Turkish Cinema in 2003: Eclectic Choices, Few Surprises

in 22nd Istanbul Film Festival

by Gönül Dönmez-Colin

22. Istanbul International Film Festival offered a wide selection of films in its National Competition. Veteran filmmakers Ömer Kavur and Yusuf Kurçenli competed with new comers such as Ümit Cin Güven and with one of the strongest voices of new Turkish cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Potentially interesting themes such as street children, child abuse, folklore, tradition, migration and urban and rural dilemmas were explored using diverse approaches, which were not always successful. Granted the financial difficulties of the Turkish film industry, which has had its negative effects in many aspects of filmmaking, there seemed to be a general lack of creativity and originality, except for some courageous attempts that showed noteworthy results.

“Sir Çocuklari” (Children of Secret) by Aydin Sayman and Ümit Cin Güven focused on a pressing social problem, the street children. However, the lives of these youngsters of misfortune appeared completely sanitised and their experiences unbelievably romantic. Despite the fact that these creatures of ill-fortune spent their days sniffing paint solvent on street corners, they managed to remain pure, not only spiritually but also physically throughout the film. The beautiful shots of Istanbul, resembling tourism posters were interspersed with or without reason. Subplots with little connection to the main plot resulted in a meandering narrative. The balanced performance of Firat Tanis in the lead garnered him the Best Actor award of the national jury in Istanbul as well as Antalya (2002), but the film could have benefited more from a thorough study of the subject before venturing into transferring it to screen.

“Gönlümdeki Kösk Olmasa” ( House of Hearts) by Elisabeth Rygard, a Danish documentarian, was made in Turkey with a Turkish cast. The director’s keen interest in the Anatolian folklore and particularly the folk songs and the mystic philosophy was the underlying motivation of this sincere approach to Turkish peasant life and the natural performance of the boy as the leading character was heart rendering. However, the essence was lost somewhere and the issue of the immigrants that the film purported to expose did not materialise.

“Martilar Açken” (When the Seagulls are Hungry) by Bülent Pelit , who has a background in television would have been more suitable to that medium. Depleted metaphors such as the epileptic hero, the classic themes of prostitute-pimp relations and solidarity among the downtrodden, interspersed once again with postcard views of Istanbul brought nothing new. On the plus side, was the convincing performance of Meral Oguz as the ageing prostitute and the soundtrack of the film, particularly the theme song, “Martilar Açken”.

Yusuf Kurçenli’s first fiction film since 1994, “Gönderilmemis Mektuplar” (Unsent Letters) which was rejected by a large number of the audience as belonging to a totally different epoch was in some ways an interesting experiment if the director had that in mind. The film narrated an unrequited love in the tradition of Yesilçam (a Turkish Hollywood of sorts) melodramas of 1960s and 1970s. The fact that the main leads were shared by two important stars of that genre, Türkan Soray (the sultan of Turkish cinema) and Kadir Inanir, added to the atmosphere of nostalgia, but the film had very little to offer to today’s audience. A cliché laden dialogue did not help either.

“Büyük Adam Küçük Ask” (Hejar), which was banned from entering the competition last year had a chance to compete this year. Handan Ipekci’s political drama tries to approach the issue of Turkish and Kurdish relations through an unusual friendship between a retired Kemalist judge and an orphaned Kurdish girl. The episodes dealing with the suppression of a language in a literal and a metaphoric sense are powerful. However, one wonders if scenes such as the one when the old judge takes the girl on a shopping spree are really necessary.

“O Simdi Askerde” (He’s in the Army Now) by Mustafa Altioklar, who has aimed at attracting the largest audience with films such as “Istanbul Kanatlarimin Altinda” (Istanbul Beneath my Wings) and “Agir Roman” (Cholera Street) has succeeded in doing just that. The clever dialogue full of sharp one-liners and the appearances of popular media figures guaranteed a fun evening for the local audience, but the foreign guests found little interest in this remake of remakes on army eccentrics.

Omer Kavur is one of the finest directors of Turkish cinema with such unforgettable works as “Anayurt Oteli” (Motherland Hotel) and “Gizli Yüz” (The Secret Face). His latest work, “Karsilasma” (Encounter) is a psychological drama about life, love and overlapping destinies. The opening scene in a hospital ward where patients receive chemotherapy is very powerful, particularly for the role it plays in determining the destiny of the main character. The theme of quest that is the overriding metaphor of Kavur’s previous films is also evident here. The visuals are used to the best advantage. However, the acting is not very convincing and the twists and turns of the plot, not intriguing enough to hold the narrative together.

Last but not least is the film of Nuri Bilge Ceyland, “Uzak” (Distant), which won the Fipresci award as well as the Best Film and Best Director awards of the national jury. Ceylan’s film is somewhat of a continuation of his previous films. The rural cousin who was asking the filmmaker to find him a job in the city in “Mayis Sikintisi” (Clouds of May) knocks on the door of the protagonist who is a professional photographer. The smell of his shoes, the aroma of his cheap cigarettes, the commonness of his language, most of all his presence disturb the urbanite loner who is set in his ways, which, incidentally are more like circles. Nothing much happens in the film. The snow changes to slush and one day the urban cousin removes himself from the unfriendly space. “Uzak” is a quiet, intimate and unpretentious film about ordinary lives; it touches deep emotions subtly and leaves the audience with images to reflect, to turn over and relive after they disappear from the screen. Bilge Ceylan is no doubt one of the finest representatives of new Turkish cinema.