The New Turkish Cinema: Authors and Identities

in 34th Istanbul Film Festival

by Giovanni Ottone

The 34th International Istanbul Film Festival was heavily impacted by the censorship applied by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Exactly in this critical situation, which continues to menace the freedom of expression of Turkish filmmakers and scriptwriters, it is absolutely necessary to mark the quality, the peculiarities and the values of the New Turkish Cinema.

In Turkey, in the last two decades, a couple of new generations of auteurs went on stage and received great international recognition and consensus: many awards in the major festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam and San Sebastian. In the first generation, we’re counting auteurs born at the beginning of the 1960s and we can include Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Yesim Ustaoglu, Zeki Demirkubuz, Dervis Zaim, Semih Kaplanoglu, Reha Erdem, Tayfun Pirselimoglu and others. In the second, we have filmmakers born in the 1970s and 1980s, who filmed their first full-length feature film during the last 10 years, and we can put Özcan Alper, Seyfi Teoman, Pelin Esmer, Özer Kizitan, Emin Alper, Seren Yüce, Ali Aydin, Mahmut Fazil Coskun, Sedat Yilmaz, Kazim Öz, Onur Ünlü, Asli Özge, Hüseyin Karabey and others. These independent filmmakers stood out and made quality arthouse films with limited budgets. They realized films showing a strong and original sense of narration and facing all the complexity of identity in a country that had, and is still having, a very controversial political and social transition.

These directors adopted an auteur approach, which questioned the premises of filmmaking through self-reflexivity, and obtained financial support from international festivals, funds and institutes. Although each film is a distinct project and the connections between the filmmakers do not define a true cultural movement, it can be considered that they largely share a common professional background: partial or no attendance at cinema schools; learning through the production of short films; the constant and decisive reference to their autobiographical experiences, hence the fact that they are very often also scriptwriters for their films; the sharing of a cinematographic independent ethos related to the use of limited budgets and the direction of the actors.

It is a cinema that has introduced elements to represent the different facets of the nation’s identity and the power conflicts at various levels, in the domestic, social, religious and political fields. It addresses in particular the crucial issues of being Turkish, historically determined and accrued over the last fifty years, and primarily the complexities of life and identity in the metropolis of Istanbul (the most represented urban space), in the province and/or in the countryside and the dialectic between these two poles. The contemporary generations of auteurs have often considered the province as a place of creative inspiration, and have highlighted its existential contradictions and multidimensional features with a never trivial complexity. The same gap and tension between the metropolis and the province have led many filmmakers (such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Seyfi Teoman, Ahmet Uluçay, Çagan Irmak) to reconsider the provincial rural areas of their childhood through childlike or adolescent characters, probing the awareness of a complicated attachment to the past and the impossibility of return to it. In other cases (such as Semih Kaplanoglu, Reha Erdem, Yesim Ustaoglu, Özcan Alper, Belma Bas), the province is represented as a monotonous and claustrophobic space where the lifestyle is unchangeable and where the nature, rich and cruel at the same time, is repeated rhythmically. Conversely, Istanbul is an ill-defined space that can be understood only on a fragmented basis, and that is represented in a disenchanted and realistic manner (by Zeki Demikubuz and Tayfun Pirselimoglu) or as an inhospitable place (by Nuri Bilge Ceylan).

It is indeed a personal cinema with a wide variety of styles and narrative approaches, but, from a thoroughly modern perspective, it expresses a common trait: the visual enhancement of the unsaid and the undone, thus of the emotions that the deep feeling or the monotony of daily life prevent from expressing openly. In almost all of the most important arthouse films of the last twenty years, there are characters unable to speak or uncomfortable with words, or unable to make others understand their feelings even when they speak about them. The absence of real conversations is directly related to the inability to express personal troubles in terms of communication. This is the sign of a naturally limited language, but also of sadness and frustration. Furthermore, in many cases, the unsaid concerns mainly socio-political issues, such as discrimination, prejudice, hidden violence, identity crisis and cultural amnesia. It is noticed the attempt to bring out the disguised dynamics of hegemony and to question what has been accepted as “natural behavior”. In any case, silence, although not in a literal or global sense, pervades these films. There is therefore a constant representation of unexpressed feelings, of lack of belonging and of resistance to identification with predetermined social codes. Many characters conceive their own existence in a transitional space. Their identity is always placed in a sort of limbo: between the city and the province, ethnic and political affiliation, or even between rationality and madness.

We choose to consider especially the last generation of filmmakers who made their first full-length feature film during the last ten years. They conceive new relations between their personal life experiences and social conscience. So they depict existential contradictions in families and among young people, feminine portraits, religious themes and moral dilemmas. We focus here only a few significant films, related to crucial themes. “Beyond the Hill” (Tepenin ardi, 2012), Emin Alper’s first feature, is a portrait of a patriarchal family obsessed with the fear of an unknown exterior enemy. “Wrong Rosary” (Uzak ihtimal, 2009), Mahmut Fazil Coskun’s first feature, deals with the relationship between different religious traditions and the existential contradictions in the modern metropolis Istanbul. “Men on the Bridge” (Köprüdekiler, 2009), Asli Özge’s first film, is a docu-drama that offers an unconventional portrait of Istanbul and tells stories of real life concerning individuals that live in the suburbs and work downtown. “Majority” (Çogunluk, 2010), Seren Yüze’s first feature, set in Istanbul, is a middle-class family drama that shows a society morally trapped in heavy contradictions and permeated by strong cultural prejudices.

Some filmmakers of the last generation chose to deal directly with political themes. Their films tell stories of brutal violence and repression by the state forces and institutions, such as police, judiciary authorities and the detention system, against the democratic activists and left-wing militants. They are not simple condemnation vehicles, rather true existential dramas. Basically we have films related to three different periods of Turkey’s last 50 years of history: the ’80s military coup d’état; the strong state era in the ’90s and the peak season of the student movement and labour disputes; the ambiguous current time with scandals concerning dirty business and transactions, corruption and plots and including politicians and religious leaders of Islamic brotherhoods. “Ayan Hanim” (2014), Levent Semerci’s second feature, is a dramatic experimental recreation of the tumultuous ’70s, the ’80s coup and the following years of state repression. “Autumn” (Sonbahar, 2008), Özcan Alper’s first feature, is one of the most remarkable films of the last decade. It masterfully blends an existential itinerary, symbolic of the frustration of a generation of students victimised the 1990s toward a heavy political defeat, and at the same time tells an impossible love story. “Mold” (Küf, 2012), Ali Aydin’s first film, set in a village in Anatolia, is a very bitter existential drama. It tells of the very sad quest of a father who, after many years, doesn’t know why his son, a young student, disappeared after being arrested by the police in Istanbul during the ’90s. “A Man’s Fear of God” (Takva, 2006), Özer Kiziltan’s excellent debut film, confronts the issue of the contradictory presence of religious organizations in social life and their activities. “Let’s Sin” (Itirazim var, 2014), Onur Ünlü’s most recent film, is a brilliant dark comedy with a thriller plot that includes explicit references the hypocrisy and the lust for power of many powerful people in the present Turkey.

Not to forget also the well known dramatic “Kurdish issue” that has become more and more present in the New Cinema. Many films made by the last generation of Kurdish or Turkish filmmakers concern the life conditions in Turkish Kurdistan: personal stories often recreating real events. Here we focus on some of the most significant features. “The Storm” (Bahoz / Firtina, 2008), Kurdish Kazim Öz’s second film, is a moving portrait of the politicization process of a group of Kurdish university students, at the beginning of the 1990s. “The Children of Diyarbakir” (Ben Gördüm / Min Dît, 2009), Kurdish Miraz Bezar’s first feature, recreates the tragic situation that happened during the 1990s in the most important town of Turkish Kurdistan. “Press” (2010), Sedat Yilmaz’s first feature, is inspired by the true story of the daily newspaper “Özgur Gündem”, published in Dyarbakir between 1992 and 1994 and shut down by the Turkish authorities after the declaration of emergency rule in the region. It’s a story of brave resistance in the face of a continuous boycott and repression. “On the Way to School” (Iki dil bir bavul, 2008), Orhan Eskiköy and Kurdish Zeynel Dogan’s first film,  is a mix of fiction and documentary. It’s the story of a newcomer Turkish teacher who works in a remote primary school in the south-eastern region and must deal with Kurdish children who don’t have any previous knowledge of the Turkish language. “Voice of My Father” (Babamin sesi, 2012) is the second remarkable feature of those same two directors, and is a minimalistic and moving poetic meditation concerning a painful family story in a tormented land.

Considering the 34th Istanbul Film Festival’s program, we  must stress the fact that, also this year, there were some films selected related to crucial political  matters. Although those films were not shown in public screenings due to the particular situation related to the decisions of the Turkish filmmakers after the boycott by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, we must at least mention a few of them. “You Tell About Me” (Beni sen anlat, 2014), Mahur Özmen’s second feature, is the story of a middle-class family forced to hide after the 12th September 1980 military coup. “Homo politicus” (2014), Haci Orman’s debut short, is a stage film, the first fiction produced in Turkey about the Armenian Genocide. It reproduces a historical meeting held in 1915: Johannes Lepsius, an influential theologian, who acts on behalf of German missionaries, visits Enver Pasha, the most powerful general of Turkey, in order to stop the Ottoman “deportation” policy regarding the Armenians. “June Fire” (Haziran yangini), the fourth documentary by Gürkan Hacir, tells the story of Ethem Sarisülük, who was murdered in Ankara on the 1st of June 2013 when the police used real bullets in Kizilay Square during a mass demonstration against the repression of the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul.

Regarding the Festival’s National Competition we can only review a couple of features, already presented to a public audience in previous festivals. “Snow Pirates” (Kar korsanlari, 2014), Faruk Hacihafizoglu’s first feature, is an intense coming-of-age film set against the backdrop of the 1980 military coup. In Kars, a remote small town in eastern Turkey, during a harsh, cold winter the people need coal for heating their homes, but the stock supplies are assigned only to a few state offices and privileged individuals. Three children, Serhat, Gurbuz and Ibo, are forced to scour the neighbourhoods for any other source of coal. They are largely unaware of the significance and threat of everything happening around them. But with soldiers seizing coal in the depths and patrolling the streets and the railway station, and things getting worse every day, they have no choice but to deal with the grinding reality of life. Radio broadcasts and news bulletins in the background serve to keep the viewer appraised of the deteriorating political situation, and then there is the sight of political prisoners with paper bags over their heads, taken away inside suspect cars. Faruk Hacihafizoglu gives a genuine and quite rigorous portrait of the time of the military dictatorship, seen through the eyes of three 12 to 13 year-old boys. He carefully describes the difficult life within the families and, above all, he focuses on the boys’ own views and actions and their spirit of solidarity. Besides some nice moments of black humour, the film slowly ratchets up the pressure, avoiding any kind of rhetorical temptation and using a sparing use of music. The three young protagonists’ acting manages to bring to life a believable and realistic friendship and their unswerving sense of optimism. “Until I Lose My Breath” (Nefesin kesilene kadar, 2015), Emine Emel Balci’s debut film, is a controversial intimate drama about a daughter-father relationship in a proletarian context. Serap, an immature motherless late teenager, skinny and not pretty nor pleasant, works as a runner in a textile factory in Istanbul. She lives with her sister and her husband, who both treat her badly with heavy humiliations, but she longs for her father, a long-distance truck driver, and to finally rent a flat for the two of them. She does everything she can to make sure her wish comes true, saving her wages, lying and even stealing. Her stubborn perseverance reverses the standard parent-child relationship, as she obsessively looks after her father, giving him money and presents. But the man always comes up with new excuses, lies to her and clearly is not interested in being tied down. Emine Emel Balci depicts a kind of heroine, equal parts naive, grotesque, spiteful and revengeful, showing her emotional dependence on a largely absent, cynical and reticent father. She is a mixed-up character who hasn’t the skills to sustain even a friendship and acts with senselessness and malice. Despite an interesting side portrait of a laboring low class trying to get by on the miserable fringes of Istanbul, the film is not convincing because it lacks a real sense of drama, proposes some unbelievable circumstances and makes the protagonist absolutely one-dimensional, denying her anything but destructive agency. What’s more, Emine Emel Balci chooses to keep the camera constantly on Serap, in order to conceive a way of forcing viewer identification. That shot-from-the-back-of-the head aesthetic with bouncy handheld camera, an unoriginal imitation of the  Dardenne brothers’ style, so common in recent indie cinema all over the world, produces a forced proximity, feels oppressive and doesn’t enhance intensity. That’s why, in the end, the film doesn’t come to be a story of alienation and loneliness, rather a tale of a character who is the victim of her own stupidity: probably not the director’s desired message to express a criticism of the present society and traditional concepts of gender and family in Turkey.
Edited by Carmen Gray