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An overview of Turkish cinema at Istanbul Film Fest

The 25th installment of the Istanbul Film Festival provided a golden opportunity to gain an overview of Turkish cinema, both of current and more or less "classic" vintage. A grand total of 37 Turkish films were shown in four distinct categories.
The national competition consisting of nine films from the past year; Award winning Turkish films of the past 25 years; a three film tribute to master filmmaker Erden Kiral, and one feature length documentary. Although singleton Turkish films such as "Boats out of Watermelon Rinds" (2004) have culled a bit of attention at film festivals in the past few years, outside of a few scattered Turkish film weeks here and there (e.g., the London Turkish film week) films from Turkey are exceedingly hard to see, especially in well organized clumps with subtitles to accommodate foreign viewers.

Insofar as any national cinema provides a unique window on the culture of the country involved, on these grounds alone an overview of Turkish cinema would be of intrinsic value today even if the quality of the films were second rate. As it turns out many films of first rate quality have been turned out in Turkey over the past three or four decades, even when made with limited technological means -- for the most part unknown outside of Turkey. The films of the eighties, for example were all made with post-dubbed sound as direct sound was not yet available. This does not, however, at all detract from the dramatic and cinematic qualities of these films. In fact the Turkish films of the eighties and early nineties comprise
a sort of minor "golden age" very much comparable to the kinds of films that were being made in Korea at the same time. The Turkish films on view in Istanbul were definitely of the art film variety, meaning that they addressed themselves to important social issues in a serious way. One very obvious thing about these films is that they tend to be full of children even when a child is not one of the principal protagonists, and in many of the films child-adult relationships were at stake. Another main theme is the contrast between city and small town or village life. In the villages Islamic religion is everywhere to be seen and is taken for granted. In the big city, usually Istanbul, religion is significantly absent. Among the many discoveries were a broad band of excellent actors, both stars and interesting supporting character actors. In most films the production values were definitely up to international par and the subtitles in either French or English (or both!) were basically free from bizarre linguistic distortions.

TWO STARS: ZUHAL OLCAY and KADIR INANIR

Zuhal Olcay (pronounced "ole-jigh" with 'J' as in Jane) was my first discovery. This actress born in 1957 was at the peak of her beauty and charisma in the four films I saw spanning the years 1986 to 1992. A natural redhead, she looks a bit like a Turkish version of Catherine Deneuve but her beauty is more delicate and her personality far warmer and her screen presence more engaging. In addition to her film career Zuhal is also a very popular singer of lyrical ballads with numerous CDs to her credit. This year she was the head of the jury judging new Turkish films -- a job she says she would never do again, because it is so stressful to evaluate the work of colleagues. At forty-nine this actress seems not to
have aged at all from her "prime time" film days, maintaining a radiant natural beauty, and is, moreover, very friendly and forthcoming in person.
In "Amansiz Yol" (Desperate Road), 1985, Sabahat (Zuhal) is married to a crippled, impotent loser with underworld connections and is forced into part time prostitution in order to provide for her daughter, Ayshe. When Hasan, (Kadir) her one time lover, turns up in town after a long absence in Germany
and has now taken a job as a long-distance truck driver, she takes her daughter Ayshe, and runs off with him crossing the entire length of Turkey headed for Madin in Eastern Anatolia -- all the time pursued by two criminal creditors of the husband she has left behind. In madir she has an aunt -- her only relative -- who hopefully will take her and her daughter in. But before they get there she decides she can't face the traditional village family because of the shame that has marked her in the big city. With her short naturally red hair, miniskirt apparel and regal bearing, Zuhal is a totally modern presence who could easily inhabit any French or American film. Her role in "Road" is quite complex and she won the best actress award that year in Turkey. Kadir (born 1949) is tall, handsome and macho, with blue eyes -- kind of a Turkish edition of the American Marlboro Man. He doesn't do much in the film except drive truck and punch out a few baddies, but like John Wayne, with his presence alone he doesn't have to do very much. In other films Kadir does more acting but he became such a phenomenon in his hey-day that a cult known as "Kadirism" developed around him.

In "Two Women", 1992, Zuhal is a modern coutesan -- a star prostitute called in to service a high ranking politician., in fact, a cabinett minister. When she is totally turned off by his arrogance the scene turns into a violent rape. She takes her case to court and the scandal hits the press. Oddly, Zuhal develops a strange friendship with the wife of the unfaithful politico. This is a picture about a liberated woman with a vengeance, and the politico is played by Turkish top-star, Haluk Bilginer, who, at the time was Zuhal's real life husband. The 'other woman', Serap Aksoy, won a best actress award, well deserved for a nuanced, subtle portrayal of a wife caught in a high-class but badly damaged marriage. This is a very strong film that will immediately connect with Western audiences and Olcay is at her ravishing best.

In "Bir Sonbahar Hikayesi" (An autumn story), 1994, Zuhal plays a young female professor of Western Literature married to a handsome economist who studied abroad for many years. The film plays out against terror-ridden political events in Turkey from the 70s to the 90s and was voted the best Turkish film of the year with Zuhal once again taking a best actress award. Can Togay, who plays the harried husband, is a very interesting actor who went on to study film at the Film Academy in Budapest and is now a respected film director working in Hungary. "Autumn Story" is a gripping drama from beginning to end and a perfect showcase for Zuhal Olcay's screen charisma.
"The Secret Face", 1991, is the rather surrealistic story of a young man who is hired by a beautiful enigmatic woman (Olcay) to photograph strangers. She claims to be searching for an intriguing face and eventually finds what she is looking for in the person of a strange watchmaker -- with whom she runs off leaving the obsessed young photographer high and dry in his crummy hotel room. A cryptic layered performance by Olcay in a film that looks like it could have been made by Nicholas Roeg -- but a bit shaggy doggish as far as the story is concerned.

"Bir Yudum Sevgi" (A Sip of Love") directed by veteran Atif Yilmaz (born 1926) in 1984, is regarded as a landmark of the new Turkish cinema because of its torrid eroticism and "new woman image". This is the story of an ex-treme-ly voluptuous and sexy woman (Hale Soygazi) who takes a job in a factory to support her four small children without the help of her idle, useless, loser of a husband. (An oft repeated theme in Turkish films of this period is the strong woman and the inept husband). At the factory she becomes very (ahem) friendly with extremely handsome co-worker (Kadir) who is also stuck in a loveless marriage with kids. Outrageous for the time was the direct portrayal of open adultery between lovers with families. The wailing protestations of the respective families and the evil gossip in the barrio are to no avail as the lovers eventually obtain divorces and end up together. Here Kadir, with nearly fifty films behind him, turns in a subtle performance which does more than merely play on his manly good looks.
Particularly interesting are the scenes in the factory where the budding illicit romance begins to work itself out. The sex scenes which ensue are -- wow -- steamy! "A Sip of Love" won four major Turkish prizes in 1985 -- Best Film, Best Director (Atif), Best Actress, Hale Soygazi, and best supporting actor, Macit Koper, as the unshaven feckless husband, but it is also an undeniable landmark of the Kadir filmography.

Still another Kadir vehicle is the very recent (2005) "Cinema Bir Mucezidir" (Cinema is like a Miracle) directed by the oldest living Turkish director, Memduh Un, born in 1920. Un, 85 at the time, fell gravely ill during the shooting and another veteran director, Tunch Basharan ( see "One and the Others") had to complete the film. Set in the dusty east Anatolian town of Antep this is basically a Turkish version of "Cinema Paradiso" but with a decidedly Turkish accent. The film also represents a return to the big screen of Kadir Inanir who, for most of the past decade had been involved in making popular TV serials. In the film Kadir is the dandy owner of the town's biggest movie house and is assisted by an 11 year old movie freak, the orphan Umit. Umit (the name means "hope) lives with his grandmother and is madly in love with 17 year old Gulumser, the doe-eyed daughter of a businessman across the courtyard who is trying to marry her off to the big money. Umit identifies passionately with his film heroes; Tarzan, Zorro,
Errol Flynn, John Wayne, etc. and the film is greatly enriched with clips from these marvelous adventure films of yesteryear. By cutting footage out of these old movies Umit gradually assembles his own film of Hollywood heroes. The core of the film, however, is the relationship between the avuncular, still very handsome Kadir, and his eleven year old protege. Kadir, now fifty-something, and still incredibly good-looking -- like a crossbreed between Omar Sherif and John Wayne (if you can imagine that!) -- appears in every scene in a different perfectly cut suit, and a different colored hat -- a men's wear fashion show suitable to a super star. But this is only one of the many interesting flourishes to be found in this film.
Uncle Nakip (Kadir) has never married because he never got over an early love with a raven haired beauty that became an actress and ditched him -- or did she? -- At the end of this unabashedly sentimental story a touring Shakespeare company comes to town, and guess who is going to play Desdemona ... the long-lost, aging Liz Taylor look-alike, who has also never married!
... and Umit will play cupid between them. After a few last minute misadventures -- a car crash which Nakip miraculously survives -- and such, all turns out as it should. There is also an interesting political sub-plot background, as part of the film is set during the Korean War when there were many protests against sending Turkish forces to the Far East ("What beef do we have against the Chinese?"), where, in fact, the Turks were lionized and instilled fear in the Chinese with their legendary bravery and bayonets. I am told that this film was a gigantic flop in Turkey last year -- which is to me incomprehensible because it was one of the films I most enjoyed during the festival. Maybe I've turned into a sentimental fool in my critical dotage, but when it comes to movies -- Gimme that Old Time Religion! I would strongly recommend all of the above films and especially "Cinema is like a Miracle" to any festival organizers who are thinking of showcasing Turkish films.
Stay tuned -- More to come....

Alex in Seattle


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