ANTALYA – The 51st Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in Turkey kicked off on a high note over the weekend despite political turbulence that put the country’s oldest film event at risk of regularly taking place.

The Turkish government’s unwillingness to intervene in the ongoing battle with ISIS militias over the predominantly Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani, on its border, has prompted a recent burst of local anti-government protests and violent clashes which caused more than thirty deaths.

In turn, this initially caused organizers to consider postponing the October 10-18 shindig.
Instead, the fest’s traditional parade and several related concerts and celebrations were cancelled to strike a more somber note, but the show went on.

“The art of cinema has healing powers that we need more than ever today,” said Antalya mayor Menderes Türel at the packed opening ceremony in the city’s Expo center on Friday. “That is why we believe we needed to raise the curtain,” added the pol who is driving the fest’s revamp. The mayor has big plans for Antalya, the scenic city known for its long coastline, to become Turkey’s prime film industry hub.

During the ceremony, a lifetime achievement award was handed to Ellen Burstyn who thanked the audience in Turkish. Veteran Turkish multi-hyphenate Haldun Dormen was also honored.

A reception co-hosted by Variety and the festival followed at the Hotel Rixos, with Burstyn, Anna Ivara (pictured), Dormen (also pictured), and lots of industry heavyweights and Turkish stars, including Baran Seyhan, Janset Pacal, and Haluk Piyes (also pictured) in attendance.

The opening film, Giorgi Ovashvili’s almost wordless fable “Corn Island,” which is Georgia’s foreign Oscar candidate and took the top prize in Karlovy Vary, screened during a gala on Saturday.

Antalya’s solid lineup comprises a national competition featuring recent Turkish movies such as recent Venice Special Jury prizewiner “Sivas,” by Kaan Mujdeci, and Kutlug Ataman’s Anatolia-set “The Lamb,” which got good notice earlier this year in Berlin. And also a cherry-picked international competition that includes buzzed-about courtroom drama “Court,” by Indian first-timer Chaitanya Tamhane, which took both the Lion of The Future and the top nod in the Horizons section at Venice.

As part of the respected fest’s revamp effort the industry component has been beefed up this year, with the launch of the Antalya Film Forum, a co-prod and project development mart dedicated to giving Turkish cinema a boost at a time when its vibrancy is unquestionable, though there is room for improvement, especially in nurturing new directors who think outside the box. The fest’s organization can also use some sharpening.

But Antalya’s ambitions transcend the fest, the idea being for this top tourist destination to become the Turkish film industry’s prime production hub, mixing local and international industry elements, somewhat like what Vancouver is to Canada.

In an interview with Variety, Mayor Menderes Türel said he has big plans to build state-of-the-art film studios and have them completed within three years.

“Antalya is a paradise of the world,” he boasted. “The sunlight is great for shooting movies; our locations include coastline, mountains, Roman ruins, and modern architecture.”

He added that new national tax incentives for foreign productions in Turkey, expected to go into effect soon, “will make us more competitive, on top of which I will add more soft money support on things such as hotels, food, and logistics,” the mayor vowed.

A high-profile Turkish government and film industry delegation will be travelling to Los Angeles to forge closer Hollywood ties during the upcoming American Film Market in November.