The 2013 Istanbul Film Festival
by Richard Porton

Shot clandestinely within Iran, Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain held special resonance at the Istanbul Film Festival

Shot clandestinely within Iran, Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain held special resonance at the Istanbul Film Festival

On April 7th, slightly over a month before the occupation of Istanbul’s Taksim Square and a national upsurge of anger at the increasingly autocratic policies of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a group of cinephiles protesting the destruction of the capital’s historic Emek Cinema were assailed by the police with tear gas and water cannons. After the fracas, the police took four protestors, including the noted film critic Berke Gol, who was serving on the FIPRESCI jury at the Istanbul Film Festival, into custody. Just as the “Langlois Affair” in February ’68 (the French government removed Henri Langlois, head of the French Cinémathèque, from his post and hordes of cinephiles came out to protest) paved the way for the insurrectionary events in May ’68, the incident at the Emek Cinema in April looked forward to the outrage in Taksim, and other Turkish cities, in May–June 2013. Although Gol informed me that there had been “ten or twelve rallies” at the Emek before the April gathering took a violent turn, earlier demonstrators remained on the street whereas police aggression during the festival was apparently in response to a contingent which had the gumption to actually enter the cinema.

When I met Gol at the Istanbul Film Festival, less than a week after his arrest, he patiently explained how a commercial cinema became a beloved emblem of Istanbul’s cultural heritage. According to Gol, although the Emek has been one of the festival’s central venues until 2010, the local municipality “claimed it wasn’t making money.” Since the building housed a social security office for many years, it was considered a public building. Nevertheless, he emphasized that the city government’s penchant for destroying old buildings, even if deemed architectural landmarks, reflected the gentrification promoted by Erdogan’s neoliberal government. In April, it seemed possible, if not likely, that an appeals court might give the Emek a last-minute stay of execution. Unfortunately, soon after our meeting, the cinema was thoroughly destroyed—apparently to make way for long-standing plans to replace it with a shopping center.  In addition, shortly after the festival, a prosecutor filed a suit against Gol and three of his codemonstrators, charging them with “resistance to the police” and “contravening the law on meetings and demonstrations.” A trial is scheduled for September 12th.

As Gol observed, it would have been preferable if the municipality had allowed the Emek to become the headquarters for a Turkish cinematheque. Such beneficence, alas, had little relationship to a blueprint for transforming Istanbul that favors privatization over the promotion of public space. As an article in The Stranger observed, battles over public space—whether the Emek Cinema or Gezi Park—are the “new front line[s] in the struggle between neoliberalism and democracy.” 

Political preoccupations are always present, at least covertly, during film festivals. At Istanbul, they often take center stage. F Type Film, an omnibus docudrama that encountered controversy during its initial, prefestival run, offered a prototypical example. Turkish F Type prisons are designed to incarcerate prisoners—primarily political prisoners—in isolation cells reminiscent of the “H-blocks” in Northern Ireland that became notorious during the Eighties. It’s true that, like most anthology films, the segments in F Type Film (coordinated by Grop Yorum, a Turkish band) are predictably uneven. Yet, since the prisoners personify a group of dissidents—especially Kurdish radicals—that oppose the nationalist consensus, it’s not surprising that, earlier in the year, the police harassed individuals putting up promotional posters for the film in the subway.

Equally earnest but less clunky, Ali Aydin’s Kuf (Mold), which also screened in the “Human Rights in Cinema Competition,” is a fictional effort that eloquently evokes the repressive political climate of the pre-Erdogan era. Resolutely minimalist and languidly paced, Mold fits snugly into the mold of Turkish art cinema perfected by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The film chronicles the lonely vigil of Basra, an Anatolian railway inspector whose son was arrested, presumably for political involvement, eighteen years earlier. Despite Aydin’s professed debt to Dostoyevsky, the film’s austere tenor seems equally influenced by Beckett, even though the unremittingly grim narrative is unleavened by the brief snippets of humor that occasionally surface in both Beckett and Ceylan’s work. Basri is a Job-like figure whose stoic endurance has undeniable political resonance. Aydin’s unapologetic pessimism underlines a pronounced continuity between the secular Kemalist governments of the twentieth century and Erdogan’s Islamic orientation; both political tendencies combined a steely authoritarianism with transparent opportunism.

Even seemingly escapist Turkish fare can provide a glimpse of simmering dissatisfaction in the hinterlands. Can Kilcioglu’s Karnival, a largely unsuccessful stab at social comedy featured in the “Turkish Cinema 2012-2013” sidebar, highlights the escapades of Alis, a nebbishy door-to-door carpet salesman in his mid-thirties who plunges into an unlikely romance with Demet, a harried baker who specializes in wedding cakes. Blandly written, this labored comedy still drives home the predicament of a generation that appears to be left behind by a economy that, at least until recently, was hailed as considerably more vibrant than most in Europe. Similarly, the protagonists of Onur Onlu’s Thou Gild’st The Even, an overly whimsical foray into magical realism, combat rural inertia with wish-fulfillment fantasies that do little to dilute the melancholy ambiance. Lusin Dink’s Saroyanland, a docudrama that clumsily synthesizes re-enactments with standard documentary elements, is a tribute to William Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer who visited his ancestral village—Bitlis in eastern Turkey—in 1964. It also clearly functions as a low-key evocation of Armenian historical memory, a subject that still must be cautiously broached in contemporary Turkey.

The non-Turkish selections in Istanbul corresponded to the roster of many other international festivals in 2012 and 2013—Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, Marcus Imhoof’s More Than Honey, Droh Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, and Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy were among the more prominent and familiar titles. One film in the International Competition, Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (which initially screened at the Berlin Film Festival)remains, in the light of recent events, retrospectively haunting. Like Panahi’s previous This Is Not a Film, it was shot clandestinely within Iran and is a transparent parable addressing the difficulties of working as a dissident filmmaker in a paranoid police state. Holed up in a villa, a screenwriter covers his windows in black cloth and languishes in his sumptuous cocoon. The film becomes a self-reflexive hall of mirrors when Panahi himself shows up, visibly confronting posters of his films that represent a creative autonomy that can no longer flourish. Even though Turkey is certainly nowhere near resembling Iran’s theocratic regime, Panahi’s underground films can still serve as a reminder of how quiet resistance can combat repression in dark times.

For information on the Istanbul Film Festival, visit

Richard Porton is on the editorial board at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine