By N. Buket Cengiz.
The programs at 41st Istanbul offer an ideal occasion for cinephiles, local and abroad, to return to movie theatres.”
Istanbul Film Festival, organized by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), returned to theatres, after two years of the pandemic exile, to the great enthusiasm of the audience in its 41st edition held on 8-19 April 2022.
The jury of the International Competition, held by the Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer, decided to give the Golden Tulip to Gaspar Noé’s Vortex (2021). In this film which Noé made after a near death experience, we follow an elderly couple, a retired psychiatrist who is suffering from dementia and her film scholar husband also having issues related with old age. Using a split screen, Noé achieves a unique visual aesthetics in his film, which enables him to handle the theme of transiency through multiple layers with admirable sincerity. He carefully balances Vortex between individual peculiarities and universal questions regarding existence in this masterly work which also received the FIPRESCI Prize at the festival.
Elegies for Nature
Two of the most outstanding films of this year’s festival, Alcarras (2022, see top image) by Carla Simón and Utama (2022) by Alejandro Loayza Grisi are poetic reflections on the irreversible damage that the humankind has been giving to nature. In the former, the first Catalan-language film which received the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, we are in Alcarras, a small village in Catalonia, with the Solé family, who have, for generations, dedicated their lives to the peach yards that brought them their daily bread. Yet, times are changing and the owners of the yards are much more interested in the profit they can make through solar energy rather than the peach trees which are essentially the soul of the place. Simón takes her audience to these yards, to the lands around them, to the sunlight and the shade of this extended family’s house depicting, with awe-inspiring talent, their bond with trees and soil, their deep connection with each other, their faith in everlasting promises, and the significance of oral culture in their lives. Alcarras’s transparency, truthfulness, and warmness owe a lot to the superb acting which Simón manages to obtain from her non-professional actors, as well as the immaculate soundscape she creates, which miraculously does not lose its energy for a second throughout the film.
Utama is the story of an elderly Quechua couple in the Bolivian highlands. It is the time of a long drought, the soil is dry, the air is dry, even the look in villagers’ eyes is dry; a feeling given so smoothly through the masterly photography direction of Barbara Alvarez as the camera flows through vast lands under the blinding sunlight, the dust that arises in every single move, the helpless faces of thirsty llamas, or a crow that will eventually throw itself from a cliff when its end nears. Death is at the centre of the film as a theme, as an idea, as a feeling while the elderly man expects it with ultimate dignity derived from his spiritual depth and wisdom in the heart of nature, as different as can be from the death anxiety of the modern person disconnected from all such sources whatsoever.
Connecting with the Roots
Mariner of the Mountains (O Marinheiro das Montanhas, 2021), by Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz, which received the Special Jury Prize at the festival, is a poignant essay based on the director’s impressions in his first ever visit to his father’s homeland, Algeria, at the age of 53. As its title implies, the sea is the central imagery in the film. We listen to the narrator speaking to his late mother Iracema throughout the film, and this is the only speech we hear, a stylistic choice that intensifies the personal feeling in the film. Aïnouz brings together his travelogue in Algeria’s bright yet melancholic seaside towns, the countryside where life is in slow-motion and the very village of his ancestors, together with photos and archive material. The result is a lyrical rendering of a filmmaker’s journey of connecting with his roots, and creating a bridge between them and his future, through an inspiring visual language.
Marx Can Wait (Marx Può Aspettare, 2021) by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio was another exquisite personal documentary at the festival. As the experienced filmmaker revisits his twin brother Camillo Bellocchio’s suicide, he courageously faces his own shortcomings at the time in empathizing with him and giving the emotional support he needed. He remembers that the route which he had recommended to his brother to overcome his existential anxiety was fighting for a more just society, a better world, against the evils of the system, namely in the ranks of the Marxist struggle. Yet his brother, just at the border of suicide needed to first heal his emotional wounds, in other words first to heal himself before healing the society, hence his reply that gives the film its title: “Marx can wait.”
Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Returning to Reims (Fragments) ((Retour à Reims (Fragments), 2021), a free adaptation of French historian and philosopher Didier Eribon’s autobiographical novel, was another excellent film dealing with the roots; this time at a context where Marx cannot and will not wait: “The class struggle was a reality for my grandfather. He was a communist, like the bourgeois are right-wing” says the narrator, in the voice of Adèle Haenel. Using her as the voice for the narrator is an apt manoeuvre by the director: Didier Eribon as a gay man faced various challenges in his working-class background, and the female voice of the narrator in the “I” mode somehow invites the audience to step back, and forward for that matter, to situate themselves beyond gender lines. References to Eribon’s grandmother and mother as resilient laborers, conveyed in absolute sincerity, add to this gender aware position of the film. Reims is sort of a serene love letter to a working-class family and to the class-struggle itself as it traces it from the beginning of the 1950s to the present day.
Good Mother (Bonne Mère, 2021) which was screened in the “No More Flowers” section of the festival comprising “films featuring self-willed strong women who determine their own paths, standing on their own feet,” (1) matched perfectly with Reims. This one is not a documentary, yet in many ways as convincing as one, particularly with the magnificent acting of all the cast which received the Ensemble Prize at Cannes in 2021. The film is about Nora, a migrant cleaning worker in Marseille who lost her husband a while back, living in a housing estate with her children. While trying to make the ends meet, Nora suffers a few extra challenges that life brings usually to the poor. Hafsia Herzi, drawing on subtle details, creates a powerful emotional atmosphere throughout the film that never slides into sentimentality. This work is a perfect illustration of the fact that no matter how many films are made on the unhappiness that comes with poverty there will always be room to say something fresh, in line with Tolstoy’s aphorism: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Stories of Individuation
Beautifully made A Night in Four Parts (Çilingir Sofrası, 2021) the first feature-length by Ali Kemal Güven, running only sixty minutes, received the Special Jury Prize (in memory of Onat Kutlar) at the festival. In the film that is set over one night, the erotic tension between the two men that was repressed in their youth unfolds as a painfully deep love which is destined to be suppressed once again and forever. It is an utterly genuine film, with strong emotions rendered delicately through great acting which brought the two leads the Best Actor award in the National Competition. Dealing with similar issues, This is Not Me (Bu Ben Değilim, 2021) by Jeyan Kader Gülşen and Zekiye Kaçak, a documentary film about gay men who force themselves into heterosexual marriages was also worth seeing.
Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s Beautiful Beings (Berdreymi, 2022); and Natalya Kudryashova’s Gerda (2021), from Iceland and from Russia, respectively, attracted attention at this year’s festival with their realistic depictions of the tormented youngsters’ inner worlds through their well-developed script, successful acting and skilful photography. Another worthwhile film, from the similar geography and climate of Finland, was The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic (Sokea Mies, Joka Ei Halunnut Nähdä Titanicia, 2021) by Teemu Nikki. In the film, Sari Aaltonen’s highly creative, accomplished direction of photography invites the audience to imagine the world through a blind man’s perspective, and Nikki deserves praise particularly for handling an extremely emotional topic with a sophisticated sense of humour which makes his film as clever as heartfelt it is.
Documentaries on arts and culture
The program of this year’s festival included compelling documentaries on culture and arts. In Crossroads (2022), director Mahmut Fazıl Coşkun focuses on the artistic output and traces the city of Istanbul as a context, a theme, an imagery and an inspiration in the works of four contemporary artists of Turkey; Gülay Semercioğlu, Seçkin Pirim, Candaş Şişman and Sinan Logie; making use of a perfect photography, a very well-written script and an admirable soundtrack. Beautiful music is at the centre of Ezio Bosso. The Things That Remain (Ezio Bosso. Le Cose Che Restano, 2021) a warm documentary film on the life of the legendary Italian musician Ezio Bosso by Giorgio Verdelli; as well as Love, Deutschmarks and Death (2022) where the director Cem Kaya traces the musical culture of the Turkish diaspora in Germany with sympathy, sincerity and confidence of an insider.
In the midst of economic challenges, IKSV, without a sponsor, achieved to sustain the tradition once again this year, and the cinephiles of Istanbul which they brought back to the movie theatres after the depressing halt of the pandemic are more than grateful for that.
1) Quotations are taken from the festival catalogue published by IKSV.
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 in Istanbul as a lecturer.