4-19 April, 2009

The 28th International Istanbul Film Festival closed by hosting its Closing Gala on 19 April 2009. At the gala, where Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski received The Lifetime Achievement Award, the Golden Tulip was awarded to director Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero (2008), by the jury presided over by director Goran Paskaljevic and composed of film critic Mike Goodridge, president of the European Film Promotion Claudia Landsberger, director Cristian Mungiu and director Ümit Ünal. The jury was impressed by Larrain’s film for its “highly original portrait of life under an oppressive political regime” (1) in a “shocking, funny and moving” way. This award is given every year to a film that connects the world of art and artists with the seventh art, or for works of literature adapted to the silver screen.

The disposals of a junta regime

A Chile-Brazil co-production shot in 2008, Tony Manero was Chile’s official selection for the 2009 Oscars and won the KNF Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2009. The film, which is set in Santiago de Chile in 1979, is a harsh insight into the life of the misfit Raúl (Alfredo Castro), who takes the main character from Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), Tony Manero, as his idol. For Raúl, Manero is the ultimate symbol of a charismatic and cool man, a way of being that the new régime, after Augusto Pinochet’s junta, promotes in its individualistic values. The film is particularly successful in giving vivid, and even shocking, portrayals of the world where the fallen live. This is a world where people try to make themselves believe that they are in show business, trying to put together a show, but it seems like they are all living the same lie, one that they would not believe if they were on their own. Lacking any ethical or moral values whatsoever, Raúl never hesitates walking over other people, beating an old woman to death to get her television or trying to have sex with his girlfriend’s daughter, going to the bathroom on the suit of another nominee of the Manero competition to stop him from going to the finals, and so on. He is obviously at a place that is lower than the lowest, both in terms of the social and the personal, yet in a paradoxical way somewhere higher than those around him as they need his leadership to carry on the rehearsals for their show. Every time he is asked about his job, he replies “show business” and this line sounds almost like a signal phrase, a code which means that he is nothing, having been completely thrown out of the system. While portraying the desperately hopeless and unethical world of Raúl, the film also depicts the world of people who, like Raúl, are just the detritus of Pinochet’s inhuman régime. In this truly dark picture of lives many of us would not even want to imagine, Larrain succeeds in shocking and disturbing us, as exemplified by the incident of one audience member who left the theatre in horror saying “that’s enough” during a scene of one of Raúl’s discomforting sexual encounters. Director of photography S. Armstrong has been more than successful in giving the colour of these people’s lives in an almost sepia tone throughout the film. Larrain defines his film as “an exploration on the false premise that happiness, success or achievement can be reached by imitating and supplanting one culture with another foreign one” and as this premise, unfortunately, is still followed by so many people all over the world, the film does and will continue to have a lot to tell people both in his country and everywhere else.

A Film With Me In It

The Irish film by Ian Fitzgibbon, A Film With Me In It (2008), took the Special Jury Prize for being, in the jury’s words, “a rare comedy which keeps you laughing from beginning to end with its unusual story and dark, dark humour”. This film, however, requires an in-depth discussion on both an æsthetic as well as an ethical level: how much dark humour can the death of three people and a dog, one after the other, as a result of unfortunate accidents, include? How is it possible for a director to expect his audience to be able to laugh at the bodies covered with blood throughout the film? One might claim that in the post-Tarantino era these questions are rather outdated; nevertheless, this film lacks the dimensions of ridicule that Quentin Tarantino’s films so richly possess. Thus, these questions need answers.

The National Jury, presided over by director Kutlug Ataman, and composed of TimeOut Film Guide editor Geoff Andrew, author Ayse Kulin, producer Zeynep Özbatur, Sarajevo Film Festival Director Mirsad Purivatra and actress Bennu Yildirimlar, decided to give the Golden Tulip Best Film Award to Köprüdekiler (Men on the Bridge, 2009) directed by Asli Özge. A German-French-Turkish co-production, Köprüdekiler tells the stories of three characters whose lives are intertwined with the Bosphorus Bridge: Fikret, who sells roses in the traffic jam on the bridge; Umut, a driver of a shared-taxi passing over the bridge every day; and Murat, a 24-year-old traffic policeman who has been recently transferred to duty on the bridge. Shot with the good intention of giving a realistic profile of ordinary people and their ordinary lives with their difficulties and small dreams, this film would have been better if it could have reflected the lives of these characters through a more developed æsthetic perception and a philosophical insight into the stories of the ‘storylessness’ of their lives.

Human rights on the screen

BirdWatchers

First announced in 2007, the annual FACE Award (Council of Europe Film Award) is presented to the director of a film that raises public awareness and interest in human rights issues, creates better understanding of their importance, and best reflects the Council’s values of respect for human rights, individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law. This year the FACE award was given to BirdWatchers – la terra degli uomini rossi (Birdwatchers, 2008) by Marco Bechis, by a jury composed of producer Peter Gustafsson, director Hüseyin Karabey, Jan Kleijssen from the Council of Europe and actress Serra Yilmaz. In choosing this film, the jury made the declaration that,

in today’s expanding world, respect for native populations and minorities is essential. By conveying this important message in a very well-constructed story, Birdwatchers describes the complexities of a changing society.

A director known well by Turkish audiences for his film Garage Olimpo (1999), Bechis does a great job in giving the social and personal dimensions of a conflict between the Old World and New, in mid-west Brazil, bypassing a possible dichotomy between the two. The affair between the daughter of the fazeindro and a young indio acts as a sub-story, constantly undermining the presuppositions required by such a dichotomy. Bechis was outstandingly successful in getting most of the lead roles of the film cast with Guarani Indians. The words of one of these actors, Ambrosio – “There is justice – the white people’s justice against the Indian. In favour of the Indian, I see none” – gives a clear view of what the director wanted to and did achieve in his film: to create a perspective which advocates a world where justice will cease to be in favour of the strong.

The Special Jury Prize of this competition was given to the Indian film, Firaaq (2008), by Nandita Das for

courageously dealing with the sensitive theme of religious intolerance and sectarian strife. Despite showing terrible consequences, it also conveys a message of hope, demonstrating that people can make choices.

The film is the debut of the actress and human rights advocate Das, who says that “it is a work of fiction, based on a thousand true stories. Firaaq is set in Gujarat and brings to surface how a people’s lives are affected after riots and mayhem are unleashed in the state”; she adds that this film was never intended “to point fingers at someone or other”.

This year’s FIPRESCI award in the International Competition went to Süt (Milk, Turkey-France-Germany, 2008) by Semih Kaplanoglu, which is the second part of the Yusuf trilogy; the first part won last year’s National Competition. The award in the National Competition, in memory of Onat Kutlar, went to Hayat Var (My Only Sunshine, 2008) directed by Reha Erdem. The jury thought that both the films “represent a New Turkish Cinema, that is not self-centred or captured” and “enhance the possibilities of universal cinematographic aesthetics and answer to the essential questions of human life”.

Troubled Water

This year’s Festival presented a good selection of contemporary Scandinavian cinema, not surprisingly, considering the rise of that cinema in the last couple of years. One of these films was DeUsynlige (Troubled Water, 2008), a Norway-Sweden co-production directed by Erik Poppe. The last piece of a trilogy preceded by Schpaaa (1998) and Hawaii, Oslo (2004), the film is a deep and sophisticated love story between Jan Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), who has been employed as the organist of a church after serving his sentence for having killed a child, and Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), the pastor of the church. As the two feel more and more for each other the friendship between Jan and Anna’s son, Jens (Fredrik Grøndahl), grows stronger as well. Nevertheless, it turns out that Jan is not yet free of his past and the time served in gaol is not all that he has to pay for his crime.

Infused into the love story are meditations and insights, moving from existentialism to a Christian philosophy such as that of Søren Kierkegaard, which turn the film into a philosophical drama. With its outstanding visual language melded with an almost hypnotic use of sound as well as a highly sophisticated, fragmented screenplay, the film keeps its audience curious for 115 minutes with no difficulty at all.

Finnish director Jukka-Pekka Valkepää’s début feature, Muukalainen (The Visitor, 2008) – an homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962) – appeared as another outstanding example of the Scandinavian films at this year’s festival.

European films on psychological alienation

Shown in the “World of the Festivals” section, Sylvie Verheyde’s Stella (2008), based on the life of an 11-year-old middle-class school student (Léora Barbara) in Paris in 1977, was one of the best surprises of this year’s Festival. Stella, whose parents run a working-class bar and boarding house, is the only graduate of her primary school to be accepted into the middle-class school that we find her in now. Inevitably, she is divided between two distant worlds: that of her classmates at school, particularly her close friend, Gladys (Mélissa Rodriguez) – the daughter of an intellectual Argentinean Jewish exile couple – and the world of outsiders to the middle class at home. Verheyde does an excellent job in recreating the world of the 1970s, both in her visual expressions and in the selection of costumes and music, but this is not the only strength of the film. The director, in dealing with the clearly emotional luggage deriving from an autobiographical story, manages to bring an outstanding psychological depth to her film.

Cherry Blossoms - Hanami

Shown in the “Young Masters” section of the Festival, Vse umrut, a ya ostanus (Everybody Dies But Me, 2008), the début of the 25-year-old Valeria Gai Germanika, was based on a similar theme, telling the story of three 14-year-old girls who live in a bleak suburb outside of Moscow. An intense, harsh insight into the understandably narcissistic world of these sensitive, uncomfortable teenagers, this brave film is obviously a hopeful start for Germanika’s feature-length career.

Another great surprise of this year’s Festival was Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms – Hanami, 2008) by the German director Doris Dörrie. An homage to Yasujiro Ozu’s Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), the film offers numerous philosophical and psychological meditations on different levels. Told through a love story that transcends death, this film is a matchless insight into the lost values of developed Western countries – Germany, in particular. Spreading around the love story in the centre, Dörrie makes a deep criticism of contemporary German society’s emotional alienation and estrangement. Although based on two worlds – one in the west (Germany) and one in the east (Japan) – the film by no means falls into the trap of creating an East-West dichotomy of a naïve orientalism; it surpasses such a dichotomy by depicting the fast and busy modern life in Tokyo. The portrayal of each character is a particular achievement, combined with perfect acting. The most important success of the film is that it can create extremely difficult characters, such as an elderly German (ex-)rationalist trying to find his dead wife’s soul at the skirts of Mount Fuji and a shadow dancer teenager girl living in a tent in the middle of Tokyo, in such a vivid and realistic way. A visual feast through the landscape of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and shadow-dance cut-ups combined with an elegant use of Japanese music, this film is a most poignant elegy for those values that have been lost in modern life and a deeper than deep perspective on the meaning of love.

Documentaries telling more than the truth

Like every year, this year’s Festival also offered a number of interesting documentaries in the “Documentary Time with NTV” section. One of these was Peter Greenaway’s film, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008), “an essayistic documentary” that is based on “forensic research of Rembrandt’s painting ‘Nightwatch’”. Greenaway, who was one of the guests of the Festival and who gave two master classes, presented his film to the audience. Starting his presentation by remarking on his surprise at seeing so many people in the theatre on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Greenaway said that, “filmmaking is creating a world through artificial light, and Rembrandt was in a way one of the first filmmakers”.

Oblivion

Another documentary that attracted many people’s admiration at this year’s Festival was El olvido (Oblivion, 2009) by Heddy Honigmann. Her latest film after Forever (2006), Oblivion is a poetic documentation of the lives of people struggling in poverty in Peru’s capital, Lima. Old restaurants, small shops, bars and streets are lined up in the film like a stage where people hold on to dreams and memories, and sometimes to poems, in a world where they have been abused by bad-willing rulers for too long. The long moments of silence give space to the audience to think and ask why these people, who only want to make a life of their own with their hard-working hands, have been left so helpless and desperate. In the director Honigmann’s words, in the film, “Lima represents all other Latin American cities, whose seas or mountains are graveyards.”

Another poetic depiction of a city in the festival was that of Liverpool, in Of Time and the City (2008) by Terence Davies, his first documentary. While the words of those such as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Karl Marx (spoken by Davies) create a fascinating unity with the poeticism of the visual language, the film shows the Liverpool of the working class, through the sounds of radio broadcasts and classical and contemporary popular music. Davies’ reflection of a past life in Liverpool is a poignant and philosophical perspective told through the narration of a devoted lover of the city.

From forgotten lands

Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008), which has received numerous awards, was screened in the “From the World of Festivals” section. Receiving much admiration from the audience, the film was one of the most difficult to find a ticket to at this year’s Festival. The director’s first dramatic feature rises above a visuality that captures life in the Kazakh steppe through beautiful landscapes, as well as the gloom of folk songs sung by a small child who enjoys the emotional treasure hidden in the folkloric imagination. The sonic depth of the film, based on the ever-surfacing songs of the little girl, is combined with the reality of the acting, and this creates a perfect balance with the elegance of the director’s touching documentary portrayal of this Kazakh family. The main character paints his dreams on a piece of paper and these dreams are so modest, yet so difficult to reach in the solitude of the southern Kazakhstan steppes.

Tulpan

A film that depicted a life not very far away, in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, was Opium War (2008) by Siddiq Barmak, who was celebrated for his 2003 film, Osama. Portraying two disparate worlds – the world of two American soldiers and the world of an Afghan family trying to live inside a deserted vehicle in a field – Barmak’s film tells an unexpected story – so much so that, in the panel discussion, “Middle East Talks” (organised as a side event to the Festival), Barmak was criticised by one audience member for not telling the story of the opium wars that are destroying so many people’s lives. In fact, Barmak does tell the story of the opium wars, but in an indirect way, projecting it through the lives of those who have been the victims of that war.

Another director on the panel was Necati Sönmez, whose documentary film, The Wound of Gaza (2009), was screened at the Festival. Sönmez underscored that to make a documentary about another country, no matter with how good the intention, carries with it the risk of saying things that don’t sound real. Yet, he seems to have succeeded in avoiding this by showing the traces of the latest assault on Gaza by the Israelis through the eyes of a young female Gazan journalist.

This year’s festival had other guests such as Bill Plympton and John Malkovich, as well as many other side events. One can only thank the organising Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts (IKSV) and the sponsors, for being able to once again organise the festival in such a rich and colourful way despite the current economic difficulties.

International Istanbul Film Festival website: http://www.iksv.org/film/

Endnotes

  1. All quotations are taken from the IKSV official website and from the official festival handbook unless otherwise stated.

About The Author

N. Buket Cengiz writes on popular culture in Radikal Iki, the Sunday supplement of the national newspaper, Radikal. She is a PhD student of Interlingual and Intercultural Translation Studies at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul.