What's A Good Commercial Film Anyway...

in 23rd Istanbul International Film Festival

by Engin Ertan

The main problem with Turkish cinema in recent years has been to keep the industry alive. To keep the industry alive, commercial success is needed, that’s for sure. Therefore directors and producers tried to find new formulas to draw people’s attention to Turkish movies. Of course it was possible to imitate the old heritage of Yesilcam, “the Turkish Hollywood” so to say, but people were looking for something fresh and new. It looks like only one formula worked so far.

Nowadays Turkish popular films resemble TV series a lot. First of all, movies have as many characters as possible, played by celebrities (not necessarily actors or actresses). Another characteristic is a loose narration, where detailed storytelling and depth to characters is not evident at all. This approach leads to a structure which is based on gags or sketches, like the one used in TV series. Whilst talking about commercial filmmaking, one may think of genres, but in Turkey genre film almost never comes in question. The new Turkish popular film has to have as many emotions and as many approaches as possible, but not in a postmodern sense. It’s not a mix of genres or different approaches, it’s just something indefinable, so it will please everybody.

This formula, which brings cinema closer to TV, pleased the Turkish audience so far. But it’s easy to guess, although there were a few exceptions, there is nothing to defend. This approach produces movies which are momentary. This is also the case with most TV productions. How many people would want to see them for a second or a third time, even it is fun at the first viewing? And since they are short-lived, these movies are usually superficial, with no statements, no connotations, whatsoever. And if they want to tell something, it is usually done in an unsubtle way. There’s nothing implicit, everything is just there on the surface. This is another problem in addition to the momentary state of these films. There is hardly anything to discuss about them. When the experience you have in the theatre is finished, you are done with the movie too.

Yet, Reha Erdem’s “What’s a Human Anyway…” (Insan Nedir ki…), the winner of the FIPRESCI prize in the National Competition at the 23rd International Istanbul Film Festival, reminded me that there’s still hope. Here we have a movie, which is closer to the European way of popular filmmaking rather than the Turkish one. Also there are similarities to the formula I’ve discussed above, but the main problems are left out.

The film is sweet, very humanistic (hence the title) and entertaining. Due to Erdem’s background in directing commercials, it is fast and has style. But style does not overcome content, as in other examples of popular Turkish films. The film is able to raise some questions about gender problems and human relations with cultural references. The most evident one of these is to question the patriarchal image. To expand this premise, three phases of stepping into manhood in Turkish culture are discussed. There’s a little boy, who refuses to be circumcised, a young man, who refuses to do his military service and two men, who are refusing to leave home. One of these men, Ali, who’s living with his father, is suffering from amnesia. After a while, he is able to remember everybody around him except his father.

Whilst discussing these subjects, the film tries to solve the conflicts between its characters and is looking for a happy end. This leads to a somehow unsatisfying final, where forgetting and forgiving are suggested as a solution. So, even though it could have been something intense, the film prefers to be reconcilable. Still it’s not as disturbing as it sounds, because this final solution fits to the humanistic and cute nature of the film.

Still it is not easy to say, that “What’s a Human Anyway…” is a flawless film. First of all, it is too long. And some scenes may look too much like a TV commercial. Also resemblances to “Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” are evident, but one cannot suggest that this a huge problem. But still, there are lots of other things to admire. Such as Erdem’s skill with the visuals and editing. He also succeeded in creating a colorful and cute atmosphere in an urban city. Also the film has no linear storyline, but it never adopts the loose narration style of the other recent commercial Turkish movies. Here, the music, the editing and the dialogue hold everything together and give the audience an insight into the subject matter.

“What’s a Human Anyway…” is a film dealing with universal problems, but with a national approach. It has the potential to please audiences all around the world. And yet, it’s not just about fun, it is also serious in some aspects. Since the statements of the movie are not only explicit, there’s a lot to think about it afterwards. So, this is a film which combines good filmmaking, commercial intentions and seriousness. The main reason of the FIPRESCI jury to award this film was to promote a different style of moviemaking from Turkey around the world. Hopefully, “What’s a Human Anyway…” will reach audiences in foreign countries (whether at festivals or with a theatrical release) and show, that Turkey can produce young and fresh films as well. Turkish cinema is not supposed to be based on just art-house movies dealing with political issues or superficial commercial movies. We have filmmakers who can be fun, serious and inventive at the same time too. Such as Reha Erdem.