Political turbulence is making it tough for filmmakers in Turkey with ambitions to make movies that can travel globally. But despite many impediments, Turkish auteurs are still managing to maintain a significant presence on the festival circuit.
The past year has seen auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan back at Cannes with “The Wild Pear Tree”; newcomer Omar Atay’s “Brothers” bowed to positive reviews at Karlovy Vary; Tolga Karacelik’s “Butterfiles” make a splash at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury prize; and Mahmout Fazil Coskun’s biting “The Announcement,” about a failed 1963 Turkish army coup, scooped the Special Jury nod in Venice’s Horizons section, among other outings.
Kicking off 2019 with an auspicious start is Emin Alper’s third feature, “A Tale of Three Sisters,” competing for a Berlin Golden Bear. Alper’s politically charged drama “Frenzy,” set in a dystopian Istanbul, won Venice’s Jury Special Prize in 2015.
Alper’s new film unfolds in his native central Anatolia where three sisters, who had been assigned as foster children to affluent city families, are made to return to their biological father’s house in his poor village. There they oscillate between solidarity and competition as they attempt to go back to the city while contending with decisions being made by the men around them.
“This film is a bit different compared with my previous films, both of which had a political context,” Alper says, noting that those “were both allegories about the politics of Turkey,” while “Sisters” “is much more personal.”
Paradoxically, while Alper’s first two films, the “political ones,” tapped into Turkey’s public funding, “Sisters,” which went into development after the country’s 2016 failed coup attempt, did not.
“It’s not that this film is dangerous in terms of story,” he says. It’s because of my previous films…. because I’m known as a sort of opposition filmmaker,” Alper adds. So producers Nadir Operli, who says the “Sisters” project was “blacklisted,” and Muzzaffer Yildirim had to find private equity and European co-producers.
“Three Sisters” is a co-production between Liman Film (Turkey), NuLook Production (Turkey), Komplizen Film (Germany), Circe Films (Netherlands) and Horsefly Prods. (Greece).
Operli is actually quite upbeat about prospects for Turkish cinema going forward.
New Turkish film legislation in the works — it’s been approved by parliament, but must clear more hurdles — which Operli hopes will go into effect later this year “could bring big changes for the industry,” he says. A key aspect is it will offer a 30% incentive to foreign productions that are fully or partially shot in Turkey, which is crucial “in terms of being able to attract more co-productions,” notes Operli.
The “Sisters” producer laments that, unlike in most of Europe, Turkey’s new film law doesn’t force the country’s broadcasters to invest in film. More generally, Turkish producers don’t get much TV coin because TV screen time is dominated by the country’s local skeins which, incidentally, have also conquered the world.
Meanwhile, 2018 can be considered a banner year for Turkish movies at the home box office where the domestic market share was a whopping 62.9% market share of admissions with U.S. titles accounting for a mere 27.9% of ticket sales. “Avengers: Infinity War,” which came in a number six on the 2018 Turkish box office chart, was the only Hollywood blockbuster in the top 10.
But local industry critics contend that the problem is the Turkish box office is dominated by local comedies that don’t travel, while quality/arthouse fare is suffering.
In terms of mere numbers, Turkish production is buoyant with more than 200 local features made last year, roughly 25 of which didn’t get theatrical distribution, according to figures from analyst Deniz Yavuz at local film data compiler Antrakt.
But diminished government funding — the culture ministry supported only 22 films in 2018 — and the double-digit drop in value of the Turkish lira are causing budgets to shrink and productions values to deteriorate.
Also, the country is becoming increasingly polarized between pro-government producers, who tend to be those who just want to keep feeding escapist fare to local audiences, and those who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and are making movies with more gravitas and a more global mindset. Not everyone, however, falls in one of these two camps.
But “a young generation of filmmakers is emerging,” points out prominent Turkish film industry multi-hyphenate Ahmet Boyacioglu. “Every year there is an unknown director [from Turkey] who makes a really good film that travels to a festival,” observes the veteran fest programmer, producer, director and promoter. “In fact,” he says, somewhat like in neighboring Greece, “the economic and political crisis could even help us to make better films.”