Glimpses from an Activist Film Festival

in 7th Istanbul Documentarist

by Özge Özdüzen

Documentarist showcases many documentaries from all around the world and, like any other year, this year’s festival was marked by an abundance of documentaries, glimpsing many social, cultural and political stories by making use of many different styles. It especially operates as a forum for Middle Eastern documentary traditions. As an indication of this, this year’s festival included many sections devoted to political issues such as the war in Syria and the Soma mining massacre in Turkey last month. The Johan van der Keuken (JvdK) New Talent Award went to a documentary on the Gezi movement last year, entitled Love Will Change Us All (Yeryüzü Askin Yüzü Oluncaya Dek). Directed by Reyan Tuvi, the documentary includes many archive footage from last year’s Gezi movement, different perspectives on the incidents, such as the anti-capitalist Muslims or relatives of people who were killed by the Turkish state during the demonstrations. As the festival itself moved its screenings to Gezi Park last year, this year’s award was very relevant and the film festival’s being so tied with activist politics in Turkey was once again obvious.

The Fipresci selection, which was the first Fipresci selection in the festival’s history, consisted of nine films from Turkey, Uruguay, Syria, Chile and India and co-productions from France-Switzerland, Germany-Romania and Mexico-Portugal-Spain. From this very multicultural selection, the Fipresci award went to Güliz Saglam’s A Dream School in the Steppes (Tepecik Hayal Okulu), which is a very stylistic documentary from Turkey, focusing on the Turkish filmmaker Ahmet Uluçay’s life story, whom we lost in 2009. The film not only shows footage from his late life in the hospital, but also interviews with the people he cooperated with, scenes from his films, stills from his house in the village and the filming locations. Another highlight of the Fipresci selection was one of the Syrian films which was showcased in the program namely Immortal Sergeant by Ziad Kalthaum. The Q&A after the screening was full of curiosity and many questions related to both the film and even more on what has been happening in Syria. There were many questions regarding how the director was able to make the film as it is nearly impossible to do almost anything in the war zone in Syria. For the most important part, the director uses another film’s set in order to complete his own documentary.

Even though there was not a special section devoted to Kurdish cinema, there were many films using different perspectives and styles in order to depict the multi-layered history of Kurdish people in Turkey, in other regions of Middle East and many other Kurdish populations in diaspora. Over the past years, Kurdish films in Turkey usually focused on the problem of not being able to use their own languages, not being able to live peacefully in their own villages and regions due to the repression and violence of the Turkish state. Two films from the FIPRESCI selection, including The Beekeeper and Once Upon a Time (He bû Tune bû) narrate the remnants from the war in Kurdistan and the problems Kurdish people face today. The Beekeeper follows Ibrahim Gezer, who is a beekeeper originating from South East Turkey. Later in his life, due to being a Kurd in Turkey, Gezer had to claim political asylum in Switzerland. Showing us many layers of Gezer’s story, the documentary displays his passion for keeping bees in the face of beekeeping’s consideration as a ‘hobby’ by the Swiss state. In this regard, the film also follows his journey to survive Turkish and Swiss bureaucracies on the way to his retirement. Showing the transformations in his life from the news about his guerilla son to his retirement, from his friendships to his relations and engagement with his land of origin; the Kurdistan in Turkey, the development of Gezer’s character in the film as a Kurdish man in diaspora was very powerful and engaging. By making use of a different aesthetics and style, Kazim Öz’s film Once Upon a Time shows Kurdish people as modern slaves of Turkey. The director turns his camera to the seasonal farm workers from Batman, who go to somewhere in nearby Ankara, in order to grow lettuces and harvest them. The director’s relationship with the workers and his immersion in the setting made the film a special one, in addition to showing how Kurdish workers are exploited and left without any rights and surely options by the owners of these farms and of course by Turkish state.

Other than providing its audiences with alternative films, it gives them a chance to experience a different moviegoing experience, as nowadays the independent movie theaters in Istanbul are being demolished and the new ones are mostly in shopping centers. Documentarist presented a variety of filmgoing experiences, in different types of movie theaters such as a movie theater in a museum called Salt Beyoglu. The screenings in this movie theater were also free to all and it also does not have any external door, which adds to its promise of an alternative aura and moviegoing experience. You can directly walk to this room from the museum, which facilitates an easy flow of people going in and out and passionate and crowded Q&A’s. Additionally, the most remarkable moviegoing experience during Documentarist was the screenings taking place in the beautiful garden of the Netherlands Consulate General in Istanbul, which is full of trees and sounds of birds. It reminded me of my childhood experience of open-air cinemas, when their number was of abundance in Turkey.

The range of documentaries and filmgoing experience in Documentarist are obviously not limited to the documentaries I mentioned in this review, as there were many great documentaries and moviegoing experiences in the festival’s program. Documentarist witnesses and participates in the current activist atmosphere in Turkey, has created a new audience of its own and has been supporting the production, circulation and distribution of great national and international documentaries in Turkey for seven years now.

Edited by Steven Yates