Turkish films and festivals: Glancng eastwards

Catherine Simpson

Is it ludicrous to imagine that in 10 years time Antalya’s Avrasya (Eurasian) Film Festival might rival Cannes as one of Europe’s pre-eminent film events? The first Eurasian Film Festival and market, held in Turkey from September 24 to October 1 in 2005, was a strategic attempt by the Turkish government to establish an alternative film market and nurture a growing local film culture. Held in conjunction with the annual Golden Orange Film Festival, one of the new festival’s aims was to forge alliances between Turkish and foreign film producers and inspire future co-production activity.

This festival comes abreast of an extraordinary resurgence in commercial Turkish film production. In 2004 local films took 38% of the local box office, followed by a whopping 60% for the first quarter of the year (Anna Franklin, “Local Pix boffo in Turkey”, Variety, April 25-May 1, 2005), a far greater proportion than any country in Europe.

Against a background of limited direct government support for filmmakers, the mounting of the new Eurasian Film Festival beside its 42-year-old Golden Orange counterpart had financial support from the Prime Minister to the Local Municipal Mayor. For the Mediterranean resort town of Antalya, more famous for its ancient ruins and tourism (predominantly German and Russian and annually numbering in millions), this festival is an intervention into the worn-out film festival circuit. Turkey’s dynamic media sector ensured that in the weeks prior to the festival, it was impossible to avoid articles in every national daily paper, while for weeks afterwards the coverage raged on.

The feeling amongst seasoned international guests was that apart from the Turkish films, most of the international feature films in the program had already had fairly wide festival play. Kim Ki Duk’s The Bow (Ki Duk was honoured as a special guest at the festival), Michael Haneke’s Cache, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, Marc Ruthemund’s Sophie Scholl and Krzysztof Krauze’s My Nikifor had already been well lauded abroad. The festival also featured ‘Silk Road Films’, ‘The Cream of Europe’, ‘Lost Souls: Horror Films from the Far East’ and an Eric Ledune retrospective. The only Turkish film in the coveted 1st International Eurasian Feature Film Competition was Semih Kaplanoglu’s Melegin Düsüsü (The Angel’s Fall).

There was some disappointment with the general lack of talent amongst this year’s crop of Turkish features. However, veteran Yavuz Turgul’s new film, Gonul Yarasi (Lovelorn), also Turkey’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, was a favourite amongst many international guests. The film’s leading actor, Sener Sen, featured as the Kurdish outlaw in Turgul’s hit film Eskiya (The Bandit, 1996) which signalled the recent revival in Turkish cinema. Gonul Yarisi won Sen the Best Actor award.

The 2 films that took out the main prizes sparked a heated debate in Turkish media. Turev (Derivative), directed by Ulas Inac, won the Best Film award while Kutlug Ataman’s Iki Genc Kiz (Two Girls), which had its international premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in 2005, received the Best Director Award. Against a tradition of the Best Actress Award going to an established star, such as Meltem Cumbul from Gonul Yarisi, newcomers Beste Bereket from Turev and Vildan Atasever from Iki Genc Kiz shared the award.

Iki Genc Kiz explores the complex social fabric of life in Istanbul through a relationship between 2 marginalised girls from differing backgrounds. Stylistically similar to Turev, with its gritty hard-edged realism, both films display a raw energy for life in contemporary Istanbul, a city in rapid transition. Debut writer-director, Ulas Inac based Turev on a short story from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which a young woman persuades her best friend to seduce her boyfriend to prove his fidelity (or not). A naturalistic DV flick, reportedly made on a budget of less than $20,000AUD, Turev is seen by local critics as inspired by the Danish Dogme movement. As Bilge Ebiri has noted, until the advent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palm D’Or winning Uzak (Distant), Turkish cinema has rarely exploited improvisation or naturalism as a stylistic or narrative device, no doubt due to the technical challenges that post-synchronised sound poses (“Blinking by the Bospohorus: Discoveries at the 24th Istanbul International Film Festival”, www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/festivals/05/36/istanbul2005.html). The dialogue in some Turkish films retains a staged, theatrical quality. Turgul’s Eskiya, made as recently as 1996, was in fact the first Turkish feature film to use synchronised sound during its production.

In the ensuing debate over the awards, Kutlug Ataman, who is probably more renowned abroad for his cutting-edge contemporary visual art and video installations, argued that the role of film festivals should be to reward films (and actors) that don’t get the exposure or publicity that the more big-budgeted, popular films with their star casts can buy. In this respect both Iki Genc Kiz and Turev (also featured at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival) were appropriate choices.

The exciting discovery was the extremely strong selection of documentaries in the national competition. Interestingly, 10 out of the 15 films were directed by women, and many focused on women’s stories. Melis Birder took out the Jury’s Special Award with her documentary, The Tenth Planet: A Single Life in Baghdad. This film provides much needed respite from the US media’s incessant coverage of the war and instead portrays some intimate moments and everyday challenges of living in present day Baghdad from the perspective of Kawab, a young Iraqi woman. This alternative vision of life in war-torn Baghdad, coupled with Kawab’s screen talent and humour, make this a timely and extraordinary documentary.

Of equal note was Pelin Esmer’s Oyun (The Play) concerning the scripting and performance of a play by some rural women, many of them illiterate, living in a remote Turkish village in the Taurus ranges. With the help of a local teacher they script a play from their personal experiences on topics close to their hearts, such as the death of newborn children, domestic violence, errant husbands and coping with childbirth alone. The play they finally perform deftly critiques, as well as gently mocks, the behaviour of the local men in the village, many of whom form its audience. What makes this documentary really outstanding is the way in which the women’s involvement in their play so clearly becomes a transformative experience, echoing the political role that cinema, and particularly documentary, can play in bringing about social change.

The strength of this documentary program bodes well, not only for the future talent in the industry, but also the potential for more female filmmakers to give voice to a diversity of experiences in a country which is often thought of, unjustly in some instances, to be especially patriarchal. While female feature film directors are few and far between, there are a number of notable female producers working in the industry.

An impressive Closing Awards Ceremony held at the massive Ancient Roman open-air amphitheatre at Aspendos wrapped up the festival on a note of optimism. The extraordinary artists featured at this event—a Whirling Dervish, and the mesmeric Sufi fusion band Mercan Dede who played with Kurdish singer, Aynur—perfectly articulated an eclectic but dynamic, modern Turkish cultural identity. These musicians also feature prominently in Fatih Akin’s musical masterpiece Istanbul Hatirasi (Crossing the Bridge, the Sounds of Istanbul) which received an overwhelming response when screened at Cannes earlier this year. If the closing ceremony is any indication, this festival and film market has the potential to become something much larger and more significant on the international film scene. A film industry journalist sitting beside me on the 1-hour return trip from Aspendos admitted clocking up more than 150 film festivals over the last few years claiming that this was the best closing ceremony that she had witnessed.

Rather than looking west to the European film sector to create links, some of which have already been made (through arthouse filmmakers such as Italian-based Ferzan Ozpetek and German Fatih Akin), this Eurasian festival and market should exploit the unique opportunity to glance eastwards and create a niche for itself, perhaps focusing on those comparatively less serviced film industries, such as Russia and Central Asia. Turkey, as a not-quite-yet-European nation, located in the Middle East with cultural links to Central Asia, seems a logical place to host an event such as this. And I suspect that the festival organisers hope that the Eastern Mediterranean city of Antalya, with its calm seas, beautiful weather, ancient ruins and abundant nightlife, may soon be able to attract the kinds of stars and filmmakers that frolic by the Riviera—and on top of that, lure the international media fanfare and press coverage that follows them.1st international

Avrasya Film Festival and 42nd Anatalya Golden Orange Film Festival, Antalya, Turkey Sept 24-Oct 1

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 20

© Catherine Simpson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005