Scene from 'The Unseen' (photo: Asya film)

The Turkish Film Miracle
Spirit of Optimism and a Lack of Craftsmanship

For years now, Turkish films have been winning prizes at international film festivals and are popular in European art house cinemas. The occasion of the mammoth 30th Istanbul International Film Festival is a fitting time to ask the question “What is with the Turkish film miracle?” An assessment by Amin Farzanefar

The Istanbul Film Festival can always be counted on to provide a snapshot of Turkish cinema, with production figures this year having reached a new record of over 70 films. It also offers a snapshot of the state of the country as a whole.

It only seems fitting that Sedat Yilmaz’s film "Press" was awarded a top prize at a time when Turkey, the reform-minded, permanent candidate for the EU, holds the world record for imprisoned journalists. The film “Press” has as its main themes the intimidation, imprisonment, and even the murder of some courageous journalists, who, in the 1990s, independently reported on the Kurdish conflict in the east of Turkey.

It is a peculiar situation, where many in the creative sphere invoke the spectre of a cultural sector controlled by Islamist moral watchdogs, while the country’s cinema has sought with vigour to overturn practically every political and social taboo as well as restrictions on free thought. And so it has been for many years.

"Forbidden fruit"

Documentary films, in particular, seem almost as if they are on a search for forbidden fruit – enduring themes are Greek-Turkish expulsions, the military putsch, and the Kurdish conflict. Additional themes covered this year include the persecution of the Alevites and recent scandals, such as the torture prisons in Ulucanlar. Everything can be seen on screen, even when showings take place in rare, formal settings.

Scene from Tayfun Pirselimoglu's 'Saç' (photo: DW/Istanbul Film Festival)
"Communication problems exaggerated to the point of fetishism": In Tayfun Pirselimoglu's "Saç" (Hair), a wig maker becomes obsessed with the fabulous hair of a client and secretly follows her home, where she lives with her tyrannical spouse

​​The Armenian-Turkish past is also subject to fewer taboos. Civil society is discussing the genocide more openly than ever before. All the while, Premier Erdogan loudly blusters and, under the eyes of the world, permits a world cultural heritage monument near Kars on the border with Armenia to be torn down. The process of political reconciliation with Armenia can best be described as being in a state of deep-freeze.

In Istanbul, the Armenian-Turkish film platform has shown its first results. Despite their differences, the short documentary and feature films primarily deal with the difficulties of trying to live in a present where the wounds of the past are not denied. The murder of Hrant Dink has been cited as the event that sparked the move towards a public debate on the issue. Even four years after his death, the charismatic peace activist still frequently turns up in films ("Then and now, beyond borders and differences", "Don't get lost children", and "Hrant Dink Conscience Film").

Introverted and slowed down – the new "look"

This cinematic attempt to come to terms with Turkish history has met with international approval, yet pessimists are prone to question the extent to which these films reach the Turkish public. As these films are typically only shown at festivals and are largely absent from television and film libraries, their effect is, at best, fleeting. And international festivals prefer art house cinema in the new style of award-winning directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu – films that are brilliantly shot, extremely slow, consciously opposed to the cliché of a colourful, wild, and temperamental orient, and populated by introverted, neurotic characters.

Scene from 'Merry go round' (photo: DW/Most production)
Child abuse is not just a lower-class problem: In İlksen Başarır’s incest drama "Merry-Go-Round" the father of the family is a failed writer

​​Somehow all films awarded in Istanbul have the same look. In Tayfun Pirselimoglu’s "Saç" (Hair), the communication problems of the protagonists have been exaggerated to the point of fetishism. A wig maker becomes obsessed with the fabulous hair of a client and secretly follows her home, where she lives with her tyrannical spouse.

Silence also characterizes the film "Merry-Go-Round", an incest drama in which child abuse by the father is only hinted at, but which traumatizes the family long after his death. By casting the father as a failed writer, the director İlksen Başarır aims to widen the dimensions of current debate on incest by showing that child abuse is not just a lower-class problem.

Seyfi Teoman’s "Our Grand Despair" also ran in the Berlinale. The film depicts a peculiar ménage à trios. The routine in Ender and Cetin’s shared flat is shaken up when the young Nihal, who is traumatized by the death of her parents, moves in with the two bachelors. The subsequent entanglements are only briefly and intermittently related. Who is doing what with whom remains unclear, and ultimately unimportant. Instead, there are hours of discussion. And as the suddenly pregnant Nihal decides for an abortion, another candidate for paternity emerges at the clinic.

"Zephyr" is a beautifully photographed and orchestrated film set in the luxuriant Black Sea region – a cinematic counterpart to "Bal" (Honey), Semih Kaplanoglu’s Berlinale award winning film that revels in natural scenery. Belma Bas sketches the problematic relationship between a young girl and her mother. The story ends tragically as both women prove unable to act as adults.

Simple outlines and historical complexities

The fact that the jury decided to award the only weak point of this otherwise convincing film highlights the blind spot of the new Turkish cinema – the screenplay. The dramaturgy and characterization, as well as narrative handwork, frequently lags far behind the general sense of dynamism in these films. The character of the torturer, police officer, or informer is portrayed in many dramas reanalysing historical events simply as a vapid bully. Simple black and white outlines contribute little to a better understanding of complex historical events.

Scene from 'Zephyr' (photo: DW/Istanbul Film Festival)
Revelling in natural scenery: films currently made in Turkey are "brilliantly shot, extremely slow, consciously opposed to the cliché of a colourful, wild, and temperamental orient, and populated by introverted, neurotic characters," writes Farzanefar

​​This can be seen quite clearly in the film "Unseen". Dealing with the theme of exile on the Bosporus – Turkey opened its doors to many refugees from the Third Reich – the film could have had international potential.

Yet, the multifaceted story of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who engaged in musical-ethnological studies in the Anatolian interior, all the while monitored by Turkish Nazi collaborators, is totally overstreched by an extraneous narrative layer. In this subplot, which takes place some 60 years after Bartok’s asylum in Turkey, it is revealed that a bride-to-be is the descendant of a horrid Nazi spy, resulting in her marriage being called off. At least the assembled cast, including Udo Kier, provide reliable performance. The veteran director Ali Özgentürk should have known better.

Fascinating, spectacular, first-class – German-Turkish interests

There is plenty of evidence that the cinematic bonds between Germany and Turkey are strong. There is the film "Ecumenopolis – City without Limits", a furious globalization critique of Istanbul produced with subsidy grants from Hamburg, German involvement in Seyfi Teoman’s "Our Grand Despair", and Udo Kier’s portrayal of Bartok.

At present, Turkish cinema is tremendously attractive for Almanya – it offers interesting subject matter, spectacular landscapes, top-notch actors, low production costs, and rapidly improving technical standards. For the past five years, directors, producers, and editors have been attracted by the opportunity of winning prizes at the Istanbul Film Festival coproduction event "Meetings on the Bridge".

This year, for the first time, the German-Turkish Co-Production Fund, forged under the guiding hand of Ahmet Boyacioglu, is offering 100,000 euros in start-up funding for film projects to be shared by the two countries. Although when divided among seven film proposals, the sum appears rather modest, it is nonetheless symbolic and, above all, sets an important precedent.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp

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