Turkey’s Antalya Festival Navigates Rebirth in Troubled Times

The excoriating ‘Angels Wear White’ and ‘Ugly Duckling,’ one of the strongest homemade offerings to a foreign eye, win prizes at festival

ANTALYA — Under spectacular lilac and orange skies, it’s a particularly placid Mediterranean that laps against the curving pebble beaches of Turkey’s Southern coast. But the sea is also a constant reminder of a critical worldwide situation that is anything but calm, and that gave the 54th Antalya Film Festival its central theme. The refugee crisis was writ large across all sections of this year’s rejigged iteration — a calculated decision credited to British-Irish producer Mike Downey in his inaugural year as the festival’s Artistic Director. The opening gala was the World Premiere of Turkish-Bosnian co-production “Never Leave Me” which raggedly follows a gang of exiled Syrian kids on the historic streets of Turkey’s Balıklıgöl, and the final evening’s Special Screening was Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Other Side Of Hope” which drolly examines the relationship between a Syrian stowaway and a Finnish restaurateur: The festival was bookended by stories of the displaced.

In those films, along with competition titles like “Human Flow,” Ai Weiwei’s epic but basic primer on the crisis, and “The Guest,” a local production that took the Audience Award despite its craft not being quite as solid as its intentions, a conflict exists between humanitarian duty to the international community and the protection of national identity. And this tension was not confined to the screen: even before an apparently unrelated technical snafu caused the film to be shut off halfway through, a screening of Ai’s documentary was disrupted by a volubly angry reaction to the word “guerrilla” being used in reference to the outlawed PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party).

Anti-Kurdish sentiment could also account for the number of walkouts from Ender Özkahraman’s “Ugly Duckling,” despite it being, to an outsider’s eye, one of the strongest homemade offerings in the lineup. Such small incidents served as reminders of the state-sponsored festival’s brushes with controversy in recent years, in particular format changes that were touted as fostering a more outward-looking and inclusive approach, but interpreted by critics as an erosion of the festival’s homegrown credentials.

Certainly the other themes to emerge from a week of eclectic programming were less regionally specific than universal. “We have gender equality in Antalya!” exclaimed Downey proudly, referring to the competition’s laudable 50/50 split between male and female directors. And the emphasis wasn’t just behind the camera: a striking number of films centralized the experience of women more or less overtly challenging their proscribed social roles, from “Ugly Duckling,” to Michel Franco’s “April’s Daughters” to Georgia’s glitchy and complex, Youth-Award-winning “Scary Mother” to Sean Baker’s vibrant and tragic “The Florida Project,” which picked up the Special Jury Prize. Indeed, the international jury, headed by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman clearly responded to this throughline: while Mohammad Rasoulof’s noirish, muscular morality drama “A Man of Integrity” picked up Best Director and Best Actor, the Golden Orange went to “Angels Wear White,” Vivian Qu’s excellent, excoriating examination of rape culture in a Chinese seaside town.

The tough-minded story is told from the perspective of the 15-year-old witness to the rape of two schoolgirls. Wen Qi’s truculent, riveting performance in the role won her the festival’s Best Actress prize and it also exemplifies the final strand of commonality that ran through many of more representative selections. Even without mentioning the “Films for Young People” sidebar, “The Florida Project,” “The Guest,” “Never Leave Me” and “Angels” all feature children forced by circumstance to grow up before their time, streetsmart kids with guarded, ancient eyes. There is perhaps no more fitting emblem for a festival whose fascinating, promising but not unproblematic recent rebirth makes it feel so much younger than its 54 years.

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