A Festival To Be Remembered By Cigdem Kömürcüoglu

in 26th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Cigdem Kömürcüoglu

When events like biennnales, film, music and theater festivals which take place regularly become a tradition and institutionalized, some years take a special place in the memory of the audiences. The 24th International Istanbul Film Festival that took place between April 2-17/ 2005 will be one of those years in this festival’s history. Why? First of all because of its foreign star guests.

Up to now every year this festival has had some very prominent foreign guests like Italian directors Michelangelo Antonioni, the Taviani Brothers, the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, British directors Ken Russell, Stephen Frears, the Italian-American actress Isabelle Rossellini etc. But we have never witnessed so many famous names coming together during one festival. Italian diva Sophia Loren who received “Lifetime Achievement Award” this year from the festival was present at the Opening Ceremony. The American actor Harvey Keitel who received the same award at the Closing Ceremony said he was surprised by how much warm love was shown to him by the people of a country (Turkey) which he had known very little about. Australian director Jane Campion was International Golden Tulip Contest jury president; Italian actress Valentina Cervi was also a member of the jury. British actor-director Charles Dance, French writer-director Alain Robbe Grilllet, British director Sally Potter, Canadian Don McKellar, Hungarian Attila Janish, French filmmaker Claire Dennis and Irish director Neil Jordan who also recieved a Lifetime Achievement Award, were among the guests giving masterclasses, and attending panel discussions.

Because of those famous names, this year festival was not only covered by the specialized cinema and culturel sections of the newspapers, magazines and television but also had a very large coverage by the popular news media. So as one festival director put it “This year Istanbul was more aware that a film festival was going on”. And it was easily seen that moviegoers were more interactive, filling the conference halls of masterclasses and panels. And at the end of the films many of them participated more actively in the question and answer sessions if the director was present.

Moviegoers’ choices

This year’s International Istanbul Film Festival showed 166 films from 51 countries. On Saturday April 2 just before the festival started, I studied the boards in the festival movie theaters to see how many tickets were sold before hand. They were mostly for the Gala sections, the first screenings of the most attractive and crowd-pleasing films in the festival program such as Melinda and Melind by Woody Allen, 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai; Ladies In Lavender/Lavanta Kokulu Kadinlar by Charles Dance; Eros by Wong Kar Wai, Stephen Soderbergh and Michalengelo Antonioni; Vera Drake by Mike Leigh; Garden State by Zach Braff. Then three films, Exiles /Sürgündekiler by Tony Gatlif; Seducing Doctor Lewis/Aklimi Çelme by Eran Riklis; Nobody Knows/Kimse Farketmiyor by Kore-eda Hirokazu from the World Of Festivals section. And additional screenings were put on for Divorce- Italian Style from Unforgettable Directors: Pietro Germi section; Red Cockroaches/Kirmizi Hamamböcekleri by Miguel Coyulo from Mined Zone section; Last Year In Marienbad by Alain Resnais and written by Robbe-Grillet from the Tributes section. These last three films were originally planned for only one screening.

When I went to see my first film which was In The Name Of The Law-Mafia , a black-and-white film made in 1949 by Italian director Pietro Germi, the first postwar film about the Sicilian Mafia, I was surprised to see that the theater was almost full. After studying the list of the movies whose tickets were sold before hand, I was not expecting so big an audience for this film. The same happened at the screening of Mona Lisa, directed by Neil Jordan in 1984 about the Soho district in London depicting the miserable life of a small time gangster.

The Immortal made in 1963 by Alain Robbe Grillet telling a story that takes place in Istanbul about a Frenchman, a new-comer to Istanbul meeting a mysterious woman. Her real name and address are not known. He is attracted to this woman and with her he strolls around Istanbul which is as mysterious and tricky as the woman. It was, 83-year-old Alain Robbe Grillet’s first attempt at filmmaking, and I had thought it would attract a small specialized audience. But I was wrong again. The theater was full.

At the end of the festival it was clear that this year’s audience was very much interested in the Tributes section which presented an exquisite section of films from four master directors Neil Jordan, Roman Polanski, Yavuz Turgul and Alain Robbe Grillet.

Istanbul and the mysterious woman

The panel discussion which Alain Robbe-Grillet, the leading figure of the nouvelle roman and ciné-roman movements, attended on Saturday the 9th of April was so crowded that some had to sit on the stairs. And some had to stand all through the discussion. Robbe- Grillet told the interesting story of how he made Immortal. It was around the end of 1950’s when a French producer asked him if he would like to make film in Istanbul. Robbe-Grillet told him because his books were not selling, he did not want to get involved in movie making which was more expensive. But the producer said he had some money which had been blockaded in Turkey. At that time Turkish money was not convertable and because of some complicated trade laws he was not able to take his money out of Turkey. So he wanted Robbe-Grillet to make a film in Turkey with this money. Then the producer hoped he would sell the movie. By this way he was hoping to regain his money. But he was not sure if Robbe-Grillet would want to make a film in Istanbul.

Robbe Grillet said he would like to because Istanbul had a special charm for him. He had met a young girl named Catherine there ten years ago who became his wife seven years later. And also he liked the city which had wooden quarters and wooden houses.

So Robbe-Grillet came to Istanbul, wrote a love story about Istanbul and the mysterious woman. But before the shooting started, in May 1960, there was the military coup and he returned to France.

There he had an offer to write a story for French director Alain Resnais who wanted to shoot a big, impossible love story. Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the story which became the film Last Year In Marienbad. And when the situation became calm in Turkey, he returned back to Istanbul and in 1963 directed his first film Immortal which also tells an exquisite love story. This film also has a precious documentary value because that Istanbul with its wooden quarters doesn’t exist any more.