Alive and Kicking

in 20th Flying Broom International Women's Film Festival, Ankara

by Renata Habets

The NGO Flying Broom was established in Turkey in 1996 by coordinator Halime Guner, with the main purpose of promoting awareness of gender equality in society. Flying Broom created a huge network of women’s gatherings in Turkey, and started a website dedicated to initiatives involving women’s issues. To promote these initiatives and the work of female directors, they founded the International Women’s Film Festival in 1998. Today, the festival is still modestly subsidised by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. In spite of the Turkish government’s anti-feminist policies, the feminist movement here is still very much alive.

For its 20th edition, the festival offered a selection of excellent films, several of which previously won awards at the Berlinale. Most of the program dealt with issues such as female oppression, empowerment, child brides and patriarchal society. One central theme this year was the abandonment of children – and my three favourite films focused on this subject.

One of the discoveries at this year’s Berlinale, where it was awarded Best First Feature, was Spanish director Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. This delicate and sensitive autobiographical film is one of the most evocative and affecting depictions of childhood seen in years. It portrays a little girl’s attempts to cope with grief with such maturity, empathy and heartfelt emotion that it conveys the uncertainty of the reality which follows.

After her parents’ death, six-year- old Frida is forced to move from bustling Barcelona to the Catalan provinces to live with her aunt and uncle. Country life is a challenge. Aside from the emotional upheaval, the environment which surrounds her is mysterious, possibly dangerous. Frida also has a new little sister, Anna, whom she needs to take care of, while dealing with new feelings such as jealousy. But it is the nature of her parents’ death which determines her treatment by the local community. Frida’s life will never be the same – in the opening scenes, she is almost always alone in the frame.

As the film progresses, more people share the little girl’s frame. However, Frida often remains a solitary figure, looking out at her new, disorienting rural surroundings with uncertainty. Summer 1993 delivers few dramatic surprises: its real skill is in portraying common psychological scenarios in a convincing and captivating manner. The adult performances are fine, but the exchanges between Frida and Anna, with their spontaneity and freshness, are evidence of Simon’s skill in directing actors. The film marks the arrival of a major new voice in world cinema, proving that even the most familiar stories can seem new when told with such empathy, authenticity and beauty.

Little Harbour (Piata lod) by Slovakian director Iveta Grófová also had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale, winning the Crystal Bear. The film constitutes both a coming-of- age story and a socio-psychological drama, representing a poetic world from a child’s perspective. It is inspired by real events, being an adaptation of the Slovak novel The Fifth Boat by Monika Kompaníková. The film revolves around the kidnapping of abandoned infant twins by the protagonist Jarka, who is only 10 years old. There is a double theme of abandonment here: the twins were abandoned by their mother, while Jarka is neglected by her mother and grandmother.

Jarka lives in a crummy apartment with her overly permissive, irresponsible mother. The film sets us up to build a deep empathy with Jarka, who longs for her mother’s love and affection. The mother, on the other hand, longs for unrestricted male attention. Jark copes with her yearning for love by stealing abandoned infants and taking care of them.

Jarka’s free upbringing and messy apartment contrast with the life of her younger friend and neighbour Kristián, who lives in a totally sterile environment under the close watch of his strict parents. The unlikely alliance between the two represents extreme versions of child- rearing, but the director never falls into the trap of sentimentality or moralistic preaching. She tells her story through the poetic world of a child’s perspective, which adults can only spoil in the end.

Clair Obscur, by award-winning Turkish writer-director Yesim Ustaoglu, won the FIPRESCI Prize at Flying Broom. Two decades ago, Ustaoglu emerged as part of a new wave of pioneering Turkish filmmakers. She is known for being unafraid to use politically charged themes as the backdrop for her intense interpersonal dramas. With her powerful, provocative sixth feature, she weaves together the stories of two women from different social classes, raising questions about the limitations facing Turkish women today.

In this bold drama, two women are trapped in loveless relationships, showing us the clash between modernity and tradition in a country bending toward conservatism. The point is that both modern and traditional women suffer in a patriarchal, male-dominated society where sex is the battleground.

The two protagonists come from very different backgrounds. Chenaz is a liberal-minded woman with a successful career as a psychiatrist. However, she feels trapped in her enviable- seeming but unfulfilling relationship. Elmas is a 15-year- old girl abandoned by her family. She was forced into an arranged marriage, which has subjugated her personality to the rules of religion and tradition. The parallel stories are interwoven beautifully, intersecting when Elmas becomes a patient of Chenaz’s. The protagonists both fight for the right to escape loveless, suffocating relationships and prioritise their own needs over social expectations and the demands of their partners. These are very significant issues – not only in Turkey, but for women all around the world!

Edited by Lesley Chow