By N. Buket Cengiz.

The 33rd International Istanbul Film Festival was held between April 5th and April 20th, 2014. In the International Competition, The Golden Tulip—named in memory of Şakir Eczacıbaşı, the late director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV)—was given to Blind, directed by Eskil Vogt. The Istanbul audiences were familiar with the director’s name from his collaboration with Joachim Trier, whose Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011) were greatly admired when they were screened in the earlier years of the festival. This film from Norway, yet another link in the rise of Scandinavian cinema, attracted admiration for its clever script in which the conflicts of isolated individuals in modern Western urban societies are told through a unique, fresh perspective.

In the same competition, Polish film Papusza, directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, received the special Jury Prize. Excelling with mesmerizing black and white photography and a haunting soundtrack, the film tells the poignant story of a Roma poet woman, Bronisława Wajs, known as Papusza. The multiple layers of the film depict the oppression of minorities and women as well as the possibility and value of great art produced by those who are deprived of any kind of schooling. It is also a tale of friendship and betrayal, of trust and the limits of sacrifice, told in a timespan from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century. This was not the only masterpiece from Poland in the festival program; this country definitely made its mark at this year’s festival. Andrzej Wajda, whose Walesa. Man of Hope (Wałęsa. Człowiek z Nadziei) was screened at the festival, received a Lifetime Achievement Award, while Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was one of the festival highlights as well.


Walesa is a warm film with great energy, especially with its powerful punk rock soundtrack, and humour perfectly suiting the persona of the legendary workers’ leader Lech Walesa, whose life it centered around. Wajda seems to have made a perfect decision terminating the story at the right place rather than trying to depict the whole life of the hero. Just like Walesa, Ida is set in Soviet Poland and although it focuses on matters almost entirely personal, it succeeds in highlighting the issues of genocide and racism, and deserves appraisal for its sophisticated representation of wars’ effects on individuals. Similar to Papusza, this film also creates a realistic yet dreamy atmosphere owing to the black and white photography and a perfect selection of music. This year’s festival also hosted a day-long screening of Polish animation films at the Pera Museum Auditorium followed by a panel with the participation of Polish animation artist Mariusz Wilczynsk.

Individuals, Communities and Bonds

Like other years, this year’s international competition included superb films with the theme of the arts and the artist tackled in completely diverse ways. 20,000 Days on Earth, by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, offered a striking combination of drama and reality depicting a fictitious 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave, a cultural icon not only revered by rock music fans but also by millions throughout the world interested in different types of music, as well as poetry and other genres of literature. Cave’s fascinating music and poetry contribute to the success of the film, evoking an oceanic feeling as it explores the enigma of time, existence and eternity. Another film in the competition set in the realm of rock, though this time in a much more hard-core setting, was Metalhead (Málmhaus) by Ragnar Bragason, a director who has been admired by Istanbul audiences since the screening of Children (2006) and Parents (2007) in the festival six years ago. In this film, in which drama and humor come together, we step into the world of a teenager who is trying to get over her frustrations and existential anxiety through her dedication to heavy metal music. The film explores questions of family and community in an optimistic manner while creating a very convincing female character in the usually male-dominated area of heavy metal singing.


Family matters came to the fore in various other films as well at this year’s festival; in fact, the festivals opening film Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith, deals with the theme of separation and the union of family members, as it gives the account of Philomena Lee’s 50-year-long search for her son, with a perfect sense of humor and warmth. Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, directed by Anup Singh, shows a completely different type of family and bonds in its captivating magical realist story, in a geography and culture far removed from Philomena’s Ireland: post-colonial India.Despite the differences in culture though, what remains central in both films is the perception of the female as the second sex and the ways women suffer as a result of this.

Human Rights Issues on the Silver Screen

Various façades of oppression, as well as criticism of the world order, appear in a powerful way in all the films competing for FACE, the Film Award of the Council of Europe, given at the festival to a film that raises public awareness and interest in human rights issues, and creates better understanding of their importance. In this section, La Jaula De Oro by Diego Quemada-Diez, the road story of three Guatemalan and one indigenous teenager from home to Los Angeles, gives the impression of an untouched subject rather than a widely explored topic, owing to its heartfelt storytelling resembling cinema verité. Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines (Mandariinid), set in an Estonian village during the Abkhazian War in Georgia, invited the audience to answer, free of all prejudices, the following question: as members of one nation what makes our enemies our enemies? With its acclaimed photography, beautiful music and perfect acting, this film, made with a micro budget, deserves to be remembered as one of the secret highlights of this year’s festival.

The winner of the FACE award was The Missing Picture (L´Image Manquante) by Rithy Panh, a film about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Also nominated for the Oscars this year, the film received admiration not only for its way of disclosing a nation’s tragedy but also for its creative technique of using small clay figures together with archival footage. Special Mention in this competition was presented to Trans X Istanbul, directed by Maria Binder. The first screening of the film was one of the most unforgettable moments of the festival, as the audiences shouted out slogans of the LGBTIQ movement before and after the show. The director and the film’s protagonist Ebru attended the second screening, in the Q&A section of which Ebru underlined that as they joined the Gezi movement, they had finally truly met the Leftist parties who had previously turned their noses up at them. Within this section of the festival, the audiences also found the opportunity to see Rags and Tatters (Farsh w Ghata) by Ahmad Abdalla, receiver of the Golden Tulip in 2010. In his film, the Egyptian director successfully represents the not yet fulfilled expectations of the uprising of the people of his homeland, following Tahrir through realistic images shot in the back streets of Cairo as well as the roads of the hinterland.

The Return to Homs
The Return to Homs

Another Middle Eastern country, Syria, where a violent civil war has been going on for the last three years, was discussed at the festival in Telal Derki’s documentary The Return to Homs, screened in the Documentary Time with NTV section of the festival. The film questions how young revolutionaries decide to join the armed struggle as it presents the lives of 19-year-old Basset and 24-year-old video-activist Ossama. Concerning Violence, directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, was shown in the same section and attracted attention for paying homage to the great heritage of Marxist psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, while giving a powerful representation of the struggle for liberation in the African colonies—focusing on the 1960s and 1970s. Another Marxist philosopher who became part of this year’s festival through a documentary was Antonio Negri, whose comments on various topics of social life appeared in Burak Serbest’s documentary film Istanbul Along with Negri (Negri ile İstanbul’da). Meanwhile, a film programmed in the Documentaries of Turkey section, Love Will Change the World by Reyan Tuvi, received great applause after its screening for its wholehearted way of addressing the Gezi uprising of summer 2013, mainly through the witness of two couples who belong to diverse life styles but have the same passion for democracy and human rights.

Finally, a powerful cry for human rights came from two films focusing on the subject of police violence and murders by the police that are easily hidden. The British film Starred Up, directed by David Mackenzie and written by psychotherapist Jonathan Asser, about an outcast and his father in a British jail, was an unforgettable depiction of the violation of human rights at the hands of the security apparatus of the state—even in a country like the United Kingdom. Similarly, Major (Mayor) by the Russian director Yury Bykov, shocked the audience with an excellent story about innocent people getting massacred by the police. Both films deserve appreciation for their insight into the psychological dynamics of the characters and their success in revealing the despair of the ordinary citizen when faced by violence supported by the security system which is in many ways no different than the Mafia.

Remembering Great Artists

This year’s festival included various exciting documentary and fiction films about acclaimed artists. Salinger by Shane Salerno and Trespassing Bergman by Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas, documentaries about the lives of two enigmatic, unforgettable artists, garnered attention particularly from the fans of those artists. How Strange to be Named Federico, Scola Narrates Fellini (Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico Scola Racconta Fellini) by Ettore Scola, a fiction film combining memoir, archival photos and footage over re-enactments for the 20th anniversary of Federico Fellini’s decease, was an outstanding film with a great sense of humour, splendid photography and a selection of music reflecting the soul of Fellini’s art: its colorfulness, unique sense of realism enmeshed with surrealism, and endless humanism.

20 Feet from Stardom by Morgan Neville, does not focus on one artist but a class of artists—namely backing vocalists. While it focuses on the lives and struggles of some of the best backing vocalists of various decades the film moves forward to questions of race, class and gender against the background of a thrilling soundtrack.

Colors Coming Together in Movie Theaters

Singing Women (Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar)
Singing Women (Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar)

This year in the National Competition, the Golden Tulip was given to I Am Not Him (Ben O Değilim), directed by Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, while acclaimed Turkish director Reha Erdem’s latest film Singing Women (Şarkı Söyleyen Kadınlar) received the Best Editing Award. Erdem is respected for his unique, sophisticated cinematic language which enables him to explore the depths of individuals tottering on the thin line between sanity and insanity, making these concepts per se questionable. Although Singing Women is presented as the follow up to his Jin (2013), this film also matches with the auteur’s extraordinary debut A Ay (1988). Characteristic of Erdem’s cinema, this is a multi-layered film packed with philosophical and psychological questions, and it makes great use of a notable directing of photography, disclosing the beauty as well as the solitude of a small island in which time seems to have stopped a century ago.

Lastly, two films at this year’s festival that attracted great attention from the audience and became a favorite chat topic in the festival venues’ lounges were Lars von Trier’s provocative Nymphomaniac and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The former was first screened at the Independent Film Festival in February with tickets sold out in twenty minutes, thus this was the second chance for those who wanted to see the film on the white screen since the censorship mechanism in the country prevented its screening out of festivals, while the latter is now enjoying a wide audience in Turkey’s theatres from those who could not find tickets for it at the festival.

Like in previous years, this year cinephiles from all walks of life enjoyed the side events of the festival in addition to the films, the most popular of which were the master classes by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who presided in the Golden Tulip jury this year and by Marin Karmitz, owner of the MK2 film production company who received the Cinema Honorary Award of the festival. As the festival grows a year older, IKSV and its sponsors deserve the greatest applause after yet another accomplished year for the largest and most important cinema event in Turkey.

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.

For more information on the festival, visit their website here.

One thought on “The 33rd International Istanbul Film Festival”

  1. This is a superb report on the festival, but the real tragedy here is that due to Hollywood hegemony, most of these films won’t get a theatrical US or even UK, or for that matter EU release, and so they’ll wander through the festival circuit, but never really get the shot at decent distribution they so richly deserve. Thanks, Mr. Cengiz, for a lucid and excellent account of the festival — these films deserve an international audience.

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