Istanbul, Turkey, April 2023

in 42nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

The Pandemic left traces. Returning after a few years of absence to Istanbul and its festival, one enters familiar grounds. The tram still connects the Taksim square with the tunnel down to the sea, passing the festival center in Istiklal street. Everything is as always. At the same time, nothing is the same. Something has changed. A lot has changed, invisible, but noticeable. Let’s say it is the mental atmosphere. Maybe the depressing experience is still in the air, how quick one can become a victim of corona, even if masks are no longer used. Or, the shock of the earthquake disaster a few weeks ago in the East of Turkey, another experience that is still palpable, where many people had lost relatives or friends. It causes a kind of collective grief. As well, the presidential elections middle of May (2023) are a reason for a general uncertainty: the era Erdogan may or may not end (*). That’s enough reasons for the feeling of a general instability in the country, both mentally and economically (the Turkish lira is still in the nosedive).

To run the Istanbul Film Festival (in its 42nd edition) under such hard circumstances is courageous. Less films could be shown, less guests could be invited, less venues were available. After the Emek cinema had been closed down a few years ago, now the Beyoglu cinema —also located in the central Istiklal Street—wasn’t available. Cinemas in other parts of the city have been added, for example in Kadiköy (on the Asian side, in the new building of the Sinematek). Fest head Kerem Ayan and his team deserve respect for a lively atmosphere that they created and that made you forget the shortcomings (which did by the way not concern the indescribable Turkish hospitality).

The national competition of eleven new feature-length fiction films took place in the restored Atlas cinema, located also in the central Istiklal era. It’s a sort of home and meeting point for and about new Turkish cinema. Almost all screenings were sold out, no matter what time of the day. Turkish cinema-goers were always curious about their own cinema. For foreigners, it’s probably the most interesting program of the festival. Internationally, Turkish cinema is not badly positioned at the moment. Emin Alper was 2022 in Cannes (Burning Days, Kurak Günler 2022), Ayşe Polat was this year in Berlin (In the Blind Spot, Im toten Winkel), Nuri Bilge Ceylan will in a few weeks be in Cannes (About Dry Grasses, Kuru Otlar Üstüne). Not a bad record. For filmmakers, the national competition in Istanbul indicates the step before an international career. It showcases the movies of tomorrow.

It also indicates the themes that keep the country busy, in particular in these days and in this edition of 2023. How would screenwriters, filmmakers, intellectuals, how would debutants react to the situation in the country, in Istanbul? What could foreign visitors learn from recent Turkish films about Turkey?

An answer isn’t easy. At its core Turkish authors’ cinema has always been a realistic cinema, with a special openness for social conditions, in the countryside above all, and in the big cities. It is always a bit problematic to generalize the coincidental film selection of a festival, it seems, however, that the realistic tradition of Turkish cinema experienced a break this time. Films were set in a future Tokyo, talked about a software thriller in Istanbul, followed private stories. One could even get the impression that filmmakers fled from realistic views, not because other subjects or genres would have been more attractive, but because the reality—April 2023 in Istanbul—became too complex, difficult, and inexplicable to be mirrored in a movie.

There were of course exceptions. Among them Mirror Mirror (Ayna Ayna) by Belmin Söylemez, about the lost hopes of three young actresses in today’s Istanbul, shot with good actresses and with a good feeling for rhythm. Or Ayşe Polat’s In the Blind Spot – a film that repeatedly tries to get closer to a view of reality and does repeatedly fail. These failures are, however, the central message of the film.

Ayşe Polat, born 1970 in the Turkish city of Malatya, since the age of eight based in Germany, is of Kurdish origin. I imagine that she has been influenced by a major Kurdish-themed film in the history of Turkish cinema, A Season in Hakkari (Hakkari’de Bir Mevsim, Erden Kiral, 1983). In her previous films (En garde, or the documentary Ötekiler) she had already been affected by the Kurdish question. Her new film centers around it in such a deep way, that it would probably have been impossible to realize it in Turkey, In the Blind Spot is a German-Turkish coproduction.

In the Blind Spot introduces in the beginning a German documentary film project. A German film team comes to Turkey’s North-East, to shoot a film about a Kurdish woman who lives with the memory of her son who had disappeared (kidnapped) over 25 years ago. This story isn’t developed in a linear and continuous way. It is interrupted by and interwoven with two other stories: that of a woman, the translator of the film team, and of a man who works apparently as a secret agent and works, also apparently, for a criminal organization. The three stories are intricately linked and offer new perspectives on the same characters (among them a seven years old girl with a magic appearance that visually dominates the film).

It’s not an easy film. As it progresses, it gets richer in characters, stories, and events. Only, it gets also more confusing, more difficult to decipher. That’s no random narrative. It’s Ayşe Polat’s method to clarify that it’s not her film which is confusing. It’s the reality on which it refers. Ayşe Polat reinforces this aspect by switching styles and genres. In the Blind Spot is a family drama, a political and gangster thriller, a mystery movie, a travel into memory and fantasy.

On the way to the Kurdish village, on a remote street, the windshield of the car shatters with a loud bang, as if a stone had hit the glass. Only, there’s no stone. There’s a spider-like pattern, but there’s no reason that could have caused it. It’s a metaphor for Ayşe Polat’s film: there’s action, there are, however, no explanations.

This causes the feeling of a general uncertainty, in Turkey, April 2023.

Klaus Eder
(*) Written at the end of the Istanbul Film Festival, April 20, 2023.
Edited by Savina Petkova