Documentarist 2016 - the 9th Istanbul Documentary Days

in 9th Documentarist - Istanbul Documentary Days

by Colette de Castro

The Documentarist Film Festival in Istanbul is a jewel. With its international selection of high quality films, it is brilliant both in the clarity of its images and in the intensity of its messages.

Now in its ninth edition, the festival features a range of sections such as queer documentaries, music documentaries, censorship, and this year a tribute to the gifted Serbian director Želimir Žilnik. The festival spanned six days from the 28 May to 2 June.

It was to be my first visit to Turkey. Before leaving, a well-travelled friend gave me the following three pieces of advice: never criticise Atatürk, never mention the Armenian Genocide and never discuss the Kurdish Issue.

The theme of Documentarist 2016 was censorship. Turkish actress Füsun Demirel was both the face of the festival – the poster features her pixelated face against a red background – and the head of the festival jury, for the New Talent Award. As I learnt the story of what had happened to this actress in 2015 – she mentioned the Peshmerga in an interview – and about the subsequent flurry of negative media attention around her story, I was reminded that a film festival can be more than just a place to exhibit new films. It can be a platform to consider what film really is, and what its role is in society.

A festival, and a documentary festival in Istanbul at that, being as it is the gate between East and West, is a place to seriously consider the role between truth and censorship, and the blurred line between fact and fiction. The rules laid out for me were quickly abandoned, and those things to “never talk about” became the topic of some of the most lively discussions which took place. I was caught up in what turned out to be both an intellectual, emotional and a political first experience in Turkey.

The Documentarist Festival is organised by a small and passionate crew of people. The selection was both subversive and lively. Festival director Necati Sönmez wrote in his editorial introduction to the festival, entitled “Documentary against the lies around us”, that organising the festival in Istanbul this year was a bit like organising it in a completely different city. As a Parisian I could relate. He wrote of the hope that the documentary form can bring a way to give voice to the silenced among the turmoil of the past year and years. What he wrote is worth quoting:

Last year there was no massacre committed yet in Suruc, Ankara, Paris and Baga. The systematic slaughter hadn’t been turned into an atrocity in Kurdish cities and Syrian refugees hadn’t been sold to Turkey for 3 billion Euros by the EU states, those who had cried for the child Aylan just a few months ago.

The festival was also an opportunity to learn more about the state of film distribution in the country. A short Turkish documentary amusingly titled Only Blockbusters Left Alive: Monopolizing Film Distribution in Turkey explains that more than 50 percent of the market in the country is controlled by only one cinema chain: Mars Distribution, which has now started to control distribution and production as well as running cinemas. Despite uptrends in film production, local films are finding it harder and harder to get screenings in cinemas. We were reminded of the 1948 US lawsuit United States vs Paramount Pictures, in which antitrust laws were enforced to retain transparency in the film industry and maintain market competition. Today we are once again faced with such questions but perhaps on an even larger scale – with companies like Netflix largely taking over the internet. Will we see a turnaround, or simply the slow, painful death of independent productions?

This trend away from arthouse cinema was sadly reflected in the festival itself. Despite the quality of the selections, the presence of quality directors and central and pleasant venues in a city with a population of 14 million people, the turnout of viewers was shockingly low. Most screenings we attended had fewer than 10 spectators. Hopefully the circumstances will be right for a proliferation of attendees on a future occasion.

As for the selection: several of the films dealt with that choice between what is right and what is easy. In They Will Have to Kill Us First by Johanna Schwartz, about Malian musicians in exile in the wake of a jihadist ban on music, a female musician returns to Timbuktu despite the perilous nature of the trip to perform a concert in her village. Detained (Förvaret) by Anna Persson and Shaon Chakraborty is about a Swedish migrant detention centre and focuses on both the detainees and the detainers with a remarkably intelligent and unprejudiced eye.

Turkish film Attention (Hazir Ol!) by Onur Bakir and Panagiotis Charamis questions whether the protagonist should carry out military service or pay to avoid it. It is a critical look at the way young people are forced to react to the call of duty. The other Turkish film in the selection, Daddy’s Girl (Isän tyttö) by Melisa Uneri, deals with the father-and-daughter relationship in what is a funny and truthful documentary.

The main FIPRESCI prize was awarded to the Pakistani film A Walnut Tree (Ceviz Agaci) by Ammar Aziz. The film deals with the Taliban in Pakistan and the villagers who had to flee them. Rather like the festival itself, the film is of an iridescent beauty – colourful and intense but with a deeper civic message. Special praise should go to the cinematographer Danyal Rasheed.

Edited by Carmen Gray