Istanbul International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Tony Pipolo

Despite the worldwide economic crisis and cutbacks in support for the arts everywhere, the 2009 International Istanbul Film Festival was alive and well. Over 200 films, including shorts and video works, in over twenty categories and subcategories, were screened between April 4th and the 19th. In addition to breakdowns such as International Competition, Documentaries, and Human Rights, the festival offered about forty video works this year for the first time along with such mixed groupings, showing both classics and new films, as “Master Directors,” “Argentina,” “Let There Be Love,” “Young Masters,” and “Rebels, Saints and Troubadors.” Twenty-one films from the World of Festivals were screened along with a tribute to animator Bill Plympton, and memorial sidebars honoring Elia Kazan, Paul Newman, and Sydney Pollack. The general health of Turkish Cinema itself was reflected in over forty features and documentaries competing both nationally and internationally. As with any festival this eclectic, it is impossible to come away with a comprehensive sense of the whole. Having seen many of the offerings from other countries, I limited my exposure to six of these and focused on Turkish films, most of which, typically, seldom find their way to the United States. Of the sixteen Turkish features I saw, at least half a dozen were of unusual interest, all of them superior to such international duds as Uli Edel’s gutless and shrill Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany, 2008) and Steve Jacobs’s misfired Disgrace (Australia, 2008) with a grotesquely miscast John Malkovich.

Surely, one of the most provocative of the Turkish features was Reha Erdem’s My Only Sunshine, whose protagonist is a pretty fourteen-year-old named Hayat, who at the film’s beginning seems to have just had her period. Although the blood she spills is menstrual, it seems, as her story progresses, but the outward sign of internal wounds. A Mouchette struggling with her inner Lolita, Hayat lives in claustrophobic conditions, looks after a baby brother with frightening indifference, and shuts out the persistent coughs, wheezes, and whining of her asthmatic grandfather. On each visit to a local store, the merchant molests her. Walking disdainfully through the village, she ignores the taunts of local boys. But as an unexplained shot of her lying bruised on the ground implies, one of them seems to beat or rape her, perhaps regularly. Through it all, Hayat remains nearly speechless. As the one thing she can literally kick around, a local turkey gets the brunt of her wrath. The unnerving disparity between Hayat’s rage and her demeanor is symbolized by the doll she carries everywhere: a cloyingly sweet-faced cherub whose maniacal giggling is climaxed by the hysterical outburst, “I love you!”

Though a thoroughly idiosyncratic work obsessed with the miseries of children bordering on adolescence, like the director’s Times and Winds (2006), the tormented tension thatMy Only Sunshine sustains reflects a tendency in several Turkish films at the festival to pose contrasts, not only between adolescence and adulthood or generations, but between urban and rural life, superstition and enlightenment, and tradition and modernity.

In Yeşim Ustaoğlu's Pandora’s Box, the matriarch of a family (played by a fiery old actress named Tsilla Chelton) takes refuge in the mountains while her three grown children lead lives of not so quiet desperation in Istanbul. Their frenetic everyday struggles with urban blight and domestic problems are aggravated by their insistence on keeping tabs on Mom who wants no part of them but whose Alzheimer’s-inspired insights prompt them to improve their lives. City life, like the film, is book-ended by two elegant pans of the camera—the first horizontal, the second vertical—over a serene mountain setting that beckons none too subtly. In the final scene, the old woman’s young grandson (played by Onur Unsal, a wonderfully natural and intelligent actor) takes his grandmother back to the mountains and looks on with wistful, intuitive resignation as she makes her way up its path to what we assume will be her death. In striking contrast to the abyss between Hayat and her grandfather, the scenes between Murat and his grandmother, thanks to the extraordinary rapport between the actors who portray them, speak more eloquently with looks and gestures than the emotionally-charged exchanges between the siblings that precede them.

A more intensely structured and psychologically complex drama of the interaction between the urban and the domestic is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, which enjoyed a brief but critically well-received run in New York this spring. Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) agrees to take the rap for his boss Servet (Ercan Kesal) who has just killed a man in a hit-and-run accident and is up for election. Eyup is promised a short prison term and assured that his wife and son will be looked after. When the wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan) asks Servet for an advance on the money Eyup was promised, Servet seduces her. Their subsequent affair is discovered by Eyup and Hacer’s son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), who is enraged but hides the truth from his father. Upon release, of course, Eyup figures it out, a situation worsened by his wife’s refusal to give Servet up. Everything goes downhill until Ismail kills Servet, prompting Eyup to perpetuate the vicious cycle of moral corruption by proposing that a buddy take his son’s place in prison. While the viewer may wince at the legal and practical facility with which these deals are made, the real point is the demoralization of a family, an impression indelibly etched by strong performances by all the principals. Ceylan’s talent as a director is manifest in dozens of quiet and subtle touches that enrich each character’s psychology and deepen our sense of having wandered unwelcome into this family’s hell.

Not surprisingly, urban life was also the focus of many documentaries. One of the most spirited of these, and winner of the Golden Tulip, the festival’s highest award, was Men on the Bridge, directed by Asli Ozge. Beautifully composed and shot, it records the lives of three young men who live in the suburbs but work everyday on the bridge over the Bosphorus—as flower merchant, taxi driver, and police officer—without having any contact. Although the filmmaker includes domestic scenes meant to flesh out their existence, these raise more questions than she is willing or able to address. Still, the film is an engaging cinematic exercise with a serious, socially conscious perspective.

If the lure of the rural seemed irresistible in Pandora’s Box, it is more problematic in Autumn (directed by Ozean Alper), a beautifully photographed work whose lyricism, like that of the Russian literature to which it often alludes, cannot overcome the sense of doom that hangs over everything. Its protagonist Yusuf (Onur Saylak) has just returned from a long prison sentence for involvement in a hunger strike against government policy in the 1980s—the facts of which, though perhaps familiar to Turkish viewers, are not spelled out. Throughout the film, he lingers in the peaceful atmosphere of his mother’s home in the mountains, while his friend Mikhail and neighbors complain that there is no future in the village, a point stressed by a shot of a snail making its laborious way across the floor. One character remarks that at least socialism promised hope, good or bad. Yusuf strikes up a relationship with a young prostitute he meets in a bookshop. But the comfort these two lost souls achieve is only temporary. Their efforts to reconnect after separating are continually frustrated, as is Yusuf’s attempt to get a passport. In the end, the chronic cough and health problems he developed in prison lead to his death.

Rural life is also examined in Milk (d. Semih Kaplanoglu), The Shadowless (d. Umit Unal), and Mommo the Bogeyman (d. Atalay Tasdiken). But in the first two it seems enslaved to superstitious elements, and in the last appears to be hopelessly inert. By far the strongest of these is Milk, an eerily evasive but compelling work, the second in a trilogy (the first was Egg ; the third, Honey, is not yet released) chronicling the adolescence of another Yousuf (Melih Selcuk), an aspiring poet who works as a milkman (his mother’s business) in a provincial village. The enigmatic quality of the film’s imagery, mood, and screenplay is immediately struck by a pre-credits scene that startles as it mystifies. A lovely pastoral image with an old man seated in the foreground metamorphoses into the bizarre as a woman is tied and hung upside down from a tree suspended over a pot of boiling liquid. As the steam rises, she wriggles and groans until a long snake emerges from her mouth.

This kicker of an opening, connoting the expelling of evil from paradise and the link between Eve and the serpent, hangs over the tale as a vaguely defined but menacing cloud, lending to several ambiguous scenes more than a touch of the erotic and taboo aspects of primal and mythic forces. Yousuf is disturbed by his mother’s affair with a local official whom he later almost kills in the marshes. He himself seems sexually confused, telling his mother he has no interest in girls while a number of slow point of view pans over the bodies of other men suggest an undeclared homoeroticism. A clue to his longings, as well as his strangeness, is an image of Rimbaud on the wall of his favorite poets. In a mysterious scene, the old man from the precredits sequence shows up and engages in what might be an exorcism rite with Yousuf, no more farfetched than a scene where Yousuf enters an abandoned house and encounters a serpent of his own. Yousuf’s attempt to enlist in the army to escape life as a miner is foiled when he is rejected. But only when he falls off his bicycle shortly after and has an epileptic fit do we understand the reason.

As this description suggests, the film is too elliptical and enigmatic to be grasped in one viewing, but my guess is that we are meant to link Yousuf’s epilepsy to many of the narrative’s aporias as well as to his sudden shifts from glum, long-held stares into space to delirious outbursts, as when one of his poems is published. Whatever remote promise is held out to Yousuf is dashed in the film’s final long take: standing in mining regalia in medium shot as other miners move about in the background, he slowly turns his head to the side. As he does so, the beam from his helmet hits the camera, transforming the screen into a square of blinding white light, perhaps in anticipation of a huge epileptic fit; it is as if Yousuf, his story, and the world evoked have all been consumed and dissolved. Then, in contrast to this dazzling metaphysical leap, Yousuf comes back into view, cigarette in hand, and stares far more mundanely at the all-too-real setting in which he finds himself before the fade-out. Though its symbolism often ranges from the obvious to the nebulous, Milk is redeemed by the force of conviction at its heart and the heartbreaking visage of Mr. Selcuk.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the two least competent films I saw—Avdin Bulut’s Children of the Other Side and Selim Evco’s Two Lines —are embarrassing efforts to mimic classic genres and celebrated auteurs of the past. The first is a mélange of action and crime genres, but not a single moment of its bloody gang-war violence and sibling rivalry rings true. The second, the tale of a bored urban couple that takes to the road to reinvigorate their marriage is pretty close to unbearable. Utterly bereft of intelligence and conviction, it finds itself marooned in Antonioni territory without a clue as to what to do with its characters or the story. Both films are the kinds of pretentious fare that give film festivals a bad name.

On the other hand, few films were as charming and instantly relevant to contemporary life in Istanbul as Mahmut Fazil Coskun’s debut feature Wrong Rosary, both for its lyrical handling of how the boundaries between Christianity and Islam impact on the everyday lives of its characters and because its actors, especially Nadir Saribacak, who won Best Actor Award in the National Competition for this film, immediately win us over. Saribacak plays Musa, a muezzin recently transferred from Ankara to Istanbul, who falls in love with a young Catholic nun. Despite their religious differences, Musa cannot help but pursue Clara, who lives in an adjacent apartment temporarily while she cares for her dying mother. His distracted preoccupation with her is poignantly and humorously conveyed in a scene in the mosque when, as he prays, the man next to him directs his attention to his beads: Musa looks down and realizes that he holds in his hands not his Islamic beads but the Catholic rosary he has taken from Clara. One of the benefits of watching films like this with a large Turkish audience was to feel and hear the genuine amusement and appreciation at such a moment. Musa and Clara conduct their short-lived relationship with the wise counsel of Yakup, a bookseller Musa met in the church where he followed Clara. But in the end, he must say goodbye to Clara when she leaves to return to the convent. Few images among the films I saw express more poignantly the inevitable effects of cultural and religious barriers than the look on Musa’s face as he watches Clara’s train disappear into the distance.

While space does not permit extensive discussion of other films, it is worth mentioning Uygar Asan’s Knot, shot in HD, which achieves a level of tension and seriousness belied by its modest production and technical values. With minimal dialog and acting, it chronicles a son’s lonely and tortured days watching over a dying father whom we never see but who somehow stands for patriarchal authority. The final shot of the son emerging from his moribund state and walking slowly towards the bedroom where we know that he intends to kill his father is chilling. The director, whose debut feature, Winter Garden, was the first Turkish film shot and screened digitally, demonstrates a comfort and mastery of the form that confirms that, however changing technology affects the future of cinema, the most important element in the making of motion pictures will still be the intelligence and sensibility of an auteur.

Tony Pipolo is a psychoanalyst in private practice and writes regularly on film. His book, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press), has just been published.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4