Postcards from the Edge Films on Migrant Workers, Immigrants and Refugees

in 33rd Istanbul International Film Festival

by Heike-Melba Fendel

Being a first time visitor to a foreign place is immediately linked to a sense of shame for not having known; not having known that tulips had long been the national flower of Turkey way before “our” Dutch neighbors had become their main exporters. So not only are golden tulips being awarded at the closing ceremony but tulips in full bloom and color cover almost every patch of grass in any park during these April days in Istanbul. Sitting on a bench in these parks, you are bound to be approached by beggars who, when you reluctantly shake your head, start saying “Syria, Syria”.

It wasn’t until the Syrian poet and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh described in a discussion on Syrian Refugees that over one million Syrian refugees in Turkey face the time span of three to ten years before returning to a country that will no longer be suffering from “cultural poverty” as they have for the past seven years where any form of cultural expression of any medium has been completely abolished and, it isn’t until after a discussion providing two hours of insight into the camps and minds of the refugees, that you begin to see the true narrative behind the alleged nuisance. Upon watching the opening film in the national competition, Consequences (Silsile) while admiring the elegance of its cinematography, the impeccable yet effortless quality of acting and well-constructed plot of this urban guilt-thriller, the German critic realizes — again with a sting of shame — how little we know about contemporary Turkish cinema set aside from the low esteemed German box office success Valley of Wolfs – Iraq (Kurtlar Vadisi — Irak).

The slick Istanbul-Noir Consequences (awarded the Golden Tulip for Best Cinematography) had a comedic sibling in Let’s sin (Itirazim Var), the story of an imam (position of Islamic leadership) unwillingly unveiling a murder mystery. Equally well produced and acted (and awarded the Golden Tulip for Best Actor as well as Best Director), enriched by a subtext of soft subversion these two films were easily the two most audience friendly in their attempt and achievement to entertain rather than cause the audience pain.

However, to confirm Jane Fonda’s vintage aerobic motto “No pain, no gain”, four films in the national competition — all of them tackling the subject of discrimination, alienation and oppression — were at times or on the whole not easy to watch, let alone find entertaining, yet they were insightful and of lasting impact, despite the fact that — like almost all films in the national competition — they would have benefitted from a more determined editing of both story and image.

Come to my voice (Were Dengê’ Min) tells the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter uniting in an absurd attempt to save son and father from imprisonment by providing a gun that he is accused of having, but never had. Turkish authorities play hardball with Kurdish villagers and the women are the left to work things out. So they go on a long, often lonely and strenuous journey for a weapon that will do no one any good. To keep her grandchild’s spirit up, the grandmother keeps narrating a story about a fox that has lost its tail. This narrative is blended within the film’s own narration as well as that of the so called dengbejs; blind, professional storytellers from east Anatolia who help the exhausted women find their way back home to a scarce but beautiful landscape. Visionary blind people, a sweet girl and a wise grandmother embedded in a metaphorical tale, that could have ended up being a cheesy folkloristic mess is actually a quiet study in dignity and the persistence of people being pushed to the outside. Come to my voice cherishes storytelling as a means to survive as well as to move on.

Literally the darkest film in the National Competition was Melissa Önel’s Seaburners (Kumun Tadi). An ambient sound carpet moves over images of the black sea, where dark bodies are washed up on black sand for the setting of atmosphere. This grim world of a hostile sea, dark forests and scarcely furnished huts is inhabited by a handful of lost souls who wound up being human traffickers while dreaming of a better life for themselves and the people they are taking into an uncertain future. Hamit loves Denise, a Canadian botanist played by the Croatian diva Mila Furlan. When she is about to leave him Hamit, and his grim world fall apart, refugees get stuck and are humiliated by the people they thought were their saviors. Disaster is as predictable and evident in a world of silence and bitterness, that none of the protagonists would have chosen to live in, had there been a choice to begin with. This bleak study in fatality is intense and austere.

Kazim Öz’s FIPRESCI Award winning Once upon a Time (Bir Varmis Bir Yokmus) is — for full contrast — lit in the bright sunlight of endless fields where Kurdish families kneel to plant, water and harvest lettuce for months. Öz’s documentary begins and ends in a supermarket where lettuce is a product among a thousand others; something one can buy for money. Money is what makes a large Kurdish family take the train to somewhere near Ankara, settle in unfurnished tents, and work day-in and day-out, supervised by headworkers and the landowner who himself is shown as a man who makes, meets and declares that, at 44, he’s never cared about love and would not know what the fuss is all about. The ‘fuss’ he is referring to is that a young girl and boy have fled work and their families to pursue their love. However, the only thing that would make this love possible is a large enough dowry for the bride. All emotions and all decency end when it comes to the crucial question of who pays and how much.

Kenan Korkmaz is the most auteurist of all the filmmakers in competition. For his film Gone ‘The Other and the Unknown’ (Gittiler ‘Sair Ve Mechul’) the Kurdish director also served as cinematographer, writer and editor. His film consists of two separately told stories about two Syriac brothers, one staying on in their home village Aynvert to care for his ailing father, despite everybody around him leaving and despite the bitterness it sets upon he and his wife. His only link to the long gone brother is a postcard from Stockholm, where he has been living for many years. The amateur actors speak their native Syriac language which adds to the overall documentary feel of the first part. When Korkmaz moves to Stockholm for the second half of the film he manages to portray the European metropolis as a dark and lonely place, deprived of color and liveliness, like the life of his migrant brother. Opposed to what his relatives in the village might dream up, he leads a sad and lonely life, detesting the smell of fish that he and all his clothes are drenched in after each long, monotonous day taking out fishbones from an endless sea of salmon, together with a handful of colleagues. Losing his one friend to a racist attack, the lonely immigrant even fails attempted suicide. Just like his brother, he holds onto a postcard of what had once been home and, where his brother eventually burnt his, he now tears his own to pieces in another attempt to finish with hope and sentimentality. Korkmaz concludes his most unsentimental film with the possibility of a new home and love; something the alienated worker might find with the young widow of his murdered friend. However, this much we do know, the sense of guilt and loss will never let go of this immigrant whose life is doomed ever since leaving what was not meant to stay his home.

And the German critic who had never before heard of Syriacs, let alone heard their language, has made yet another encounter with the versatility, richness and sadness of a people she had known too little or even nothing about, by means of the story, that filmmakers are both willing and able to tell and film festivals are able to select and show.

Edited by Tara Judah