Fest Notebook: Titles Rank, Tensions Flare at Istanbul

Protests over the closure of a long-standing theater marred a strong edition of the Turkish event

Although auteurs like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Yesim Ustaglu, Reha Erdem and Semih Kaplanoglu remain the standard bearers for Turkish cinema on the international festival and arthouse circuit, they represent only a few of the Turkish helmers who have recently been introduced to the American market in recent years. Film Movement just nabbed Pelin Esmer’s “Watch Tower,” and First Run Features had a small hit in 2007 with Abdullah Oguz’s “Bliss.”

Angling to join their ranks are a number of new films that recently screened in the national competition at the Istanbul Film Festival, an event notable this year not only for its program, but for the protests that erupted over the impending demolition of the long-standing Emek Theater. The 875-seat venue, long a beloved festival site, was shuttered in 2010 as a legal battle simmered over a developer’s plans to turn it into a shopping and entertainment complex.

On April 7, the fest’s lifetime achievement honoree, Costa-Gavras, as well as filmmakers Mike Newell, Marco Bechis, Simon Brook, and Jan Ole Gerster joined a peaceful demonstration against the cinema’s destruction. However, the police dispersed demonstrators using tear gas, water cannons and batons; four people were arrested, including Berke Gol, a Turkish critic serving on the Fipresci jury. They were released the next day, pending a trial.

Fortunately, the real-life controversy was scarcely the only source of high drama on offer at the festival. Indeed, nothing could have been further from the new Turkish cinema’s mode of aestheticized minimalism than the festival’s oddball best-feature winner, helmer-scribe Onur Unlu’s “Thou Gild’st the Even” (pictured above), a low-budget, black-and-white oddity replete with Shakespearean sonnets (hence the awkward English title), iconic tunes and cheesy special effects. Unfolding in a rustic town where several characters have (unremarked on) superpowers, the film blends comic, sci-fi and grotesque elements into a troubled-marriage plotline. Cult and fantasy fests might cotton to this idiosyncratic item, which also captured the critics’ award and kudos for screenplay and editing.

For my money, the best film in competition was “Yozgat Blues,” a humanist heartbreaker from sophomore helmer Mahmut Fazil Coskun, more than fulfilling the promise of his debut feature, “Wrong Rosary.” Already slated to screen at a prominent fall festival, this exquisitely shot, superbly performed realist drama follows a gentlemanly Istanbul musician (actor winner Ercan Kesal) who takes a winter gig performing old-fashioned French chansons at a run-down club in the titular provincial city. The plot centers on his relationship with his much younger female backup vocalist and the ambitious young barber they meet. Precise camerawork supports a theme of thwarted expectations, without ever seeming overstated.

Asli Ozge (“Men on the Bridge”) claimed the director and cinematography kudos for her sophomore feature, “Lifelong,” a sparingly told portrait of an unhappy marriage set in upscale Istanbul (reviewed in full by Variety from the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 16). Although impressive-looking, the pic’s Antonioniesque narrative struck some as too cold and oblique.

Those who prefer their drama explosive and messy, rather than churning below the surface, rejoiced in Deniz Akcay Katiksiz’s psychologically acute dysfunctional-family drama “Nobody’s Home.” Winner of the best debut and audience awards, it tells the story of a selfish mother who, following the death of her husband, forces the patriarch’s responsibilities on her eldest daughter, while willfully ignoring the trauma this causes her teenage son and younger daughter. Another strong family drama, Cemil Agacikoglu’s poignant “Forgive Me,” earned the actress prize for Sema Poyruz’s performance as the mother of a mentally challenged man whose disabilities dominated the household for years.

A special jury prize went to helmer Dervis Zaim’s “The Cycle,” a spectacular-looking docu-fiction hybrid that explores issues such as tradition and man’s relationship to nature. Performed by non-pros, it’s set in the village of Hasanpasa, home to an ancient, annual competition for shepherds and their flocks.

Ironically, while Zaim’s film stressed the importance of preserving Turkey’s cultural heritage, Istanbul film bizzers, Beyoglu neighborhood residents, and festival staff and guests found themselves in a losing battle over the demolition of the Emek, a local landmark since 1924. A day after the protests, Turkey’s best-known film critic, Atilla Dorsay of the daily Sabah, kept his vow to retire if the Emek was destroyed, telling his readers, “The cinema itself and also the cultural foundation, historical preservation and the lifestyle it symbolized were important.”

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