Pressures of the Present, Trappings of the Past

in 36th International Istanbul Film Festival

by Abbas Bozkurt

There were plenty of films from debut directors which dealt with the scars and traumas of Turkey’s past and how they affect people in the present. Abbas Bozkurt guides us through some, extrapolating their qualities but also their indifferences.

The 36th edition of the Istanbul Film Festival was very vivid compared to the last two years, in which the main area of the festival was constantly threatened by suicide bombings, turning the everyday life of Istanbul-ites into a nightmare. This year, the main theaters of the festival were full, the audience was very young and hungry for immersing themselves into something that will help them overcome the immense pressure of the political turmoil that continues to escalate.

Many films in the National Golden Tulip Competition reflect this bleak political climate of Turkey. The festival ended just a day before a major election that will be decisive in the future of the country. Heading into a totalitarian regime is the most relevant topic for many young intellectuals who have spent half of their lives trying to cope with major paradigm shifts in their country. The effects of such drastic political changes were evident in almost every first feature in the national competition.

Ceylan Özgün Özçelik’s first feature Inflame (Kaygi) is a direct confrontation with the impact of the authoritative, undemocratic governmental practices. Inflame is a stylistically well-built dystopia (sometimes reminiscent of the sound-heavy atmosphere of Emin Alper’s Frenzy (Abluka) that tries to connect traumas of the present with the traumas of the past. A young woman who works for a pro-government TV station gets afflicted with something that she cannot express. She seems to recollect something, but is not sure what happened exactly since everyone else seems to ignore what really happens in this country. Inflame, at its core, is a film that calls for the inevitability of confrontation with past massacres in order to deal with the new traumas.

Another first feature, Blue Silence (Mavi Sessizlik) was awarded with the Special Jury Prize and Best Script Prize. Director Bülent Öztürk dedicated the movie to the memory of his father, who was most probably one of thousands who disappeared in the southeastern part of Turkey where the Kurdish unrest has been a major issue since the 80’s. Blue Silence tells a bleak story through the eyes of a Jitem member –a notorious paramilitary force that is trained for silencing the Kurdish opposition– who has a post-traumatic stress disorder. As a hitman, he is a mediator in the systematic oppression and violence against Kurds. And his position between oppressor and oppressed makes him an interesting character. However, Bülent Öztürk’s stylistic loyalty to “tightlipped”, refined minimalistic conventions hinders him from exploring new areas that such a character can lead to.

Another film with an uncompromising dark tone was Orhan Eskiköy’s The Stone (Tas). Although the film never mentions any specific region or ethnicity, the allegorical story reminds us a Kurdish town that has seen many tragedies. Trying to be something like a Kafkaesque parable, but failing to do so, and turning every character into an abstracted entity, The Stone gives a very outdated feeling, with nothing new to tell.

Kazim Öz’s Zer which is yet another example that calls for the need of confrontation with the past massacres of Turkey – in this case, the massacre in Dersim in 1938. Although Zer has perhaps the most consumed storyline in terms of dealing with the traumas of the past and searching for the ethnic roots, its unexpected humor and joie de vivre that comes with the help of amateur actors makes it stand out among films that are too afraid to digress from minimalistic arthouse conventions – a common problem for debutant directors in Turkey.

There may be too much important, politically relevant material from the past and present of Turkey that is worth depicting; however, if you do not take a critical distance and think about the way you should put these stories on the silver screen, then the vitality of these stories and their “burning” relevance is unfortunately lost.

Edited by Steven Yates