By N. Buket Cengiz.

The most important event of the year for the cinephiles of Istanbul, the International Istanbul Film Festival, enjoyed its thirtieth birthday this year, featuring two hundred and thirty one films in seven venues and attracting a total of one hundred and fifty thousand viewers. The festival was held from the 2nd to the 17th of April, 2011.

At the opening ceremony, a short film retold the story of the festival’s thirty-year history, including video clips depicting previous festivals, street interviews and award-winning directors, bringing tears to the eyes of the devoted followers of the festival. Stars of Turkish cinema who were invited on stage expressed their gratitude to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts for continuing to host this very important cinematic event for thirty years with such inspiring devotion. Another video that was screened at the opening ceremony was about the movie theatres in the Beyoğlu area, which have hosted the festival over the years, including a clip about the Emek Movie Theatre, the main venue of the festival for 28 years. The theatre was closed down on 25 October 2009, and for the last two years, a demonstration has been held on the last day of the festival, calling for support to re-open the theatre, which is one of the most beautiful movie theatres in Turkey and carries such special meaning for all cinema lovers in Istanbul.

This year’s “Cinema Honorary Award” was presented to the Hungarian director Belá Tarr, who met with the audience after the screening of his film The Turin Horse (A Torinói Lói, 2011). In response to the thunderous applause just before the screening began, Tarr warned the audience to refrain from such demonstrations of enthusiasm until after they had seen the film, as this was his most recent and also his most radical film to date. This warning made much more sense after the screening and his answer to a bemused and honest viewer, asking him frankly “what was it all about,” was explanatory enough: “The Czech writer Kundera wrote a book on the lightness of being… We wanted to make a film on the heaviness of being…”

In pursuit of the Tulip

The jury, presided over by Claire Denis this year, presented the Golden Tulip International Competition Award, which is awarded in memory of Şakir Eczacıbaşı, former chairman of IKSV and co-founder of the Istanbul Film Festival, to the Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla for his film Microphone (2010). The first feature ever to be entirely shot using the Canon 7D photographic camera, this film was a vivid depiction of the subcultures of Alexandria, including graffiti artists and hip hop, jazz and rock musicians. The film showed how the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, once one of the most cosmopolitan centres of the Mediterranean and of the world, inspires these young people and is a source of energy and artistic creativity, helping them break down the social, political and religious boundaries around them. In this way, the city represents a contested field in which the youth seek a modernized life style in a globalizing world. The use of local music, which is impressive to say the least, is the most important and successful aspect of the film which at times feels like a documentary about the music scene in the city, incorporating shots of studio sessions into the story.

Seyfi Teoman’s Our Grand Despair (Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz, 2011) from Turkey and Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life (La Vida Útil, 2010) from Uruguay were awarded the “Special Jury Prize” in the international competition, where every year, twelve films based on the theme of the arts and artists, or films which reflect works of literature on the silver screen compete. Veiroj’s film tells the poignant story of a man whose whole life revolved around the cinematheque where he worked for twenty five years and his despair when the cinema was shut down due to cuts in financial support. Cinema is not only the form of art that he loves, but it is also his means to struggle for a better world. After the final screening, his political activism, and thus all the meaning in his life and his reason for living are locked away behind the barred door of the cinematheque. Shot in black and white and swept along by the stunning acting of Jorge Jellinek, this superb film should be on the curriculum of all cinema departments, with its elegantly and powerfully conveyed messages about what the art of cinema is capable of doing.

The International Federation of Film Critics FIPRESCI Awards were presented to Tran Anh Hung for his film Norwegian Wood (Noruwei No Mori, 2010) in the International Competition, and to Sedat Yılmaz for his film Press (2010) in the National Competition. In his speech, Anh Hung, whose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel into film abounds with striking photography, mentioned that merely being in Istanbul was itself an award for him.

The Film Award of the Council of Europe (FACE), presented within the scope of the “Human Rights in Cinema” competition, was awarded to Juanita Wilson for her film As If I’m Not There (2010), for “depicting with great tact, decency and sensitivity the suffering of a woman victim of rape during the war in Bosnia.” At the screening of her film, Wilson emphasized that Europe had stood idly by during the atrocities in Bosnia, and to adapt the novel into this film, she had to spend ten years searching for financial support.

The Special Jury Prize for this competition was awarded to the director of Press (2010), a film based on the story of a group of journalists who worked for the Özgür Gündem newspaper, which fell victim to severe government censoring in the 1990s because of its pro-Kurdish leanings.  The award was given for the film’s “message upholding freedom of expression and freedom of information.” This film also received the “Special Jury Prize” of the National Competition, in which “The Golden Tulip Best Turkish Film” and “Best Director” awards were presented to Tayfun Pirselimoğlu for his film Hair (Saç, 2010).

British spirit at the festival

The times when the French director François Truffaut famously suggested that there was “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’” seem quite irrelevant as, particularly within the last decade, British cinema has been on the rise with such directors as Michael Winterbottom, Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows. Every year, at least one British film becomes a highlight of the festival, and this year, there was certainly more than one of these.  Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010), which competed in the International Competition, masterfully blended melancholy and humour, a feat that only Winterbottom could deliver. Setting up this melancholy against the beautiful background of the Lake District of Britain, the dark humour in the film drew upon the harsh, sarcastic exchanges between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they play themselves, just as they did in the A Cock and Bull Story (2006) also directed by Winterbottom. Mike Leigh’s acclaimed two-hour Another Year (2010), in its delicate portrayal of the psyche of a middle-aged, depressed and lonely Londoner woman received admiration as the product of real mastery. An epitome of superb casting, this subtly directed film made the most of skilful acting, particularly on behalf of Lesley Manville, in delving into the difficult territory of psychological insights.

Neds (2010) by Peter Mullan, which was selected as the Best Film at San Sebastian in 2010, relates a dark story about the loss of innocence in a setting where there seems to be almost no other options. Unsettling in its depictions of the violence prevalent in the British education system in 1970s Glasgow, the film, utilizing a harsh realism, also turns the camera on aggression and potential violence in domestic settings. This harsh realism becomes the basis of the film’s success in telling its story with such grace, a story which could easily have been told superficially and fallen into the traps of cliché or melodrama. Mullan avoids this hazard with his use of a well-written script, outstanding acting and balanced use of music as well as photographic aesthetics.

Made in Dagenham (2010), directed by Nigel Cole, is based on the true events which took place at a Ford factory in England in 1968. The film tells the story of how a group of determined women could change their destiny through organized union action. Like many recent British films, this film is also bolstered by superb acting, and depicts the story of women winning their struggle for equal rights and pay as well as protection against sexual discrimination. Drawing on one of the best, if not the best, drama traditions in the world, the film succeeds in giving its messages as well as telling an interesting story.

Highlights of fiction and documentary

Like every year, films by Latin American directors garnered acclaim at this year’s event, including the Uruguayan film A Useful Life and also Post Mortem (2010), the new film by Pablo Larrain, who won the Golden Tulip at the Istanbul Film Festival in 2009 with his film Tony Manero. Once again Larrain’s collaboration with the actor Alfredo Castro results in an engaging film of dark social criticism reflected through the lives of isolated individuals. Set in the midst of the 1973 Chilean coup, the film is about a lonely employee at a morgue’s recording office, Mario, and his search for human contact in his alienated world. Larrain’s choice of occupation for his protagonist reflects the psyche of individuals imprisoned by the insanity of a military junta, and how it transforms people into walking corpses surrounded by the shards of their shattered ideals.

This year’s festival was no exception in its abundance of well-made, striking documentaries. The Two Escobars (2010) by Jeff & Michael Zimbalist attracted much attention, which should come as no surprise as the theme of the film was football, a sport which is quite popular in Istanbul. Intertwining the stories of the drug-lord Pablo Escobar and the football player Andrés Escobar, this well-edited and well-produced documentary was the result of prodigious effort, and also made great use of archival material. How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (2010) by N. López Amado & C. Carcas relates the story of the acclaimed architect Norman Foster’s long journey from a working-class family in Manchester to becoming one of the most important architects of his era. The story is told in an elegant, almost poetic manner, similar to the very buildings that Foster has created.

Last Nomads in Anatolia: Sarıkeçililier (2010) by Y. Aksu is a brilliant documentary about the last representatives of the Nomadic life style in Anatolia. The film has been lauded for its stunning photography and engaging mode of story-telling, as well as its great sense of humour. Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits (2011) by İ. Azem provides a multi-dimensional view of Istanbul through its processes of urban transformation, taking the viewers on a journey from demolished slums to futuristic skyscrapers. This powerful, well-made film calls on the audience to question and act against the careless urban planning that this enchanting city has been facing. With a deftly executed gesture, the demonstration for the Emek Movie Theatre on the last day of the festival concluded with a screening of this film on the wall opposite the closed doors of the theatre. For the time being, all we can do is rally more support to have this beautiful theatre once again open its doors to Istanbulite cinephiles for the 31st year of the festival in 2012.

All quotations are from the International Istanbul Film Festival website.

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.


3 thoughts on “Istanbul Film Festival Turns 30”

  1. Beautifully crafted report, Buket. I especially enjoyed your positive comments on the British films, many of which I managed to see.

    Rob Lewis

  2. I would like to submit my latest Canadian feature film VANESSA for your 2012 Film Festival. How can I get an submition form and rules. VANESSA is 88 minutes long digitally shot on HD camera. It’s a heartbreaking story about a destitute street girl forced to sell her only posession, her virginity, to a wealthy businessman for $ 10,000 to start a new life, but not realizing his incredible plot!

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