By N. Buket Cengiz.
It was the festival fever once again heralding the coming of spring in Istanbul when the 34th Istanbul Film Festival started on the 3rd of April with great energy as always. Even richer this year with the addition of the National Documentary Competition to its longtime International and National Golden Tulip Awards, international FACE Award and the national Seyfi Teoman Award, the festival kicked off with a promising program and series of inspiring master classes and side events.
The first National Documentary Competition brought a fresh breath of air to Istanbul as one of the most interesting sections of the festival this year with fourteen competing films, almost all of which featured a brave perspective on the edgy political and social agenda of the country. Among these, Bakur (North) by Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, a documentary film about PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) came to the fore in the program. So, on 12th of April, on the ninth day of the festival, there were hundreds of cinephiles waiting in excitement for the world premiere of the film; and this was when it all came tumbling down in the most anti-climactic moment of the thirty-four year-long history of the festival.
A Bizarre Censorship Experience
Apparently, Bakur lacked a minor official document of registration asked only from Turkish films in the festival. Although this missing document has never caused problems until that day, the Cinema General Directorate of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, determined to use this to stop Bakur’s screening, sent a notification to the festival organization one day prior to the screening of the film. As a result, the organizer IKSV canceled the screening.
This decision caused a chain reaction of boycotts and protests. Almost all films from Turkey were withdrawn from the festival by their directors and producers. As the jury members also resigned, IKSV had to cancel of all the competitions of the festival. Following these developments, a declaration was signed by the filmmakers and the cinema organizations of the country followed by a united press announcement on the 14th of April. In the meantime, to show their solidarity with filmmakers of Turkey and support them in their struggle against censorship, two international directors withdrew their films as well: Shawkat Amin Korki whose Memories On Stone (Bîranînêm Li Ser Kevirî) was to be screened within the scope of the International Competition and Hisham Zaman whose Letter to the King (Brev Til Kongen) was one of the films in the Human Rights in Cinema section. The producers and the director of Atlantic, Jan-Willem and Van Ewijk, also withdrew their film from the competition, but did not cancel its screening. Jafar Panahi, whose film Taxi had screened in the festival, likewise expressed solidarity with Turkish filmmakers.
Audiences got back the money they paid for their tickets, while the festival committee did not replace the cancelled screenings with different films. Instead, they left the venues for the filmmakers to meet with their audience and speak with them about the boycott and other issues regarding censorship and freedom of expression. Thus, the second half of the festival passed in an atmosphere of disappointment for cancelled screenings mixed with a mood of solidarity; while the ending was obviously marked with a feeling of emptiness as for the first, and hopefully the last, time in the festival’s history the Tulip was not given. One day before the end of the festival, on the 18th of April, the Actors Union, the Film Critics Association and the Cinema Workers’ Union, together with hundreds of filmmakers and cinephiles marched for “Free Cinema Against Censorship.” After the march they came together for the “Censorship in Cinema” forum in the Abbasağa Park, in the Beşiktaş district of the city. Here, We Hit the Road (Yollara Düştük) by Deniz Yeşil, one of the films that was withdrawn from the festival as part of the boycott, had its premiere. This was probably one of the most unforgettable moments of the festival since the subject matter of the film is about the 1977 filmmaker’s march against censorship. After the screening of the film, the director of Bakur came to the stage to share a few words with the crowd.
Cinema’s Borderless Geography
Despite the diminished film line-up, the Istanbul audience found the opportunity to see various outstanding films this year, just as they had at the festival in years past. For instance, The Salt of the Earth by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, a chronicle of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s art and life, mesmerized the audience not only as a great moment of pleasure and fulfillment of cinematic experience but also as a meditation on existence and a way of living one’s life. Making use of captivating pieces from Salgado’s art, set against the Laurent Petitgand’s ravishing soundtrack, the film invites the audience to witness the artist’s courageous journey to reveal the awful truth stemming from the capitalist system and totalitarian regimes. Salgado and his wife, who had to leave their country due to their leftist views, shared a lifetime of admirable love and devotion and collaborated in numerous projects together, the poetic depiction of which is another strength of this dazzling documentary film.
At one point in the film, Salgado comments that after witnessing the genocide in Africa, he believed that all of us were guilty and none of us deserved to live. Salgado later found meaning in his life within his interests in nature photography and also in his and his wife’s efforts to recreate a lost forest in their homeland. The cinematography by Hugo Barbier and J. R. Salgado, as they follow the photographer in his phase of nature photography, is instrumental in the message of the film: despite the deep melancholy as depicted in Salgado’s black and white photographs, one has to find a way of connecting with the world if she/he chooses to stay in this world. As the film ends with this phase of the artist’s life, it awards the audience with a timid optimism arising from the relationship between women/men and nature.
The Human Soul in Darkness
Nabat by Elchin Musaoglu, a work from Azerbaijan, has been praised for its strong feeling and atmosphere as well for its stunning photography. Inspired by the true story of an Azerbaijani woman who refused to leave her village during the evacuation due to the fights following the fall of the USSR, Musaoglu’s film is a visual poem lamenting the shattered lives of modest people living in harmony with nature. This is a haunting story about the human soul, about loneliness and about motherhood. With Abdulrahim Besharat’s skillful direction of photography and Hamed Sabet’s elegantly touching music, this minimalist film, shot during the period of the Karabakh War, deserves to be mentioned next to the names of the works by auteurs such as Alexander Sokurov from Russia and Nuri Bilge Ceylan from Turkey.
Especially within the last decade of the festival, Icelandic films have been admired by the audiences. This year was no exception and some outstanding films from Iceland were huge crowd-pleasers for this Istanbul audience. The bittersweet Fusi (Virgin Mountain), the latest feature from acclaimed director Dagur Kári, became an instant festival favorite owing to its smooth and convincing story and the subtle melancholy which leaves space for a touch of optimism. Once again, Kári makes great use of his perfect taste of music, which has a central place in the development of the main character as well as in the mood of the film. Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstraeti) by Baldvin Zophoníasson, which tells the story of three characters as their lives intersect amidst the economic crisis in Iceland in 2008, impressed the audience particularly with its way of tackling the highly sensitive subject of incestuous sexual abuse.
Another highlight of this year’s festival was Behavior (Conducta), by Ernesto Daranas Serrano from Cuba, which created a wonderful collage of colors from all over the world. The film is about a widely explored topic of the relationship between a helpless student in an elementary school and a caring teacher who then becomes a mother figure. The film establishes a unique identity rather than being yet another example on this subject, especially owing to Alina Rodríguez’s superb acting.
Hypercapitalism on the Silver Screen
As the gap between the rich and the poor widens into unbelievable dimensions in this era of hypercapitalism, more and more works focusing on issues such as unemployment, exclusion and various forms of exploitation appear in cinema art. Europe, once the paradise of the world, is depicted as paradise lost in Prince (Prins) by Sam De Jong from the Netherlands; Beautiful Youth (Hermosa Juventud) by Jaime Rosales from Spain; and Amsterdam Express by the Albanian director Fatmir Koçi; which have come to the fore at the festival with realistic stories they tell about unemployment, immigration and the road that forces some women to work in the sex industry. The Lesson (Urok), a film from Bulgaria by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, was a remarkable example in this vein especially owing to its powerful insight about the psychological outcomes of a dead end caused by debt. The Istanbul audience also found the opportunity to view the first feature film of Margarita Manda, former assistant of Theo Angelopoulos, to whom she dedicates Forever (Gia Panta). Manda’s film tells many things in the silences it uses impressively: the pain of yearning for the joyful days of Athens which has become a grim place under the shadow of the economic crisis, the claustrophobia of midlife and the (im)possibility of communication within such a social context.
Russia: A Fertile Land of Cinema
As usual, this year Russian cinema had interesting pieces to offer to the Istanbulite cinephiles. Name Me (Kak Menya Zovut), by the young Tajiki director Nigina Sayfullaeva, was a striking psychological story about the inevitable neuroticism in the absence of parental love and affection told against the background of the beautiful Crimean landscape. The female outlook of the film and Konstantin Lavronenko’s brilliant acting makes Sayfullaeva’s feature debut a promising start for a career worth keeping an eye on. Russian-Armenian Anna Melikyan, who was born in Azerbaijan, studied film in Russia and as a young woman director had attracted attention with her film Mermaid (Rusalka) in 2007. She was at this year’s festival with her latest, Star (Zvezda), which is a remarkable work of dark humor on the silver screen with sharp criticisms about the manipulation of women by the beauty industry and the consumer society. The Postman’s White Nights (Belye Nochi Pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna) by Andrei Konchalovsky, a film on the verge of cinema verite, also received admiration of the festival audience owing to its sincere and warm approach to the lives of poor people isolated in a remote village on the shores of Lake Kenozero, south of Arkhangelsk.
Discoveries at the festival
Charlie’s Country by Rolf De Heer, which tells a touching story about an aborigine in Australia; Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, set during the genocidal campaign against the aboriginal locals; and the documentary The Pearl Button (El Botón De Nácar) by the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, all focusing on the cruel face of imperialism, came together to create a perfect thematic whole at this year’s festival. When Marnie Was There (Omoide No Marnie) by Yonebayashi Hiromasa, supposedly the last film of the legendary Studio Ghibli, was sold out as the animation fans rushed in to get their tickets the minute it was announced. Engaging Hill of Freedom (Ja-Yu-Eui Eon-Deok) by the South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo, pleased those who enjoy a warm tone of Asian minimalism in cinema. Pride (2014) by Matthew Warchus, a film about a London-based gay and lesbian activist group supporting the general strike of the National Union of Mine Workers in Britain in 1984, became a favorite especially among the LGBT audiences of the festival. The documentary B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin, by J. A. Hoppe, K. Maeck and H. Lange, also about the eighties, received admiration of those interested in the edgy musical subculture of Berlin in that era.
Three master classes by auteurs Reha Erdem and Zeki Dumurbukuz and by the documentary filmmaker Arash T. Riahi were received with great interest. In the tenth Meetings on the Bridge Film Development Workshop Awards and Work in Progress Workshop Awards were given to support novice filmmakers. Without the Golden Tulip finding its film, the festival ended with an empty feeling, which was inevitable. Let us hope that next spring, the 35th Istanbul Film Festival will be held in an environment in which censorship and pressure on freedom of expression will give way to an atmosphere of freedom in arts as well as in other aspects of social life in Turkey.
N. Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and arts, focusing on music and cinema. She is a PhD candidate at Institute of Area Studies, Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University’s Writing Center in Istanbul.
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