Part One: Ebru

April means rain in Istanbul and biting winds sweeping down from Russia – at least that’s what they feel like. While on the one hand the rain complements the film festival, on the other, it has to jostle for space – literally in this case – with a month-long shopping festival, the annual tulip festival and daily student demonstrations on the main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. One of the film festival’s prized venues, the Emek cinema, is threatened with demolition to make way for a new shopping centre.

Unfortunately on highly valuable land shopping centres are far more lucrative than arthouse cinemas. That’s not to say arthouse cinemas are poorly frequented. There were more than a few occasions where, having not had time to advance purchase a ticket, I was relegated to the stairs because the auditorium was so packed out. But unlike Glebe’s Valhalla cinema in Sydney, that closed its doors with a whimper a few years back, in the contested city of Istanbul, street demonstrations greet the mere threat of Emek’s closure. And, indeed Emek is not the only victim. On the other side of Istiklal Caddesi, in the fashion of a true Turkish melodrama, my eyes brimmed with tears upon glimpsing the barricaded Alkazar cinema, the venue for the first Australian film festival that I organized here with my partner in 1994. (1)

Along with the tulips gracing almost every street corner (millions have been planted), throughout the city posters beckon Turkish viewers to the film festival: “See life through different eyes, 231 films, 528 screenings” (“Hayata farklı gözlerle bakmanız için, 231 film, 528 gösterim”). While not the oldest film festival in Turkey – that mantle belongs to Antalya’s Golden Orange (Altın Portakal) — historically, Istanbul’s festival has been an important plank for enriching local film culture, where Turks could see the latest arthouse cinema from around the world. And with a decline in the number of venues, seeing arthouse films is, I’m told, becoming harder and harder.

“In Turkey, where institutions are notoriously fragile and ephemeral, it’s extraordinary that a festival should survive and flourish for 30 years”, says festival director, Azize Tan. (2) “When the festival first began in 1981 – then called The Istanbul Film Weeks – the yearning for artistic cinema within a certain slice of society was positively tangible,” says one of the festival founders, Atilla Dorsay. “We could never have dared to imagine, in those times of scarcity, that what began with seven would in 30 years be 230 films”. (3)

To promote the 30th anniversary of the film festival, the organizing body, the ISKV (Istanbul Foundation for Arts & Culture) produced an impressive monograph, 20 Directors from 30 Years of the Istanbul Film Festival. The book was selling for 30 Turkish Lira (around AU$25) in both Turkish and English versions – evidence of a thriving local film culture. The directors featured (both popular and arthouse filmmakers, including Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoğlu, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Derviş Zaim, Çağan Irmak and Handan İpekçi) were asked to select and write on one film that has, at some time, featured in the festival, and profoundly influenced their filmmaking. These films were also shown in the festival in a special section. Azize Tan claims that, “This generation of directors who have grown up with the festival are now its driving force”. (4)

I made it my mission to see as many of the fifty-featured Turkish films in the festival as possible that have sprung from an industry whose resurgence is nothing short of remarkable. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish film industry languished as the ‘sick man of Europe’. But this wasn’t always the case. From the 1950s-1970s Turkey’s thriving commercial industry, Yeşilcam, was the third largest in the world. While TV was partly responsible for Yeşilcam’s demise in the 1970s, the subsequent deregulation of the television and media sector in the 1990s that resulted in capital investment in technology and infrastructure of the media industries was also responsible for the film industry’s renaissance. As Atilla Dorsay states, most of the filmmaking infrastructure, particularly studios and technology, has come from the investment in the television advertising industry in the 1990s. (5) Now Turkish dizis (soap operas) dominate the “idiot box” while domestic films regularly beat Hollywood at the other box (office) and the Turks make between 60-80 features a year. For the last five years, most of the top ten blockbusters were all local Turkish fare; predominantly melodramas, comedies and crime thrillers. And with a population of 73 million, Turkey is the biggest film consumption market in Europe, and the 6th largest market in the world (after India, US, Egypt, Japan, China). (6)

In terms of the Turkish films on offer, the high production values, attention to script and characterization are a far cry from those we had to choose from when organizing a Turkish film festival in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in 1998. (7) Thirteen Turkish films were competing for the Golden Tulip in the national competition. In fact there would have been fourteen, but 10 days before the Istanbul festival started, Derviş Zaim’s Gölgeler ve Suretler (Shadows and Faces) won the Ankara film festival. While no longer allowed to compete in the national competition, thankfully, Shadows and Faces still screened out of competition.

Unlike Australian directors who often struggle to make a career out of feature filmmaking, Derviş Zaim has honed his craft on numerous features since I first encountered his rough gem Tarbutta Röveşata (Somersault in a Coffin, 1996) and Çamur (Mud, 2004). Zaim’s latest film continues his preoccupation with strife-torn Cyprus. Set on the island in 1963, prior to Turkish annexation and subsequent division between the Turkish north and Greek south in 1973, Shadows and Faces is based on a real-life incident and tells the tale of a friendship between a Greek Cypriot woman and Turkish Cypriot man who struggle to maintain peace between communities slowly descending into chaos. Cyprus is still a fraught issue requiring a writer-director with an intimate understanding of the cultural nuances on both sides and cognizant of the broader political context in which this film will be read, but also one with the skill to fashion credible characters who provoke a sense of sympathy in the viewer. In this regard, Shadows and Faces is a remarkable achievement. I’m always flummoxed by inter-communal violence that happens amongst groups who have lived together for centuries, but Shadows and Faces astutely depicts how this kind of conflict is sparked and the retributions that follow provoke a seemingly unending spiral of violence.

In fact, most of the Turkish films featured in the festival seemed to encompass some aspect of the rapid social, political and cultural transformation currently sweeping the country. Like Turkish photographer, Atilla Durak, articulates in his Ebru: Reflections on cultural diversity in Turkey, these films too are searching “for a new language to make cultural diversity in Turkey visible”. (8) As the “deep state” relinquishes its unifying iron grip on the nation, the metaphor of ebru, or marbled paper, seems an apt way to convey the manifestation of cultural diversity in Turkey. Unlike “new world” multicultural countries (Australia, Canada, & US) where diversity primarily springs from diasporas, Turkey’s is autochthonous. Academic Ayşe Gül Alınay explains that:

An ebru artist creates his or her drawing on water and then transfers this ‘floating’ artwork onto paper. Being water-based, ebru connotes fluidity, movement, connectedness, permeability, and contingency. As such it is a metaphor that offers a promising alternative to others, such as ‘mosaic’, or ‘quilt’ when thinking through the old dilemmas of cultural politics at the turn of the century. How can one recognize cultural diversity without imprisoning cultures into fixed, essentialised identities? […] Ebru as a metaphor […] represents the search for alternatives to the limited perspectives of assimilation and multiculturalism alike. (9)

Those stories that were struggling to bubble to the surface in the 1990s and early 2000s seem now a torrent, gushing with little resistance, down the main streets of Istanbul. For example the Laz Black Sea region features in Belma Baş’s Zefir (Zephyr) and Selim Güneş’s Greek-Turkish co-pro, Kar Beyaz (White as Snow); military oppression in the Kurdish East dominates in Oğul (The Son), and Annem Bariş İstiyor (My Mother Wants Peace) while Aydın Orak Görüntü’s Bir Başkaldırı Destanı: Berivan (The Legend of Rebellion) explores the rebellion, torture and imprisonment of Kurdish heroine, Berivan; prejudice against Alevi’s features in A. Haluk Ünal’s Saklı Hayatlar (Hidden Lives) and the doco, Nurdan Arcan’s Canlar-Alevis/Bektashis (Canlar), while Greek-Turkish relations are the subject of a number of docos – Nefin Dinç’s Öteki Kasaba (The Other Town), Berfi Dicle Öğüt’s Kayıp Toprakların Torunları (Grandchildren of the Lost Lands) and the Yörük (Turkish native nomads) are the subject of the doco, Anadolu’nun Son Göçerleri (Last Nomads in Anatolia).

Until 1991 it was forbidden to use the word “Kurdish” or publish books, tapes, magazines or newspapers in the Kurdish language. Documentaries such as Cemil Oğuz’s Rewşen and Sedat Yılmaz’s Press explore press freedom, the latter featuring in the Human Rights in Cinema Competition. Cultural oppression often goes hand-in-hand with political oppression and political imprisonment is the focus in the docos such as Oğlunuz Erdal (Your Son Erdal, Tunç Erenkuş), Ölücanlar (Dead Souls, Murat Özçelik) and Kayıp Özgürlük (Lost Freedom, Umur Hozatlı).

Social transformation is also evident in front of and behind the camera with the rise of women and youth. From my cursory inspection, bar a handful, all the Turkish directors were younger than 40 with many born in the 1980s and more than 12 films directed by females in the festival – the majority being documentaries. One notable documentary with much appeal, highlighting social transformation was 25-year-old Gökhan Bulut and Cem Kaya’s Arabesk: from Streetsound to Mass Culture. In its original manifestation Arabesk gave voice to the woes of the marginalized urban underclass that had migrated from rural areas to the big cities. (10) This political music genre and subculture, once disparaged by elites, has since evolved and garnered a hip mainstream following and its proponents (Arabesk celebrities such as Müslüm Gürses, Orhan Gencebay and Ferdi Tayfur) are described as having “sold out” to commerce and fame.

Perhaps not surprisingly the three films by female writer/directors competing in the national feature competition concerned, for want of a better phrase, “women’s issues” and explored the (often tragic) role of mothers (and grandmothers) in a rapidly modernizing Turkey. Dominated by autumn hues and high production values, the family melodrama and tear-jerker, Ağ(The Plane Tree), will, I expect, get a much broader distribution in Turkey than just arthouse cinemas. Prominent female director, Handan İpekçi (Big Man, Little Love / Hejar, 2001) even dedicates her latest film ‘To all mothers”. It concerns a grandmother, Adviye, who splits her time trying to help her three, seemingly indifferent, children. One is a modern single mother who controls her young son Barış’s every move. Doting Adviye comes to stay with Barış and turns things upside down while Adviye’s other son and daughter are distracted with domestic concerns of their own. Like all good melodramas, the extended family only recognizes the mother’s sacrifice moments before her death.

First time director Belma Baş’s luscious Zephyr is set in the mountainous black sea region, a fertile tea growing area of Turkey close to the border with the Georgia. An ominous mist hovers constantly on the horizon and the film concerns a prepubescent Zefir cared for by her grandparents while her mother is on the run. Its setting is reminiscent of Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s Waiting for the Clouds (2005) and its plot not unlike Gillian Armstrong’s masterful but melancholic High Tide (1988). While High Tide’s ending produces hope when the Judy Davis character, at the last moment, decides not to abandon her daughter again, Zefir’s future seems grim after her mother decides to leave again (but this time for good), and so Zefir (accidentally?) kills her.

The most provocative film of the three was Altıkarınca (Merry-go-round) – also in current exhibition at the local cinemas. In this film an ambitious working mother’s son and daughter are both sexually abused by her husband (their father), a struggling and frustrated writer who hasn’t found the fame he aspired to. As if to emphasise the girl’s victimisation, the grandmother gazes on, mutely, around a half open door. Director İlksen Başarır says that in Turkey incest is still an unspoken social issue often left hidden. This film’s horror emanates from what is not shown on screen. The malicious father’s sheer malevolence and brutality left me speechless for sometime afterwards and it seemed the working mother was being punished for being the bread-winner in this family.

On a much lighter note, Seyfi Teoman’s Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz (Our Grand Despair) was the only Turkish film in the International Competition. Films in this section had to be literary adaptations. Expecting a melodrama of epic proportions, this Turkish-German-Dutch co-pro turned out to be an enthralling and hilarious romantic comedy, with just a splash of melancholy. It’s rare to see Ankara on screen, the nation’s capital, but more unique was the uncharacteristic, but utterly credible, “bromance” between the two middle-aged leads, Çetin and Ender, who, after being separated from the disruption of military service, girlfriends and overseas study in their 20s and 30s, had finally managed to move in together. Their platonic domestic harmony is upset upon the arrival of their friend’s sister, Nihal, a beautiful but recently orphaned and needy university student, with whom they both fall naively head-over-heels. But Nihal’s flirtations with each of them lasts only the duration of the film and by the end, order is restored, little harm is done and the boys are both cooking the Turkish delicacy, Yeşil Fasulye (green beans), together once again like an old married couple.

Part Two: Ecumenopolis

I am Istanbul, city of cities, mistress of metropolises, community of poets, seat of emperors, favourite of sultans, pearl of the world! And of all the world’s cities, I am without doubt the most magnificent, mysterious and terrible, a city upon whose shores pagans, Christians, Jews and unbelievers, friend and foe alike, have found safe harbor throughout the ages, a place where love and betrayal, pleasure and pain, live side by side.” (11)

In Unutma Beni Istanbul (Don’t Forget me Istanbul) Armenak, a middle-aged oud player, reluctantly journeys to Istanbul for a concert. Despite animosity towards the city that exiled his Armenian grandfather in 1915 “at the tip of the sword”, Armenak utters, “Istanbul is like opium – very addictive.”

Last year Istanbul was the designated European Capital of Culture and Don’t Forget Me Istanbul was the standout film in a small section called, “Istanbul 2010” supported by European Capital of Culture funding. The film comprised 6 shorts made about Istanbul by predominantly European directors (Hany Abu Assad, Stefan Arsenijevic, Aida Begic, Eric Nazarian, Stergios Niziris, Gül Dirican, Omar Shagawi, Josefina Markarian), and each film attempts to capture the feeling of Istanbul as a contemporary cosmopolitan metropolis, rich in fables, that is at once opening up itself to the world and rediscovering its long repressed cultural heritage.

If Turkey as a country is undergoing immense transformation, then Istanbul is doing it on speed, in overdrive. The highly contested nature of the city’s urban change was the topic of a number of films in the festival. Overdrive: Istanbul in the New Millenium provides a personal perspective on Istanbul’s increasing number of residents, whose presence exacerbate the city’s environmental, social and urban planning challenges. As the young female director of Overdrive: Istanbul in the New Millenium, Aslıhan Ünaldı writes about her film; “Just like the city itself which tries to find a balance between the extremes of wealth and poverty, conservation and modernization, development and loss … the city in this obligatory, at times violent struggle continues to give hope to its residents with never fading beauty.” (12)

Loss comes in the form of Necla Algan’s Sirkeci-Halkalı Elveda… Merhaba (Farewell); a documentary depicting the industrial and cultural heritage of the historic train route which will be consumed by the underground Marmaray Project, while Kapak Olsun (Tale of Soda) sees the demise of once thriving Turkish soda brands with the march of Coca-Cola capitalism.

One highly ambitious (yet unfinished) doco featuring in the national competition, Ecumenopolis: City without limits, provoked me to think about my formative experiences living in and visiting Istanbul over the last two decades. An “ecumenopolis” is a futuristic idea of a planet totally covered with one vast unending, urban metropolis where there are no “natural” green spaces left. Like in Overdrive, the filmmakers give voice to Istanbul’s marginalised, whose houses are rapidly being demolished to make way for grand high-rise apartments. While the film is highly critical of the government’s directions in terms of city planning, public transport, and the designation of green spaces, it is really only very recently that Turkey has been able to take a deep breath and actually have a debate about how to make Istanbul more sustainable, as well as provide adequate housing for the neediest of its inhabitants.

To provide another perspective, Istanbul’s improving quality of life (for many, as far as I can tell) and loosening of social, cultural and political repression is a far cry from the Istanbul I had a few years, first hand, experience of in the early 1990s: inflation was rampant at 90% per annum, the government was unstable, corrupt and fighting a war with the outlawed PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in the south-east, Turkey had an unenviable human rights record, and an oppressive military was always waiting in the wings for the slightest opportunity to stage another military coup (there were coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980). In winter the city was so polluted that every night I’d come indoors and wash black soot from my hair – lignite was the main heating fuel.

Istanbul was still a lively and bustling place to live in the early 1990s, but it was in mere survival mode. Back then smoking Camel cigarettes and eating at McDonalds carried a certain kind of cultural credibility among aspirant Turks who longed for a better life in America or Germany. Nowadays, the migration goes both ways; with the conversion to natural gas, you can breathe in winter; and only stupid foreigners eat at McDonalds – why would you when the local fast food options are much cheaper, tastier, healthier and more accessible.

Istanbul is without doubt a contested city – but good cities should be contested because it means that people are passionate about them. Like all great cities Istanbul has to strike a balance between competing interests. So it is no doubt outrageous, but also somehow appropriate, that in Istanbul a shopping centre (commerce) vies with a film festival (art) on the same turf. At least there’s still a competition.

With the hit Eşkiya (1996) often earmarked as Turkish cinema’s rebirth, the 15-or-so-year-old industry now feels like an adolescent verging on adulthood. With investment in infrastructure and technology, a healthy film culture, a bunch of vibrant festivals with which to promote it, a bourgeoning university sector with film courses for aspirant auteurs to hone their craft, as well as featuring regularly on the European stage (Nuri Bilge Ceylan just won the prestigious French Order for Arts and Letters for his contribution to the arts) it is sometimes hard to see the point of all the anti-capitalist chest-beating. While commercial imperatives are a far cry from the Istanbul Film Festival’s vital and worthy cultural mission, whose audience, incidentally is dominated by people under 30, the lessons learnt from the rise of Turkish cinema seem to be that it’s hard to sustain a thriving alternative art house cinema without a dynamic domestic commercial film industry that makes money and perhaps the occasional cheesy melodrama. All the way with 10BA? (13) Well no, not quite, but that’s another story.

And like Armenak, who needs opium when you’ve got Istanbul? I’m just hanging out for my next hit.

The 30th Istanbul Film Festival
2-17 April, 2011
Website: http://film.iksv.org/en


  1. Catherine Simpson, 1994. “Istanbul’da her şey olabilir! Anything’s possible in Istanbul”, Murdoch Reading Room, http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/Istanbul.html
  2. Azize Tan ‘Forward’ in Cem Alpan (ed.) 2011. 20 Directors from 30 Years of the Istanbul Film festival, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, p. 8.
  3. Sarah Jilani, 2011. “Cinema & the city” in Nouse, May 12, 2011, http://www.nouse.co.uk/2011/05/12/cinema-and-the-city/
  4. Azize Tan, op cit.
  5. Catherine Simpson, 2006. “Turkish cinema’s resurgence: the ‘deep nation’ unravels” in Senses of Cinema, Issue #39, http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/39/turkish_cinema/
  6. Soyhan Alpaslan, 2011. “We love domestic films”, İtovizyon, Number 99, April 2011, p. 58-61.
  7. Catherine Simpson, 2006. “Getting ‘Out there on the Edge’: Reflections on the first Turkish film festival in Australia and Contemporary cinematic revival” in Alternative Perspectives on Turkey’s Cinematic Landscape in ArteEast, Special Issue, October 2006, http://www.arteeast.org/artenews/artenews-articles2006/turkish-issue/artenews-simpson.html
  8. Atilla Durak, 2009. Ebru: Reflections on cultural diversity in Turkey, Beyoğlu, Istanbul: Metis Publishing.
  9. Ayşe Gül Alınay, “Ebru: Reflections on water” in Durak, Atilla. 2009, Ebru: Reflections on Cultural Diversity in Turkey, Beyoğlu, Istanbul: Metis Publishing, pp. 19-26.
  10. See Can Yalçınkaya, 2008. “Turkish Arabesk and the changing perceptions of melancholy in Turkish culture” in NEO: Journal of Arts and Culture, http://www.arts.mq.edu.au/current_students/new_and_current_hdr_candidates/hdr_journals/hdr_journal/issue/2008/pdf/CAN-Turkish_Arabesk_Musicnd_the_Changing_Perceptions_of_Melancholy_.pdf
  11. Buket Uzuner, 2008. Istanbullu (trans. Kenneth J. Dakan), Cağaoğlu, Istanbul: Alfa Publishing Group
  12. Aslıhan Ünal, 2011. “Son Surat: İstanbul – Overdrive: Istanbul in the New Millenium” in İstanbul Film Festivali 2011 Booklet, Istanbul Foundation of Art & Culture, p. 118.
  13. 10BA refers to a tax incentive scheme in Australia during the 1980s where industry boomed but questions were raised about the ethics of the incentives as well as the quality of the films being produced.

About The Author

Catherine Simpson is a lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the co-editor of Diasporas of Australian Cinema.

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