Istanbul – Myth and Reality: The City in Films

in 30th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

In 2010, Istanbul was appointed Europe’s “Capital of Culture”. In the framework of this initiative, a few film projects were supported, among them a documentary on Istanbul by Erden Kiral, Halic Golden Horn (Halic Altin Boynuz).

Turkish director Erden Kiral became known in 1983 with his film A Season in Hakkari (Hakkari’de Bir Mevsim), about a teacher sent to a remote village. For many years, he has lived and worked in Istanbul and his documentary is a declaration of admiration and love for the city. His camera follows life in the area around the Golden Horn for one day, from early morning to deep night. He sees everyday life, registers the variety of languages, cultures and religions, and visits the historic sites of the place. It is as if he goes on a voyage of discovery into his own city. He enthusiastically feeds the classic myth of Istanbul as entrance to the Orient — the city’s beauty, its rich past and presence as melting pot of cultures, its extraordinary vividness.

He knows a lot about Istanbul. He knows more than images can tell. So he adds a commentary, which sometimes has a poetical-lyrical tone and sometimes sounds like a lesson in history, and which is difficult to follow (in particular if you depend on the short versions of subtitles). This excessive commentary unbalances the film which none the less draws a dedicated portrait of Istanbul.

“Turkish Classics Revisited”: in this commendable section the festival presented Three Friends (Üc Arkadas) by Memduh Ün (born 1920). Memduh Ün was a protagonist of Turkish popular cinema of the 60s and 70s (“Yesilcam”). Three Friends is an early film, successfully released in 1958.

It tells about three friends: a street photographer, a shoeshine boy and a “fortune seller” whose doves bring good news to the customers. One day, the three friends meet a blind girl. They take her to a dilapidated house where they made themselves at home. There they vie with one another to help her and to win her attention. They transform the decaying rooms into the illusion of a wonderful palace. They promise her to find the money that she needs for surgery on her eyes. Finally, two of the friends steal that money, turn themselves over to the police, and spend the next years in prison while the girl regains her eyesight after surgery and becomes a successful singer. In the last part, the friends search for her desperately (in particular Murat, the “fortune seller” who fell in love with her), while she searches desperately for them (in particular Murat with whom she fell in love). Happy End.

It is a simple story. It is even an astonishingly simple story. Memduh Ün mastered the art of simplicity. That this wasn’t improvized or chance but the result of a hard groundwork, reveals a view on the list of scriptwriters. Among them were Metin Erksan and Atif Yilmaz; both became later known for their contribution to an artistic Turkish authors’ cinema (Metin Erksan’s Reflections/Dry Summer/Susuz Yaz won six years later, in 1964, the Berlin Golden Bear). Let’s assume that they knew City Lights (1931); Three Friends is obviously influenced by Chaplin’s film, in particular regarding the image of the blind girl. They understood very well that a beautiful blind girl and her hopes to one day regain her sight are elements of popular melodrama and keep the public’s curiosity alive; so to does the question of whether the two lovers will get together at the end. It is to Memduh Ün’s credit that he uses these elements for the benfit of the Turkish popular genre movie of the times. He balanced on a sharp ridge and could auccessfully avoid the kitsch of sentimentality. None the less his film favors a lot of genre elements, including the emotional use of music.

There’s however another aspect. The three friends are ordinary people who share their dreams and hopes for a better life with the ordinary public of those times. Same time, they are very credible — characters as you could meet in the streets of Istanbul of the late 50s. This has an autobiographical background. Memduh Ün grew up in Istanbul. He knew the places he described. He knew the shoeshine boys and fortune tellers and all those poor ones who tried to make their living by selling what ever on the streets. Three Friends looks as being influenced by Italian Neorealism. From a today’s point of view the film looks even as a documentary on Istanbul. It is photographed in a beautiful nostalgic black and white. One recognizes the historic sites; one also sees the lifes and streets and places of ordinary people, of Memduh Ün’s “heros”. Istanbul is portrayed in an atmosphere of familiarity and expresses Memduh Ün’s own familiarity with the places of his childhood and youth. This aura makes Istanbul the film’s real protagonist. It’s an Istanbul of ordinary and poor people. Social circumstances are noticeably embedded, not only in the warm way in which the film looks at the three friends and the blind girl, but also in the cool and uninterested way it looks at the few rich people who are necessary for the plot.

Three Friends has all elements of a popular genre film. And it has all elements of a personal film expressing the author’s own experience of, and view on his world. Consequently, an attempt at a remake in 1971 failed.

At the end of the 1950s, Istanbul was still a habitable city. The Bosphorus Bridge had not yet been built; to change to the city’s Asian part you had to take a ferry. Life was much slower.

For the first time the Istanbul Film Festival included a documentary in its national competition: Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits (Ekümenopolis: Ucu Olmayan Sehir), the first film by Imre Azem (born in 1975, he graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, USA, with a degree in Political Science).

Ecumenopolis is a film that shows Istanbul as a city that is no longer habitable. Imre Azan does not follow, or believe in any Istanbul myth. With an almost scientific coolness and distance he unfolds the screwed-up development plans which destroyed the city’s urban face and led it into a veritable chaos (as the interviewed scientists say). The film starts with the socalled “gece kondu” (you get the ground when you manage to built overnight a house on it – imagine the following social and hygienic poverty), and continues to the unrestrained building speculations of today where high-rise buildings and shopping malls promise quick profits. This unhesitating politics went at the expense of the poor — they were thrown out of their homes with promises of resettlement but remained homeless.

Imre Azem’s message is clear. It’s even clear from the first images and dialogues. In a laborious task, he procures more and more material to support his main point of view of a cynical destruction of the city. You agree with him, or you don’t: it’s that kind of movie. Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits is a film with which a TV station like Arte could carry an evening on the misdemeanour of contemporary urban politics.

You can see the different and diverse images of Istanbul drawn by Erden Kiral, Memduh Ün, and Imre Azem, but nonetheless, Istanbul stays an inexplicable phenomenon and mystery.