Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

By N. Buket Cengiz.

The Istanbul Film Festival, organised by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) for the 37th time on 6-17 April 2018, was introduced back in February with a poster in miniature style with characters from cult films such as A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), Arabesque (Arabesk, Ertem Eğilmez, 1989) Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). Excited about such an eclectic reference to film history right from the start, the followers of the festival were not disappointed in their expectations of a rich and varied selection, as the festival included some striking examples of contemporary filmmaking, as well as surprising films from the past. Sponsored by Vodafone Red for the first time this year, the festival brought a breath of fresh air to the culture and arts world of Istanbul once again, with great success.

In the international competition, the Golden Tulip was given to Western (2017) directed by Valeska Grisebach. A Germany, Bulgaria and Austria co-production, the film is about the relationship between a group of German construction workers on duty in a Bulgarian village and their encounter with the locals. The film, making use of refined photography and the natural acting of real life workers, makes references to Western movies through its slowly deepening themes around the issues of communication between strangers from different cultures. Director Grisebach’s female eye is particularly keen on catching the aspect of masculinity as regards her themes, while the inner worlds of the characters unfold in their moves towards the other.

A significant example from contemporary Latin American cinema, Cocote (2017) by Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, received the special jury prize in the international competition, standing out with its focus on traditions and class issues with superb photography.

At this year’s festival, the Human Rights in Cinema Award was given to Frost (Šerkšnas, 2017) directed by Sharunas Bartas for “captur[ing] in great depth human complexity in war circumstances[1].” In the National Competition, the Golden Tulip went to Debt (Borç, 2018) by Vuslat Saraçoğlu.

The Refugee Crisis on the Silver Screen

Escape (2017)
Escape (2017)

Unsurprisingly, the refugee crisis and migration came to the fore as a significant theme at this year’s festival. The Escape (Kaçış, 2017) by Kenan Kavut, had special meaning at the festival in this regard. The film approaches the issue through an extremely familiar story for the Turkish audience: a Syrian refugee trying to cross the border to enter Greece. In his plight, this desperate man’s destiny crosses paths with an unhappy neglected Turkish woman living in a village near the border. Although scared and disturbed by him at the beginning, her empathy towards this stranger slowly builds in her heart. The film, which received the best cinematographer award at the National Competition for Florent Herry’s breath taking work, subtly unravels each stage of the characters’ feelings, as the fear between the two grows into an impossible love. In A Season in France (Une Saison En France, 2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, we are welcomed into the world of two refugee brothers in their struggle for survival in Paris. The film successfully depicts the upside down worlds of refugees with its convincing characters and storyline. One of these men was a schoolteacher and the other one a philosophy professor back home in the war-torn Central African Republic, while in their new life as refugees, one of them sells vegetables and the other works as a security guard. It should also be mentioned that at the festival, Special Mention in the National Short Film Competition went to East Side (Doğu Yakası, 2017) by Harun Durmuş “for turning the all too familiar refugee crisis into an original and energetic display of directorial skills….”

A Season in France (2017)
A Season in France (2017)

Tracing Reality through Documentary Films

Like in previous years, this year once again the festival audience had the opportunity to see outstanding documentaries from different parts of the world. Among these, The Legend of the Ugly King (2017), a documentary on Yılmaz Güney by the Kurdish-German filmmaker Hüseyin Tabak, received particular attention from the audience. Yılmaz Güney (1937-1984), a Kurdish filmmaker from Turkey, who received the Palme d’Or with his film The Road (Yol, 1982) at Cannes that year, is regarded as one of the most outstanding figures of Turkish and Kurdish cinema, if not the most. Director Tabak successfully reflects the soul of Yılmaz Güney’s cinema in this documentary, a very difficult task indeed, when such a unique approach to cinema and such a legendary figure are under scrutiny. The film, which received the HOF Granit Best German Documentary in 2017, premiered on the 33rd anniversary of the death of Yılmaz Güney. Tabak, who studied screenwriting and directing at the Vienna Film Academy under Michael Haneke, participating at the first screening of his film at the festival emphasized the excitement he felt at showing it in Turkey. He said that the editing of the film took two years and the seven years he spent on this film in total did not even seem enough, since once he captured one dimension of Güney he discovered another one.

Yilmaz Güney in The Legend of the Ugly King (2017)
Yilmaz Güney in The Legend of the Ugly King (2017)

A sharp, intriguing look at industrial agriculture’s terrible results was presented through the mastery of the experienced militant filmmaker Fernando E. Solanas in A Journey to the Fumigated Towns (Viaje A Los Pueblos Fumigados, 2018). In the film, Solanas’s camera is in some industrial agricultural fields, revealing poignantly how the greedy agriculture companies slaughter people and destroy nature in an irreversible manner. Solanas does not simply criticize; as a socialist, he also looks for solutions. Thus, in the film he includes important interviews with experts who discuss alternatives to this massacre of nature.

Another noteworthy documentary about farming and rural life, though in a very different part of the world and from a very different angle was No Farewells (Sans Adieu, 2017) directed by Christophe Agou, a lament for the disappearing rural life in France. In addition to its poetic atmosphere and visual language, the film manages to ask searching questions about the functionality of social services and similar mechanisms in one of the most developed parts of the world, namely France, which is regarded as still having some legacy of the welfare state. It was such a pity that the director Agou passed away before seeing his impressive film completed. A documentary that made a great double act with No Farewells was Happy Winter (Buon Inverno, 2017) by Italian director Giovanni Totaro (2017). This time the location is Palermo’s Mondello beach, where over a thousand cabins are full of vacationers spending a whole summer every year. Totaro takes the viewer into deeper layers of this picture of sun, sea, and sand, as his main concern is the lower-middle class’s loss of status and capital in the current stage of capitalism. In the Q & A session following the first screening of his film at the festival, Totaro told the audience that while people from Mondello have been renting those huts for their summer vacation for centuries, a decision has been made to remove them as of 2020.

Interestingly, both films might appear rather monotonous at the beginning, but once the audience members adapt themselves to the rhythm of the film there is a lot to find there, like the very setting in these two films that would grow on the person after spending some time in both locations. Both of the films are titled with the words of farewell used by people in the films, no farewells uttered by the elderly French lady to make sure she would see the filmmaker again, and happy winter by the holiday makers as they part at the end of the summer.

My Generation (2017)
My Generation (2017)

Another interesting documentary at the festival was My Generation (2017) by David Batty, a lively, vibrant film about the working class’s significance in the culture of 1960s Britain. Answering the audience’s questions after the screening, Batty noted that it had taken him and his team about six years to review the archive material for this film. Narrated by Michael Caine, one of the most respected and revered actors in Britain, the film is definitely worth seeing, although it could have gone a bit deeper into references to political developments, as well as into progress on the scholarship on popular culture of which Britain was a pioneer in the 1960s. In other words, the film fell short in exploring the connections of the rising working class presence in popular culture with the struggle of the working class on other platforms.

A hidden gem among the documentaries in this year’s festival was Another Train Gıdı Gıdı (Başka Tren Gıdı Gıdı, 2018), a film telling the story of the legendary Nazilli Sümerbank Printed Fabric Factory, built with the support of Soviet Russia in 1937, and which fell from grace after the neo-liberalisation of economy in the 1980s and shut down in 2017. This factory, which included everything to make the workers’ lives better, from a hospital to a cinema, from a ball-room to a football court, was indeed much more than a factory, but more like a workers’ utopia. In this fascinating film, the factory’s story is told through interviews with veterans in Nazilli, as well as with witnesses of the time in Russia and Greece, all in all an endeavour worthy of praise. The film is skilfully built around the story of Gıdı Gıdı, the train that used to carry workers to the factory in its heyday.

Discoveries at the festival

The festival audience, like in previous years, found a great opportunity for discovering new directors and catching up with the filmmaking of a wide array of countries. One such hidden gem was Namme (2017) by Zaza Khalvashi, a Georgia-Lithuania co-production. With its totally original plot and mesmerizing photography, the film is about an elderly healer and her daughter living in a Georgian mountain village, focusing on the father’s expectations of and his daughter’s reluctance about continuing the family tradition of healing. Once Upon a Time in November (Pewnego Go Razu W Listopadzie…, 2017) by the Polish director Andrzej Jakimowski deserves accolades for its fresh way of handling the issue of the right to the city and the right to shelter, through the story of a teacher evicted from her house and her law student son, with references to law, against the background of the rising fascism in Poland in the early 2010s. Dario Albertini’s Manuel (2017) was another film at the festival revolving around a mother and her devoted son. The film is a genuine take on life following Manuel’s departure from the foster home, elaborated through the story of his fight to help his mother gain freedom from jail.

Dovlatov (2018) by Alexey German Jr., a Russia-Poland- Serbia co-production, came to the fore as a well-made film about the Russian writer and poet Sergei Dovlatov, who gained fame posthumously, and the intellectuals of the era, with subtle criticism of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union at its centre.

Within the scope of this year’s festival, six Festival Talks, two concerts, two exhibitions, and a performance were held, while 93 international guests from 30 countries attended the workshops and meetings in the Meetings on the Bridge section of the festival, devoted to supporting novice filmmakers. The festival was attended by over 100,000 cinephiles, who are once again grateful for this fantastic cinematic event to the organiser IKSV this year.

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


[1] Quotations are taken from IKSV’s official website.

N. 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’s Writing Center in Istanbul.

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