The Man Who Laughs

By N. Buket Cengiz.

At the 32nd International Istanbul Film Festival organized by İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), which ran from March 30th to April the 14th, outstanding examples of the art of cinema from all around the world were screened yet again this year. The film What Richard Did (2012), directed by Lenny Abrahamson and loosely based on Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock, won the international competition of the Golden Tulip award, which is granted in memory of the late Şakir Eczacıbaşı, former chairman of IKSV. The festival offered a variety of brilliant adaptations of literature both in the Golden Tulip competition and in a separate section entitled From Literature to Silver Screen. From such classics as The Man Who Laughs (L´Homme Qui Rit, 2012) by Jean-Pierre Améris and adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo to Great Expectations (2012), an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s masterpiece by Mike Newell, as well as the contemporary work Night Train to Lisbon (2013) by Bille August, which is based on Pascal Mercier’s international best-seller, the section consisted of adaptations of literary works through the language of cinema which offered viewers unforgettable moments.

The Special Jury Prize in the international section of the Golden Tulip award was granted to  Camille Claudel, 1915 (2012) by Bruno Dumont, and in the national competition the Golden Tulip Best Film Award was given to Thou Gild’st the Even (Sen Aydınlatırsın Geceyi, 2013) by Onur Ünlü. Numerous Turkish films in the Golden Tulip national competition programme garnered attention and received invitations from representatives of international film festivals worldwide.

The Film Award of the Council of Europe (FACE) was given by the Human Rights Jury to Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour, 2012), another outstanding literary adaptation at this year’s festival. In this film, which is based on his own novel, Atiq Rahimi tells the story of an Afghan woman in search of her share of pleasure and fulfilment in life, offering a striking account of the risks that strong women are willing to make against the most difficult of odds.

The People’s Choice Awards, which are sponsored by the Turkish daily Radikal and determined by votes given by the festival audience, was presented to House with a Turret (Dom s Bashenkoy, 2012) by Eva Neymann in the international competition. Yet another adaptation of literature to film, this time based on a story by Friedrich Gorenstein, House with a Turret depicts post-World War II Russia from the eyes of a an eight year-old boy who is left on his own in the middle of the vast landscape of Russia burdened by endless suffering and the emotional blunting that it brings about. Another outstanding Russian film at this year’s festival was In the Fog (V Tumane, 2012) by Sergei Loznitsa, a film which takes place in the western frontiers of Russia in 1942. Set against the background of a dauntingly wild and bitterly cold forest, the psychological battle between an army officer and a railroad worker poses questions about the limits of the life instinct when it collides with the concepts of dignity and self-respect. The abundance and authenticity of Russian films set in World War II suggests the ways that the people of Russia are still struggling with the trauma of that era.

Looking at the past through the silver screen

House with a Turret

This year, the festival was imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia, and this was reflected in the themes of several outstanding films as well as by the activism being carried out against the closing of Istanbul’s Emek Cinema, a renowned old theatre that for the fourth year running has been missed as the central venue of the festival.

The Spirit of ’45 (2012), a documentary by Ken Loach, came to the fore at the festival as a poignant look at the zeitgeist of the post-war era in Britain. Basing his film on a spirit of collectivism which brought about the Keynesian economic approach of the Labour Party, Ken Loach dwells on the memories of generations who worked hard and felt a sense of security under a welfare system. Based on oral historical accounts woven together with archive footage, the documentary explores the gradual degradation of the welfare state, and even though the film focuses on this issue from the days of social government to the age of neo-liberalism in the UK, the subject matter is global in scope and audiences from all over the world can find a lot to connect with in this film. The participants are admirable, particularly the retired workers who are endowed with such a strong sense of class consciousness, a sensibility that seems so remote today, whether in the UK or anywhere else. This documentary, which poetically documents the times before the advent of neo-liberal greed, prods viewers to ponder on the subject of the welfare state, and the film is especially relevant these days, particularly with the passing of Margaret Thatcher.

The Spirit of ’45

Shifting from the post-war era of the UK, Laurent Cantet’s Firefox: Confessions of a Girl Gang (2012) takes audiences to the USA in the 1950s. Set in a working class neighbourhood in a small town in upstate New York in 1953, the adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel explores the issues of race, class and gender through a gripping story. Bolstered by the strong acting of up-and-coming actresses, particularly of dramatic arts student Katie Coseni, the film is a remarkable account of an almost instinctive resistance against machismo, a resistance which fails due to the lack of political awareness and references

Remembering the struggles of past generations

Films set in the late 60s and 70s graced this year’s festival through the inspiration of the activist soul of the ’68 Generation. In her latest film Ginger & Rosa (2012), Sally Potter focuses on the lives of two girls in their early youth who are in search for their identities as the long road to adulthood unfolds before them. In this brave film, Potter’s mastery is admirable in that it makes a sincerely sophisticated and admiringly sharp critique of the thin line between a victory over bourgeois morality and the transgression of ethics. Through its multiple layers, the film triumphantly takes up a number of quite important and difficult issues concerning parental responsibility and morals. This is a haunting meditation on how the prison of the household for a wife can become a barrier to becoming a good mother, offering a unique vantage point onto the traditionally held idea that a housewife should be solely dedicated to her children, and the film also explores what can happen when the idea of free love goes to the extreme.

Ginger & Rosa

Something in the Air by Olivier Assayas (2012) is set in 1970s Paris and tells the story of youngsters at the crossroads between the soul of activism and personal ambitions. The film traces the story of a group of young bright teenagers driven by enthusiasm but who eventually drift apart as they move in different directions following the outcomes of their decisions. The underground community is crisply rendered through the vivid characters in this film, which is worthy of praise for its casting as well as costume design resulting in the naturalness of the story’s rendition.

Night Train to Lisbon (2013) by Bille August, set during Salazar’s dictatorship in 70s fascist Lisbon, is a melancholic journey into the life of Portuguese author Amadeu de Prado, tracing the stories of the leftist resistance and a love triangle. The poetry of de Prado is combined with Annette Focks’s fascinating music and Filip Zumbrunn’s strong cinematography, resulting in a touching depiction of picturesque Lisbon, and the story unfolds into an elaborate philosophical voyage into the soul. In all of these period films, the brutality of the police is a central issue, calling into question the solidness of European democracy when the system comes under critique.

Greetings from Tim Buckley (2012) by Daniel Algrat also addresses the free spirit of the 60s. Based on the real-life events of legendary musician Tim Buckley and his son Jeff Buckley, both of whom died tragically at young ages, this film with its soulful protagonists was popular particularly among young audiences and was a powerful start for the festival’s wonderful documentaries about music.

Best listens of the festival

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2013) by Malik Bendjelloul, which was selected the best documentary at the Academy Awards this year, tells the unlikely story of Rodriguez, a musician who lived a modest life as a labourer upon the expiration of his contract with his record company due to the limited financial success of his two albums. Interestingly, he was immensely popular in another part of the world but never knew it. This film tells the story of how he became aware of this awkward situation and is embellished with Rodriguez’s exquisite songs.

At this year’s festival, film-goers had the opportunity to see Sound City (2013) by Dave Grohl. The film examines America’s legendary recording studio Sound City which was where such bands as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Metallica, and Nirvana recorded in 70s, 80s, and 90s until it was closed down like numerous other studios due to developments in recording techniques which worked against the human dimension of the process. Fans of the music which was produced in this legendary studio packed the venue at the screening of this bittersweet documentary.

In the documentary film Longing (Garod, 2012), Onur Günay and Burcu Yıldız follow Armenian musicians Onnik Dinkjian and Ara Dinkjian during their journey through Anatolia, a land which they always felt connected to despite their physical distance from it. We see the two musicians visiting an Armenian village in Diyarbakır  – a city in the southeast of Turkey – as they talk about the past and we follow the bridge they have been building with Anatolian culture and the people of Turkey through their collaborations with musicians in Turkey in this well made, moving film.

A World Not Ours

There was more on the agonies and hopes of the region of the Middle East with the films Bekas (2012) by Karzan Kader, a movie that tells the story of two homeless brothers as they journey to meet Superman, Gatekeepers (Shomerei Ha´Saf , 2012) by Dror Moreh, a  documentary film based on interviews with the six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel´s  internal secret service agency, and A World Not Ours (2012) by Mahdi Fleifel, a documentary about life in the refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh in southern Lebanon which brought to the fore the different dimensions and outcomes of the endless turmoil in the area.

Emek protests go international

Since 2010, the International Istanbul Film Festival organizers and audiences as well as other activists who struggle for the right to the city have been carrying out a struggle to protect the classical Emek movie theatre. Historically, Emek had been the main venue of the festival until it was closed down in 2010 to make way for a project aiming to transform the building into a shopping mall. This year, Costa Gavras, who received a lifetime achievement award and whose film Capital made its Turkey premiere during the festival, joined the ranks of protesters for the Emek theatre and wrote a letter to Prime Minister R. T. Erdoğan to support protection of the theatre. On the last day of the festival, members of unions connected to the cinema industry as well as supporters came together for the third time during this year’s festival to protest this plan which will destroy this landmark of the art of cinema in Turkey. The demonstrations were covered in the international press along with messages of solidarity from cinema circles around the world. In fact, Emek is but one victim of the aggressive project of urban transformation that has been ongoing during the last decade in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. Offering a critique of the transgressions of city rights and an exploration of democratic resistance, this year’s festival included a section titled Am I Not a Citizen? – Barbarism, Civic Awakening and the City in collaboration with the 13th Istanbul Biennial; the section included documentaries, feature films, and video works dealing with the themes of citizenship, the public domain, democracy, and art.

Just as in previous years, the festival was enriched with side events as well: In addition to Costa Gavras, Peter Weir, who presided the Golden Tulip International Competition Jury this year and received an Honorary Award, along with Mike Figgis and Carlos Reygadas whose retrospective was screened at the festival, gave Master Classes, which were received with great interest, especially by younger audience members who are the future film-makers of Turkey.

For more information on the festival

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.

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