"The Truth is Bulletproof"

in 30th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Alissa Simon

Dedicated journalists in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s Kurdish stronghold, risk their lives to expose injustice during the turbulent early 1990s in the heartfelt drama Press. An involving treatment of hot button issues, this feature debut from producer/director/writer/editor Sedat Yilmaz nabbed a special jury kudo in the Istanbul festival’s national competition as well the FIPRESCI award. Although the story might seem naive to Western eyes, a free press still remains under threat in Turkey where 30 journalists were murdered between 1992 and 1994, along with 17 newspaper distributors and vendors. Offshore festival travel seems likely for this film (previously a multiple prize winner at festivals in Antalya and Ankara), particularly to human rights events.

Set in a period when armed clashes between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Turkish state reached a peak, the action centers on the closely-knit team of the leftist publication “Free Agenda.” There’s coolly rational editor Hasan (Kadim Yasar), intrepid reporters Faysal (Tayfur Aydin), Alisan (Engin Emre Deger), Kadir (Sezgin Cengiz) and Lokman (Bilal Bulut), secretary – and lone female – Songul (Asiye Dincsoy), and resourceful Kurdish office boy Firhat (utterly engaging non-professional actor Aram Dildar), whose transformation from shy rookie to seasoned journalist provides the central narrative arc.

After publishing a story linking the military and a shadowy organization responsible for murders, kidnappings and drug transports, the “Free Agenda” staffers must contend with anonymous threats, beatings, the intimidation of news agents and technical suppliers, police search and seizure, lawsuits, and most chillingly, assassinations.

Although one reporter idealistically declares, “the truth is bulletproof,” unfortunately humans are not. Yet despite near overwhelming setbacks, the staffers courageously and ingeniously continue their work – and the work of getting the paper to its readers.

In a country where the commercial cinema is notable for melodramatic excess, Yilmaz proves a dab hand at visual story telling, making an impression with his directing restraint. Eschewing a pounding score and overstated performances, he effectively builds tension through framing and editing, lending small, lethal acts of violence a disturbing intensity. Other near-wordless sequences, such as a pursuit through the deserted streets by night, an early morning attack on the “Free Agenda” office, and street urchins delivering the paper to vendors after the local distributor succumbs to external pressure also set pulses racing.

Although burdened by some overly earnest speeches about the nature and function of journalism, the screenplay by Yilmaz nevertheless captures the camaraderie of the newsroom, incorporating welcome humor, salty language, and sharp repartee. While Firhat is the most developed character, the rest of the cast (established theater performers) manages to add depth to their one-note roles.

The color desaturated HD camerawork by Demir Gökdemir creates a strong sense of place, while art director Nevin Dogan makes visceral the office’s metamorphosis from functioning workplace to makeshift fortress. Yilmaz himself provides the pacey cutting.

Although the film’s characters are fictional, the “Free Agenda” was an actual newspaper first published on May 30, 1992. Despite being slapped with 486 lawsuits during its short life of less than two years, the staffers managed to publish 580 issues. Former “Free Agenda” reporter Bayram Balci served as a consultant for the film.