Understanding of Turkey

in 41st International Istanbul Film Festival

by Sona Karapoghosyan

Accompanied by Bosporus wind and drastically changing weather, Istanbul welcomed its international guests for the 41st edition of the city’s main film festival. With a programme consisting of a wide range of films from every corner of the world, the festival not only offered a selection of films which already premiered in Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, but also created a space for local filmmakers by showcasing them in national Short, Documentary and Feature film competitions. My jury colleagues and I were invited to watch films from the National Short and Feature competitions. For some reason, documentaries were missing out on our official jury attention, even though several short documentaries were presented in the first program. Thus, through watching 24 Turkish films in a row (12 shorts and 12 features), we ended up forming a better understanding of a country as complicated as Turkey, that has become the center of peaceful co-existence between Islam and secularism, where the call of the azan is accompanied by laughter of extra-modern-looking young Turks.

One of the main topics of interest, judging from its appearance in the biggest number of the films, is the status of women, their everyday challenges as well as the expectations imposed on them by their society. The short film The Night Generation (Gece Kuşaği) explores the mental and physical abuse towards women who walk alone at night in Istanbul. Lakeshore (Göl Kenari), which won the FIPRESCI prize for the best short film, tells the story of a young woman lost in a mix of emotions, relationships, gender roles, culture and traditions. Questions about beauty standards and age are the main topic of Plastic Dream (Plasti̇k Rüya), a short film about a woman to whom it is aggressively recommended to go through a Botox procedure. All these themes were interwoven in a light but at the same time smart way in the comedy Zuhal. It tells the story of Zuhal, a young and successful lawyer who has to fight very hard to prove to everyone that she is right  about the presence of the cat in their residential building. In contrast to Zuhal’s eventual success, Claire, the main character of Yaban, fails to achieve her goals. The claustrophobic and dark drama depicts the desperate escape of a divorced woman who has lost the custody of her daughter to her husband. Tell Me About Your Darkness (Bana Karanliğini Anlat), another dark comedy about the expected role of a woman in Turkish society, builds a path to emancipation for the main character, who “luckily” loses her husband and manages to get rid of his demanding family. Interestingly, one of the shorts, Stiletto, A Pink Family Tragedy, depicts the opposite side and discusses the dimensions of being “the man” of the family. A little overacted and somewhat implausible, the film tries to open the audience’s eyes to the problems that patriarchy can cause for man. The fragmented and black and white short film Larva recreates through the images of random objects a horrible story of a child abuse that happened in Turkey several years ago. Family matters are also the base of other films in the programs, such as The Day My Father Died (Babamin öldüğü Gün), Spotless (Lekesiz) or Four Walls.  The winner of the FIPRESCI prize for the best feature film, Ela and Himli With Ali at first sight also seems to tell the story of a family, but beneath, Ziya Demirel’s first feature explores the lost dreams, fears and traumas its main characters that were artificially united in a “family”.

The festival’s programmers also provided some space for the minority cinema, i.e. Kurdish cinema. Before The Night (Beriya şevê), disturbing, slow, and full of unrelated conversations and obscure noises, tries to convey the terror that people in Eastern Turkey have experienced in the recent years. A different message is conveyed in the case of Image Caption, a short documentary set in Diyarbakir in Eastern Turkey – a city mostly populated by Kurds to observe the uncalm city with serene calmness. Sexual minority issues on the other hand were presented only in one fiction film, namely Night In Four Parts (Çi̇li̇ngi̇r sofrasi), an honest drama that explores the complications of being in love with a person who is not ready to enter relationship, as well as afraid to face their own wishes. Unfortunately, the film is almost ruined through an editing style that somewhat turns it into a conventional music video. Also, very controversial feelings were caused by two other Turkish films in competition, Together We Shall Die (Bi̇rli̇kte öleceği̇z) and The Resistance (Mukavemet), with a bit overblown acting of the leading actresses was unfortunately not the only flaw of these films.

Not all films were set in Turkey or at least thematically connected to it. Klondike for example, a Ukrainian drama co-produced by Turkey, tells the brutal story of a family stuck in a village between Russia and Ukraine during the Russian invasion of 2014. Another, such as the 8-minute animation about two Steves (Steve & Steve), was concerned with dull American office routines and the corporate loss of identity – a subject that may of course apply to any country. Last but not least, and my personal favorite of the program: Kerr is a witty, dark and absurd comedy in the style of Aki Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson, set in Turkey or perhaps somewhere completely different, that tells the story of a man stuck in a place and situation, chased my mythical dogs and “good-willing” people.

Sona Karapoghosyan
Edited by Savina Petkova