The undoubted discovery of this year’s local crop at the Istanbul fest, “Boats out of Watermelon Rinds” is an autobiographical charmer by first-time helmer Ahmet Ulucay, evoking early-teen dreams about girls and movies in an Anatolian village during the ’60s. Sadly limited by being shot on DV (with transfer to 35mm only so-so by today’s standards), pic is an assured debut in all departments by the reclusive, 39-year-old filmmaker (after a number of shorts), who still lives in the same area in which the story is set. Festival bookings are already assured, with some small-screen exposure down the line.
Finished product clearly benefited from being produced by IFR, founded by commercials director Ender Akay (who made his own helming debut this year with “Where’s Firuze?”). Editing is especially smooth, and one can only wonder what the movie, which often makes striking use of color and landscape, would have looked like if shot on celluloid.
Action is set in the village of Tepecik and adjacent town of Tavsanli, some 100 miles southeast of Istanbul in the plains of Western Anatolia. It’s some time in the mid-’60s, when Turkey had a robust commercial film industry, and movie-mad Recep (Ismail Hakki Taslak) and his pal, Mehmet (Kadir Kaymaz), squirrel away dumped footage from the local cinema to run in a makeshift theater in their stone shanty.
The only problem is that, instead of a proper projector, they have only a wooden box with a light bulb — through which they pull the strips of celluloid to zero result. Gradually, they learn about technical gewgaws like the Maltese Cross, and fantasize about one day getting real equipment. Meanwhile, their audience of one is the village fool, Crazy Omer.
Script gradually builds a selective portrait of life in the area through different strands. Recep works as an apprentice to a watermelon vendor, who whiles away his time chatting to locals, reading magazines and observing town life. Mehmet is apprenticed to a tyrannical barber, Kemal. Both boys have little interest in their day jobs.
Beyond movies, Recep’s main interest is girls, especially beautiful, 20-year-old Nihal (Boncuk Yilmaz), who lives in town and is a few notches above him in both age and social standing. She’s outright snooty to his clumsy courting with gifts of walnuts, though her mom, young widow Nezihe (Gulayse Erkoc), thinks he’s kind of cute. Recep is blithely unaware that Nihal’s younger sister, Guler (Hasbiye Gunay), has eyes for him.
Smoothly mixing together these various strands, film builds by the halfway point into an involving light character comedy, full of small period details and tiny set pieces (Recep’s courting, Mehmet giving him a disastrous haircut, the boys rescuing celluloid the superstitious village women want to burn). When Mehmet helps his friend by smuggling a love letter to Nihal, script pulls a major twist that’s both charming and subtly erotic, followed by a wistful and philosophical coda.
The combo of first love and movie obsession is hardly new, but writer-director Ulucay brings an engaging flavor to the material, aided by an acute sense of period and setting, plus tip-top perfs by the whole cast. Taslak and Kaymaz inhabit their roles with no sense of strain and, as Nihal, Yilmaz is a looker with a future.