A Turkish Political Dystopia

in 39th International Istanbul Film Festival

by Bojidar Manov

The Turkish national program at the 39th Istanbul International Film Festival offered 11 new feature films. It is noteworthy that among the authors were absent the names of some of the most famous directors, such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Yesim Ustaoglu, Semih Kaplanoglu, Dervis Zaim, Kutlug Ataman, Reha Erdem etc. Of the more experienced, only Ümit Ünal was present with Love, Spells and All That (Ask, Buyu vs., 2019). On the other hand, some younger directors demonstrated their search for a cinematic look at various topics. The selection included many film debuts: Going Blind (Korlesme, 2020) by Haci Orman, Breath (Soluk, 2019) by Ozkan Yilmaz, The Poet (Şair, 2020) by Mehmet Emin Yildirim, Plaza (2020) by Anil Gelberi, The Antenna (Bina, 2019) by Orcun Behram, Silenced Tree (Ceviz Agaci, 2020) by Faysal Soysal, Faraway Land (Uzak Ülke, 2020) by Erkan Yazici, Leyla Yilmaz’s second film Not Knowing (Bilmemek, 2019) and You Know Him (Nasipse Adayyiz, 2020) by Ercan Kesal (a late directorial debut of the famous actor).

Among this mosaic of titles of unequal thematic significance, depth of ideas and professional qualities, my favourite film turned out to be one of the debuts – The Antenna  by screenwriter and director Orcun Behram. He boldly (by promoting both active citizenship and an art form) decided to make a dystopia about the undemocratic practices in a provisionally totalitarian society, where the government installs new networks throughout the country to monitor information. In an impersonal panel block of a huge grey neighbourhood, the main character – the building’s superintendent – will have to confront the evil entity behind the inexplicable transmissions that threaten the residents, after the installation of the new antenna. The daily broadcast The Midnight Bulletin reflects the oppressed society, where freedom of speech is in jeopardy. The narrative metaphor clearly highlights the conceptual thesis of the film, and the chosen narrative structure and visual stylistics unequivocally present the author’s message to the audience. All components of the screen story work in this same direction: the stylised image, the editing rhythm, a certain conventionality in the acting, frugal dialogue, acute phonogram and disturbing sound accents.

The Antenna cannot help but evoke associations with some classic examples of modern political dystopia. The very first episodes of the film immediately remind us of the masterpiece of the genre – George Orwell’s novel 1984 and its film adaptation by director Michael Radford, created in 1984. But let’s note: Orwell finished his novel in 1948, sending the plot 36 years ahead in time. While Orcun Behram places the screen story at an unspecified but unambiguous present time, with possible associations for the last years’ events. There is no way for the film not to be placed in such a public context. In Orwell’s novel, Big Brother watches closely. In Behran’s film, the anonymous announcer from The Midnight Bulletin repeats coldly and menacingly: “Differences in opinion will not be tolerated. Insufficiencies are rapidly remedied. Citizens spotted outside after midnight will be taken into custody by the Court of Commitment.”  A more legible and even intrusive author’s message is hardly necessary.

P.S. The Istanbul festival was to take place, as always, in April 2020. However, the coronavirus drove it away from the cosy cinema theatres in Beyoglu and its July 18-28 online version put me at home in front of my computer monitor. Thanks to the very good technological preparation by the organizers, my home film sessions went smoothly. But after turning off the monitor, only a pale reflection of my own face remained thereon! And I missed the collective empathy of the film in the dark cinema hall; I missed the live meetings with colleagues from the jury, the press conferences with the authors of the films, the interesting conversations with friends and journalists from other countries, the long evenings in restaurants around the iconic Istiklal Caddesi Street. The festival holiday (from the Latin fеstum) cannot happen in front of the home monitor; it is impossible to take place in the sterile solitude of the personal study. Alas, the pandemic proved to be stronger than the desires and needs of the spirit. May it remain forgotten in the missed months of isolation in 2020 and not darken the coming months and seasons of the World Cinema.

Bojidar Manov
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Yael Shuv