festival from its inception until 2010, when it was closed in preparation for the razing of the building as part of the larger urban transformation project in Istanbul. It is by no means surprising that the dedicated audience of the festival is among those who have been struggling against this process of transformation since the very beginning, as the cinematic and imaginative eye which makes a cinephile also is that trait which values the pictures, stories, and lived histories of a place, in other words, using the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s expression, the “poetics of space.” The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, now celebrating its 40th year, deserves praise from all Istanbulites for having made such significant contributions to the poetics of the city through its unequalled support of the arts and culture in Istanbul…
N. Buket Cengiz writes on popular culture for the national Turkish newspaper Radikal‘s Sunday supplement, Radikal Iki, and works as a writing tutor at Kadir Has University’s Writing Center in Istanbul.
All quotations are from the 31st International Istanbul Film Festival handbook and website: http://film.iksv.org/en