October 2, 2008

The Istanbul International Film Festival

By Nochimson, Martha P

Try telling the Istanbullus that "film is dead," as they pack five theaters five times a day during the fortnight of the International Istanbul Film Festival, this year from April 5th- 20th. Or even that some of what they are watching are digitally produced images, not film. The zest for what these large, enthusiastic audiences experience as cinema goes on unabated. The Turkish directors who showed their films at the festival gave evidence of a similar delight in making the screen speak for them. Some of the most intriguing Turkish films on display took a special interest in adventurous narrative forms, and in the core themes of contemporary Turkish life: the complexities of gender identity and the conflict between the modern and the traditional. Yumurta (Egg), the audience favorite and winner of the Golden Tulip Award, is a particularly good example of cutting-edge Turkish cinema. Egg begins disconcertingly with a long take of a lane somewhere in rural Turkey. There is neither dialog nor music, as a portly matron in her sixties walks slowly toward the camera. Who is she? The film cuts elliptically to an urban scene, a dark bookstore in Istanbul, where Yusuf {Nejat Isler), a handsome young store clerk allows a sexy but somewhat tartish young woman to barter a bottle of wine for a cookbook. The rest of the film concerns Yusuf s return to his birthplace in Tire for his mother's funeral, his discovery (in his mother's house) of AyIa (Saadet Aksoy), a distant cousin he barely remembers, his reluctant trip with AyIa to keep his mother's promise to sacrifice a ram, and his futile attempt to return to Istanbul. The first, dislocating cuts of the film are characteristic of the director's evocative style. Subsequently, we conclude that the woman in the first frames must have been Yusuf s mother; and that Yusuf s attempt to be an urban cosmopolite in Istanbul is not going well. We continue to run behind the director, while he gives us leeway to connect the dots ourselves.

Yusuf, later revealed to be a moderately successful poet in a fallow period, is clearly a site of the struggle in Turkey between the modern, disposed of in the brief bookstore scene, and the ancient, to which the rest of the film is devoted. The indeterminacy with which Kaplanoglu suffiases Yusufs relationship to traditions, which repel him, tells a truth that "clarity" would ironically mask with oversimplifications. A vortex of possible meanings swirl around Yusufs homecoming and the trauma of the animal sacrifice he performs. But the power of his ties to his history is abundantly clear as he tries several times to leave Tire and somehow cannot drive his car beyond the boundaries of his birthplace. In the final scene, after what was supposed to be his last farewell to AyIa, who has increasingly given evidence of being attracted to him, Yusuf returns yet again to his mother's house. As he sits down wordlessly to eat with AyIa, she hands him a fresh egg she has just brought in from a hen's nest, a smile playing about her lips. The effect is uncanny. The sine qua non of the freedom of modern life, the universal modern symbol of male potency, the automobile, is rendered powerless here; at the same time, Yusuf appears to have been pulled back into the ancient maternal orbit, the power of which is distilled in the organic, nontechnological egg. Are we witnessing a rebirth or a regression? Kaplanoglu will not tell us.

Issues of gender and the uneasy politics of today's Turkey also drive Gitmek (My Marion, My Brando), whose star and author, Ayca Damgaci, took the award for best actress. However, where Egg has a polished esthetic and depends on understated performances, My Marion, My Brando takes a raw, cinema-verite approach and relies on an Anna Magnani-iike performer who is more expressive than nuanced. My Marion, shot on videotape, barely fictionalizes the real-life love affair between Damgaci and Kama AIi Kahn, widely known in Turkey as a television superhero. Damgaci plays an eccentric Istanbul stage actress-named Ayca-who feels marginalized in her own society. Ayca's romance in the film with the character Hama AIi, obviously named for Damgacfs real-life lover, is her one hope of rescue from loneliness. Hama AIi appears in the film only in the actual videotape letters that Hama AIi Kahn sent to Damgaci while they were separated. Like Kahn, a Kurd who was killed on the border of Iraq, so too the fictional Ayca's fictional Hama Ali dies in a violent incident associated with the Iraq War. The film recreates Damgaci's real desperation to reunite with Kahn, and ends with a fictionalized version of her discovery that her lover had become a war casualty.

Where language is in minimal supply in Egg, nothing is left unsaid in My Marion, My Brando, as Ayca refers to her lover in her diary. (Kama AIi is the least Brandoish actor possible, but to Ayca he exudes the magnetism this exclamation suggests.) No ambiguity here; we know precisely the point of view of this film about the casualties of war, a horror at the situation in Iraq that is in no way unique to the film. What is unique is the starkly verite texture of My Marion that strips away the glamor of the conventional war romance movie. There are no soaring cadences of "As Time Goes By," no nonspecific exotic locations, no tender close-ups of tears glistening in mascaraed eyes. This is Turkey and the border of Iraq, real border settlements, real checkpoints. This is Ayca struggling with conservative Moslem restrictions on women as she tenaciously pursues her quest, after she leaves Istanbul for the more remote locations on her journey. This is real emotion; the real pain of war, or as close as it gets in fiction.

One Turkish film that did not win an award, but also records a noteworthy perspective on gender questions, and practices ancient and modern, is Havar, directed by Mehmet Guleryuz, a painter, whose film frames are like a series of breathtaking canvases. Havar tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, whose name, in Kurdish, means "cry for help," presenting us with the spectre of an honor killing when Havar (Cicek Tekdemir) is publicly compromised by a man she barely knows and for whom she has no feelings. By the old rules, the man's attentions are cause enough for communal pressure on her family to kill her. As in Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema, which the director admires, the nonprofessional actors in Havar turn in powerful, emotionally charged performances in a story that grows from their own reality. The intensity of the film is magnified by its location, Batman, a Kurdish desert region of southern Turkey, punctuated by primal stone outcroppings that echo the fundamentalist Islam of the area.

In an unexpected turn, however, the film reveals that the greatest pressure on Havar's father (Abdullah Tarhan) to commit an honor killing is not religious but economic. After a long period of deliberation, Havar's father seems likely to let her live, when a male relative reminds him that if he does, no one will patronize his business, and complete destitution will follow. Only then does Havar's father capitulate. A historical perspective on Havar's situation is provided by a frame story, that of a young boy who is now an outcast of the community. Once ordered to kill his sister, who had been like a mother to him, he is haunted by the trauma of watching her kill herself when she saw that he couldn't pull the trigger, and provides Havar her only source of consolation. Through this framing story, the film asks whether insight into history can change tradition.

In its provocative response to that question, Havar reflects some new social realities, but offers no pat solutions. Havar's attitude represents an improvement over that of the woman in the frame story; she refuses to commit suicide and, when her father comes to kill her, she eloquently pleads for her life. Moreover, Havar's words are not lost on her father. As he pulls her up the jutting rocks to sacrifice her, he clearly agonizes over his knowledge of her innocence. How will this patriarch resolve the competing pressures? The last image, of Havar's face, as she looks up at her father, leaves us with unfinished business. By chance, I found myself sitting near the director, writer, and stars at the screening of Havar. As a result, I had a chance to ask the writer, Feza Sinar, why she chose to leave the film inconclusive. Her answer was that she wanted to avoid the twin evils of a stereotypical ending that would create a hopeless image and the demonization of today's Islamic men.

At a cocktail party for foreign press, on the top of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, I spoke with Jean Roy, film critic of l'Humanite, about the Turkish language and how mysterious it is from the point of view of other European countries, as well as from the perspective of the English-speaking United States. Its words, the structure of its grammar, its names resonate neither with the Germanic nor the Romance languages. But Turkish cinema is in the process of dissolving these boundaries, performing art's magic expansion of human understanding. More distribution, please.

For more information on the Istanbul Film Festival, visit www.istfest.org/

Gender issues figure prominently in My Marion, My Brando, written by and starring Acya Damgaci, who won the Istanbul Film Festival's award for Best Actress. Nejat Isler stars in Yumurta, winner of the Golden Tulip Award at the Istanbul Festival.

Martha P. Nochimson is a Cineaste Associate and the author of Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hong Kong and Hollywood

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