Features from Turkey

in 16th Flying Broom International Women's Film Festival

by Magali Van Reeth

At the 16th Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival, the good news was that the Turkish selection included five feature-length films. All from women directors, all from different backgrounds. The second good surprise was that all the films selected dealt with contemporary issues, while in the international selection six of the 12 films were set in the past (between 1945 and 1992). In Turkey, there seems to be no need to set a story in the past to tackle a delicate situation. And such situations are still numerous: unwanted pregnancy, unemployment, political activism, social pressure, religious intolerance. And of course Turkish women, like everywhere in the world, fall in love, dream of a better life and have trouble walking on the wild side…

If the first feature film of Elfe Uluç is disappointing, knowing that she has been working with Leos Carax, Roman Polanski and Yavuz Ozkan, Saint Ayse (Aziz Ayse) nonetheless tackles the highly sensitive subject of homosexuality and transgender identity. A young journalist follows Ayse, who has a woman’s mind inside a man’s body, likes to dress in strong colors and lives on what she collects out of the garbage. This is a very nice and provocative character, played by the real Ayse, who has a lot of moving and strong statements about her peculiar way of life. But the storytelling is weakened by the sentimental problems of the journalist and a total lack of framing.

Another first feature is The Stranger (Yabanci) by Filiz Alpegezmen, a strongly negative portrait of contemporary Turkish society, as seen by Ozgür. This young woman, in her 30’s, has always lived in France, as her parents were political activists in the 80’s and were forced to leave their motherland. Upon the death of her father, Ozgür finds a letter saying he wants to be buried “at home”. What she finds in Turkey, despite administrative harassment, are families that have either almost forgotten their forebears or have adopted a very conservative and strongly religious way of life. A country where a man can be killed for a bottle of alcohol and where only a half-mad grandmother remembers the past… With classical storytelling, Filiz Alpegezmen makes an effective film, with some gripping scenes where time lingers between two different worlds and two many different expectations.

By a curious coincidence, two films dealt with unwanted pregnancy. Somewhere in Between (Araf) by Yesim Ustaoglu has been quite a success in Turkey. A very impressive film, it is set in a highway rest area near a small village, in wintry grey and cold surroundings. Like all 17-year-old girls, Zhera dreams of a better life, a real love story. Without any hint of romanticism, the seducer will arrive driving a huge red lorry, with sad eyes and gentle manners, and will leave as quietly as he has approached her. Yesim Ustaoglu uses very subtle production values to tell this love affair, with almost no dialogue and two great actors, the young Neslihan Atagul and the well-known Ozcan Deniz. But the second part of the film, after the clumsy scene of the childbirth in the toilets, doesn’t satisfy the expectations set up in the beginning. We seem to be in a quite different film, where the harshness of the mise-en-scene gives way to a more ordinary plot in which the main character has to be rescued.

The second film featuring an unwanted pregnancy is Watchtower (Gozetlme Kulesi) by established director Pelin Esmer. Here also, the setting is quite unusual, in the Tosya district, where the forest is deep, the mountains high and the weather cold. Nihat, mourning a recent loss, takes a job as a forest guard and lives in a watchtower, alone in the wilderness of a faraway place. At the nearest crossroad, Seher is hiding from her parents and neighbors in a small restaurant. Having been raped by her uncle, she wants to get rid of the baby and go on with her studies. But those two lonely characters will have to deal with their fate and their guilts. In this very well-made film the forest is quite a character by itself, while the tower is the dwelling place of the One who sees what one wants to hide…

The last film in this selection has no drama, no unusual settings, and bravely deals with the ordinary life of this time. Present Tense (Simdiki Zaman) is Belmin Soylemez’s feature-length debut. Her main character, Mina, lives in Istanbul and has no money, no job and illegally lives in an apartment that has to be demolished. It’s a metaphor for a country under construction, where work is always in progress. It’s a film with a hint of fantasy which is most welcome, for Mina finds a job in a cafe as a fortune teller, looking at the thick and poetic traces that linger in the cups of the popular Turkish coffee. Slowly, as she describes to her delighted clientele what she sees in the coffee grounds, we realize that she is expressing aloud her own fears and dreams. This impressive film made gripping a simple portrait of a simple woman, in our present tense.

Why is the present tense, in women’s issues, so important? The answer is to be found in the tribute made by the Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival to Mai Zetterling, a Swedish actress and director (1925 – 1994). Four of the films of this “witch from the North” were screened: Loving Couples (Alskande) from 1964, Night Games (Nattlek) from 1966, The Girls (Flickorna) from 1968, and Amorosa from 1986. They showed her intense creativity, her commitment to feminism, her daring way of storytelling and her talent in filmmaking. And, as a legacy to all women directors, she said in 1985: “It’s important to make films about rape but we can’t keep on making films about pregnancy and rape. We have to widen the field of our interests, to be fully conscious of ourselves, our own merit, our own intelligence.”

Edited by Carmen Gray