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Interview with Istanbul Film Festival assistant director

Istanbul International Film Festival assistant director, Ms Asize Tan, talks to Jeremy Colson on the occasion of the 25th edition of one of Asia’s biggest festivals where the audience this year is forecast to reach 140,000.

Have you ever been involved in film-making yourself?
I’ve been involved in short films and commercials and I’ve been in film circles since forever. I started work with the festival in 1994, worked in several different departments, became assistant director in 2003 and I’ve been in charge of programming for the past two years.

How has the Istanbul International Film Festival developed over 25 years?
It started in 1981 as part of the Istanbul Festival which was mainly a music festival. There were only six films but even with such a small number it was an enormous success. Then in 1985 it started to be organýsed separately from the Istanbul Festival and took on the name Istanbul Film Days and in 1989 we got recognition from FIAFF and the festival became international. Nearly everything had been banned with the coup in 1980 and no recently-made films were allowed in the cinemas. So the film festival was the only time where people could see films from abroad. The festival was an oasis. It was a huge success every year but in 1989 five films were severely censored by the government and that year there was a big protest against censorship in the festival. The government accepted the protest and said there would be no more censorship on foreign films being shown at the festival. There is still censorship on domestic films, but it’s not too bad. I think that we can honestly say that all our new generation of writers, directors, critics and distributors, have been inspired by our festival.

What is the objective of the festival and have the objectives changed over the years?
Our objective is to promote Turkish cinema abroad and to promote the screening of quality cinema in Turkey. These have been our objectives since we started. They are still the same today but we are now broadening the scope of the festival with the addition of more activities, such as master-classes.

What kind of film-makers are you aiming to celebrate?
In a word, quality. You can see from this year’s program we appreciate directors like Wim Wenders, Alexander Sokurov and so on. We are also trying to promote young directors doing their first or second films. Our other speciality is selecting the best films from other festivals including Toronto, Berlin and Cannes. We also look out for art-house films and experimental films that find difficulty in getting distribution.

Is it the films that make the festival international or the participants?
It is both. At 16 days our festival is one of the longest in the world. You can divide the festival into two. The first week doesn’t have much international participation, though most of the films are from abroad. The second week is very international. The International Competition starts on the second Sunday and it is during the second week that most of the international directors, producers, distributors and so on are here. We continue to aim to bring together film professionals to mix with our own professionals, to find ways of working together.

This year’s forecast of an audience of 140,000 is 50 percent higher than last year? How are you achieving this?
There are several factors. Firstly we changed our pricing policy because we wanted to attract more young people. Like everyone else in Turkey students prefer to see films in cinemas much more than on Video or TV. They like the subtitles, they like the big screen and they know they are getting the films uncut. But we felt that many of them couldn’t afford to see many films so we changed our ticket prices. During weekdays and daytime screenings its 2.5 TL (US$2) and the students are responding. We are really very happy about this, not least because we know from past experience that the film professionals of the future will come from these young people. We are also showing more films this year to celebrate our 25th, so that’s another factor.

How many films are you showing in total this year? We are showing 219 films from 42 countries compared with 167 films last year when the audience attendance was 90,000. Next year we will revert to our normal number of films which will be about 150 or 160 films.

How many documentaries are you screening this year and would you like to increase that number?
We are essentially known as a feature-film festival but each year we are now showing more documentaries. We have had a documentary section for the last three years. We have 18 documentaries this year compared with about 12 last year, and about 10 the previous year. We also have a section of about a dozen Human Rights films from all over the world. Most of these are documentaries too so if you put the two sections together you have quite a lot to see.

How many short-films are you screening this year?
We don’t have a short-film section, but we are screening about 10 short films this year, the same number as last year. It would be nice to show more shorts but that would necessitate increase staff numbers and that of course would require a bigger budget.

What is your budget this year and how does that compare with 2005?
Last year it was about US$1.4 million. This year it was increased to $1.6 million in order to cover the extra costs of putting on the special events and screenings associated with the 25th anniversary celebration.

Are there any new programme sections this year?
Every year we focus on a particular country. This year it is French cinema and we are screening 12 of their best recent films. We have also started an entirely new section called Freedom to Women with films that show how women are treated as second-class citizens throughout the world including Africa, India and Iran. This could become a regular section in our programme in future. And we have started a section for children in which films are being shown with simultaneous translations voiced over by Turkish artists well-known to children. The objective of this is to create our future audience and also give parents the opportunity to see films with their children and share the experience. We are offering them good quality films, not just Disney.

What is the theme of the competition in the international section?
Well that is unchanged. As you know we are members of FIAFF. Entries in the international competition have to be to do with art, artists, or be literary adaptations. This is quite focused and it is sometimes difficult to find entries, but every year we succeed in finding about 12 films and this year is no different.

What is the total value of cash awarded in the competitions this year?
The Golden Tulip award goes to the winner of best film in the international competition, but no cash. The cash awards are in our national competition. Our Ministry of Culture awards a cash prize of US$30,000 for the best film and also $30,000 for best director. In addition to that the Ministry gives about $6,000 each for best actor and best actress. A private sponsor gives an award of $30,000 for the FIPRESCI winner of our national competition.

Has any film that has won your national competition gone on to be an international hit?
Most definitely yes. One of the main functions of the festival is to showcase Turkish films and generate international distribution. Recent examples of success include Boats out of Watermelon Rinds, directed by Ahmed Ulucay, which got its first screening at our festival, won our national competition in 2004, and then went round the world. Last year, The Play, directed by Pelin Esmer, did well here and our international guests liked it so much that it got taken up in several countries.

Would you like to have seen more directors and celebrities here this year?
Well I think we are doing quite well. Guests include Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. Directors include Bernard Blier and Vittorio de Seta. Of course we would always like more but you have to remember that so much depends on their schedule for shooting and promoting and so on. Many of them have to be in South America or the Far East which are large developing markets.

Do you have a film market at the festival?
Not in the traditional sense but Meetings on the Bridge is a first for us. We are aiming to secure co-productions with European countries. Up to now it’s been mostly been with Greece and Bulgaria, but we want to extend this to co-productions with other European countries. Meetings on the Bridge are two-day meetings linking Turkish film professionals with their counterparts throughout Europe. We hope this will become a regular feature of the festival. We are receiving positive interest from countries such as Germany, France, Austria and Holland. We are looking for co-operation at all levels. This year is just the beginning but I believe Turkey can be promoted as an excellent location for shooting and also for post-production.

Who do you see as your main competitors?
We are having to compete with Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and several others for post production. But we have a lot of technical expertise here and we can compete well on cost. This can all help to change things and get us back to our previous position. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in the 1960’s until 1980 there were 200 films a year produced in Turkey. After the coup d’etat it was a completely different scenario. But we are on our way back with about 35 films made here last year and what we need now is a new generation of producers to bring money into film-making here. The festival has a key role to play in this.

How do you see the festival five years from now?
The festival business is getting more and more competitive. There are so many other festivals going on in other places around the world. You have to look out for conflicting dates and prints are sometimes in short supply. The positioning of our festival is quite solid and we continue to have a good program. But everyone is trying to prove themselves and there aren’t enough films for everyone. What I’m hoping for over the next few years is that there will be major developments in our own cinema. I’m hoping to see a leap in production of quality Turkish films which we will be able to screen. This will put our festival on a different level. Of course all festivals are trying to achieve this objective but I think we can succeed because producers are beginning to see that they can make money, not only on comedies and adventures but art-house films as well.
by Jeremy Colson


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