Certain Tendencies in Turkish Cinema: The Melancholy of the City, The Silence of the Landscape By Klaus Eder

in 28th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

In the 1965 film Last Birds (Son Kuslar), a love story begins in an Istanbul bookstore. A young engineer meets a schoolgirl in her final year of studies. He follows her to her home on the other side of the Bosporus. The next day, he looks again for her, and again and again. Slowly, he overcomes her shyness to win her affection, and finally her love.

A lot of scenes take place on the ferry between the European and Asian sides of the city (the Bosphorus bridges had yet to be built). The girl, Ayse, and the young man, Oguz, are the protagonists, but there’s another main character in the film: Istanbul. The city is filmed with the charm of the sixties, black and white, the streets full of people, the Bosphorus as the center of life. (And it’s captured with the miserable sound which seemed to be a problem of Turkish cinema almost until today).

Last Birds was the debut of Erdogan Tokatli (who had started his career working with Turkish pioneer Memduh Ün). It’s a film about Istanbul, it’s a love story, and it’s a film about a social conflict. The girl, who becomes a young woman as the narrative progresses, is forced to marry a man whom her parents had chosen: a rich and nasty villain who can solve her family’s financial problems but certainly won’t make the young woman happy. The black-and-white images seem to become a little blacker, the music a little more dramatic at this unhappy ending. Women, so the simple message goes, have no chance to decide their own lives; they are dominated and overruled by parents, by husbands, by a powerful tradition — and not just in the Anatolian villages, but in the big city, too. (Remember, this was the ’60s.)

The Turkish cinema of that period — and through the ’70s, into the early ’80s — was a cinema of social (and political) conflicts, at least in its best-known films beyond the so-called “Yesilcam” movement of mainstream movies. This changed with the later films of Ömer Kavur (1944-2005), and it changed definitely with Nuri Bilge Ceylan (born 1959) who came on the scene in the late ’90s. Not that Ceylan ignored these conflicts: between the city and the village; between races and religions; between traditionalism and modernism. But he shifted them into the inside of his characters. He did not — and does not — discuss social conflicts. He talks about their impact on the psyches of his characters. In the history of Turkish cinema, this was probably the most determined break with narrative traditions while still determinedly continuing them.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films stroke up the tone of a contemporary author’s cinema on the Bosphorus. At the same time, other filmmakers were sharing similar (if not identical) experiences, in life and in cinema: Yesim Ustaoglu and Reha Erdem, and the younger Özcan Alper and Mahmut Fazil Coskun — who both presented first feature-length fiction films at the 2009 festival in Istanbul.

There’s not much dialogue in their films. The characters are taciturn. They are lonely — which astonishes the western point of view, since family structures seem even nowadays to largely be intact and more functional than in many other more western or more industrialized countries. Some of the characters feel and express the kind of melancholy and tristesse which Orhan Pamuk has called “hüzün”, in his autobiographical novel “Istanbul”.

In Yesim Ustaoglu’s Pandora’s Box (Pandora’nin kutusu), three siblings return home to their mountain village, in search of their missing mother (she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease). They bring her to Istanbul, but fail to take good care of her. At the end, the grandmother returns to her house in the mountains, accompanied by her grandson from the big city. One morning, she leaves the house and climbs up the mountains, just to die. (I don’t know if Yesim Ustaoglu is familiar with Shohei Imamura’s 1983 Palme d’Or winner Ballad of Narayama, but it does not matter.) The siblings, at least the two female ones, speak a lot to each other — mostly quarreling — but they don’t have anything to say; the grandmother, played by the wonderful French actress Tsilla Chelton, has the better dialogue and the wittier wisdom, in all her Alzheimer confusion. They are “empty”, burnt-out — the filmmaker’s strong commentary on alienated life in the big city. One of the merits of Yesim Ustaoglu’s film is that the siblings get to understand this, as expressed in the breakdown of Nesrin, one of the daughters (Dery Alabora), who finally understands the kind of life she’s living in Istanbul and the kind of person it’s made of her.

In Özcan Alper’s debut Autumn (Sonbahar), the protagonist is lonely as well, a political prisoner being released because he suffers from a terminal lung illness. He returns to his village — to his mother, to the mountainous landscape of his youth — but remains alone, even during his short affair with a Georgian prostitute who’s come over the border to earn some money. In Wrong Rosary (Uzak Ihtimal), director Mahmut Fazil Coskun develops the slow, shy approach of a young muezzin (the one who calls prayers) and a young Catholic woman working in a nearby church. They draw closer to each other, but never manage to connect or become intimate, not because of their different religious background but because that tristesse — that “hüzün” — seems to be deep in their souls.

In My Only Sunshine (Hayat Var), Reha Erdem takes an unusual look at Istanbul. There’s water everywhere, the Bosporus beginning and ending in the sea. When the 14-year-old girl Hayat (literally: Life) rides with her father in a boat, the camera (Florent Herry, who shot most of Erdem’s previous films) follows them from a close position right above the water. Virtuously (maybe a little too much so), this camera accompanies the father when he delivers prostitutes to the sailors on passing ships, or goes with Hayat, the girl, to their house in a shabby and hidden part of the bank. Hayat looks after her grandfather, who suffers from asthma and cannot move much; sometimes, she witnesses the parties her father organizes for sailors, loud parties with women and alcohol.

Ultimately, My Only Sunshine tells a coming-of-age story. (In some of his previous films, Reha Erdem had also preferred excursions into childhood and youth.) It’s also a film about a young girl who grows into speechlessness. And it’s another film about death. At the end, her father apprehended by the police, the girl paints her face the red color of her lipstick and drives with a boyfriend (blue face, remember Godard’s Pierrot le fou) to the high sea — from which, I suspect, they’ll never return.

My Only Sunshine is a film about Istanbul (unfortunately with a tendency of calligraphy). It’s the same Istanbul of Erdogan Tokatli’s Last Birds some 40 years ago, and yet a totally different Istanbul, with a melancholy in the characters and in almost every angle and action of the camera.

Erdem’s characters do not know the option of a life in the east, the village, the mountains. They’ve never experienced the silence of the landscape as Yesim Ustaoglu and Özcan Alper have. When Yusuf (Onur Saylak), the protagonist in Autumn, leaves the prison, he takes a bus. Feza Caldiran’s camera shows the bus from far away, crossing a bridge over the sea, covered by a beautifully clouded sky. It’s a “landscape”, and we understand already in this early moment of the movie that landscapes will be more than a background: they’ll disseminate calmness. For Yusuf, they bring comfort, helping him come to terms with his years as a political prisoner and perhaps even his impending death. Yesim Ustaoglu shoots the mountains of Pandora’s Box as if they were a mirror, a projection of the inner state of her characters — maybe not of the grandmother but of her grandson; we see the mountains through his eyes. In these films, there’s no simple confrontation of city and village, of traditional and modern life, of “the old” and “the new”. It’s more complicated.

It seems that for filmmakers in their 40s, who constitute a middle generation of directors, Istanbul is the better place to live, while the countryside is the better place to find one’s roots.

The tristesse in their films marks only one tendency in Turkish cinema. Another tendency comes from the documentary genre, as seen in Pelin Esmer’s 10 to 11 (11’e 10 kala) and particularly Asli Özge’s Men on the Bridge (Köprüdekiler), winner of the festival’s Best Film prize. But that’s another story.