The Art of Being Yourself

in 41st International Istanbul Film Festival

by Piotr Czerkawski

If we decide to look for a key to define this year’s Istanbul International Film Festival, it is worth recalling the awards ceremony. The closing gala was traditionally graced by the presence of the Turkish cinema’s elite. Among the guests there was also the chairman of the Main Competition jury, the award-winning Norwegian director Bent Hamer, and – quite unexpectedly – Gaspar Noe, who triumphed at the festival with Vortex and delivered a lapidary yet moving thanksgiving monologue on stage. The biggest star of the evening, however, turned out to be a ginger cat, who slipped into the building in a manner known only to him, and after the ceremony was over, he carelessly walked between the rows, posing for photos of delighted guests.

It was hard to resist feeling like the animal’s appearance was more than just a coincidence. After all, a few days earlier at the festival, we watched Zuhal – a film in which the mysterious cat’s meowing serves as a metaphorical voice calling the titular character to break out of her stagnation. Zuhal, a middle-aged woman in crisis, trying to stand up to her constantly absent partner, overbearing mother, and empathetic neighbors, wasn’t the only protagonist who needed this kind of awakening. The characters from almost all of the best films of this year’s National Competition were united by the desire to abandon routine, to ignore the pressure from others, and to find the courage to start following their own paths.

Enslaved by tradition, liberated by French porn

Interestingly, this goal was achieved mainly by women, for example Ela – one of the titular characters in Ziya Demirel’s film Ela and Hilmi with Ali (Ela ile Hilmi ve Ali). She is a reticent, slightly subdued girl with an intriguing look, who at first seems to be fully satisfied with keeping in the shadow of her husband. For Hilmi – a rigorous mathematics teacher and conservative who wants to make Ela a virtuous and docile life companion – this arrangement is almost like a dream come true. But as a painfully rational man, trying to create a model for a successful marriage, forgot to take into account the key factor: the emerging sexuality of his young wife. Ela, who accidentally finds in her house carefully hidden VHS tapes with French porn, releases herself thanks to them in the same way that protagonists of Yorgos Lanthimos’ memorable Dogtooth (Kynodontas, 2009) saved their lives watching Hollywood blockbusters. Later in the film, Demirel masterfully portrays the process by which Ela’s discovery of her own erotic potential changes the dynamics of the relationship between the protagonists. Unexpectedly, the young woman turns out to be a mature, self-aware individual, while her partner begins to demonstrate the mentality of a lost teenager.

The weakness of Turkish men, who become victims to the demands placed on them by the patriarchy, also came to the fore in Kerr.  The stylish film by Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, which looks a bit like The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą, 1973), but made by Roy Andersson, tells the story of a man returning to his hometown for his father’s funeral. Still at the train station, Can becomes an accidental witness to the murder, having no idea that this is just the beginning of the complications that will affect his whole life.

The art of being yourself

It quickly becomes clear that Can’s story is in fact a tale of a gradual degradation of an individual’s identity. There is no coincidence in that almost all the people who met on the way constantly compare Can to his deceased parent. The protagonist seems to be equally unremarkable in the eyes of the police officers who regularly question him about the crime at the station. Though Can certainly realizes that the investigation is taking on an increasingly arduous and grotesque dimension, he never once finds the strength to protest. Unfortunately, Can’s passivity, shared also by other people around him, has painful consequences. The local authorities, feeling a total lack of resistance, begin to introduce absurd restrictions, take control over the citizens and start treating the town as a prison impossible to get out of. It all sounds like a description of a nightmare, but scenes like from Kerr also take place in reality. One can be sure that for example Putin’s Russia is swarming with those towns turned into prisons filled with powerless conformists. Can we be sure that such places will not appear on the maps of our own countries in the near future?

Fortunately, not all films of this year’s National Competition carried as much bitterness as Kerr. Ali Kemal Guven’s A Night in Four Parts (Çilingir sofrası), while also taking up the theme of lack of courage, remains much more ambivalent. In the first scenes, the director allows us to surreptitiously observe the reunion of two former friends after years of separation. The men try to make up for lost time in an atmospheric restaurant, telling each other about their lives, tasting appetizers and raising raki toasts. Carefree chat, however, imperceptibly turns into a festival of mutual grievances, old regrets, and even into an ethical confrontation. During a long conversation it becomes apparent that Yusuf and Emir were former lovers and they refer to the heritage of their common past in a completely different way. While Yusuf mentions it without embarrassment, openly admitting his sexual orientation, the Emir at all costs tries not to succumb to temptations and fits into the model of a “Turkish man”. There is no doubt that after a brief meeting in a restaurant, the two men will go on to different paths in their respective lives. The one, where Yusuf also meets the aforementioned Zuhal and Ela, will be steep and bumpy, but will lead them to their destination. The second, seemingly easy, will surely lead Emir to a dead end.

Piort Czerkawski
Edited by Savina Petkova