New Cinema From the Black Sea

in 19th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Murat Ersahin

I was recently at Cottbus, considered to be one of the foremost centres of Eastern European cinema. The Cottbus Film Festival, held for the 19th time this year took place between 10 & 15 November. One of the most important or even the central theme of the festival was FOCUS “New Cinema From the Black Sea”. The problems, sorrows and hopes of a turbulent geography were reflected on the screen through these select films. The most interesting point for me was that four of the 19 films selected for this prestigious section of the festival was from Turkey. Yesim Ustaoglu’s 39 minute short film Sirtlarindaki Hayat (Life on Their Shoulders) and Ruya Arzu Köksal’s subtle documentary Son Kumsal (The Shore) making its German premiere, was followed by two feature films: Özcan Alper’s first feature Sonbahar (Autumn) which in my opinion was a humble masterpiece, was followed by director duo Mehmet Bahadir Er and Maryna Gorbach’s first feature film (Kara Köpekler Havlarken (Black Dogs Barking)… I would like to share my opinions about these two fiction feature films.

Autumn made me reminisce on the poems of famous Turkish poets, Nazim Hikmet, Ahmed Arif, and Can Yucel. The accompanying sentimental voice of Ruhi Su added depth. What I saw on the white screen was a resilient, smiling film regardless of the uncompromising and utterly real darkness it portrayed. On the one hand it bellowed out “life is not a joke” whilst on the other it stressed the importance of “keeping the gem, that is your heart shimmering bright”. It wore a long, melancholic overcoat… Autumn is a great film. It’s tremendously mature, soulful and true for a first film.

The story has very cleverly been injected with the woes that have been lived and continue to be lived in this country without causing any agitation to society’s wounds. It penetrates the soul. It’s humane. The story revolves around Yusuf, an inmate having to spend his years on and off hunger strikes inside high security prisons. Yusuf, who, along with his elderly mother, looks onto the transition of seasons from autumn to winter after returning home situated in a mountain village near the north eastern Turkish town of Artvin after being released. During his ten long years “inside” his father had passed away, his elder sister immigrated to the big city and his poor lonely mother was now even unable to drink that cup of tea she so much enjoyed. Finding joy in life once again by being with a Georgian girl, forced to live away from home, making a living off prostitution, Yusuf lives a perfect autumn with stunning images of nature in the backdrop. The atrocities, loneliness, injustice and impossibilities encompassing his life in essence suggest that the whole world is no different than a high security prison. The film, heavily influenced by revolutionary ideology, ends in lament. A lament that is painful but humane; a lament that remains hopeful of beauty and the future…

Watching Black Dogs Barking I got the impression that I was being shown a sequel to Aydin Bulut’s Baska Semtin Çocuklari (Kids From Another Neighbourhood) screened in cinemas last year. It’s the same story but incomplete and less convincing. Once again we see doves, birdmen, life in the slums, celebrations of young men sent for their military service and guns. The step up from backstreets to glittering boulevards, escape from the neighbourhood…The story of two friends, Selim and Çaça who long to escape their grim lives but somehow get stuck in deeper and become the victims of a devouring system. All these events came to life on the screen in a non-innovative way failing to fully benefit from the opportunities presented by classical narration and form. Neither the atmosphere and story were realistic, nor was it close to being conclusive and natural. In this context it isn’t surprising that we cannot mention the magic of cinema…

I must stress that, in my film critic identity, I feel very proud to have had the opportunity to witness this special selection from Cottbus and watching films from my own country in the theatres of this elegant city.

Edited by Tara Judah