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Young Turks at Rotterdam Fest

By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire January 27, 2009 at 5:29AM

At Rotterdam, cinephilia trumps sponsorphilia. The stars here are directors, not actors: Hollywood is shut out. IFFR, aka the Rotterdam Film Festival, the 38th edition of which began January 21 and runs through February 2, is the largest international film fest focusing primarily on new and emerging talent. Before the latest "waves" and trends in cinema have been validated elsewhere, even canonized and labeled "hot," Rotterdam has often sniffed them out. This year is no exception. The pioneering revelation is "Young Turkish Cinema"--masterly first and second features by the post-Nuri Bilge Ceylan, post-Yesim Ustaoglu generation--that has been curated by longtime Rotterdam programmer Ludmila Cvikova in collaboration with the heady critics, most still in their twenties, at the Turkish film magazine Altiyazi, which translates as both "Subtitles" and "Subtext." The fledgling filmmakers of the "Young Turkish Cinema" elaborate on the groundbreaking works of such masters as Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Three Monkeys), Ustaoglu (Pandora's Box, Journey to the Sun), and Dervis Zaim (Somersault in a Coffin), several of whose films are included in the sidebar for purposes of highlighting connections, nevertheless revising them and adding their own imprimatur.
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At Rotterdam, cinephilia trumps sponsorphilia. The stars here are directors, not actors: Hollywood is shut out. IFFR, aka the Rotterdam Film Festival, the 38th edition of which began January 21 and runs through February 2, is the largest international film fest focusing primarily on new and emerging talent. Before the latest "waves" and trends in cinema have been validated elsewhere, even canonized and labeled "hot," Rotterdam has often sniffed them out. This year is no exception. The pioneering revelation is "Young Turkish Cinema"--masterly first and second features by the post-Nuri Bilge Ceylan, post-Yesim Ustaoglu generation--that has been curated by longtime Rotterdam programmer Ludmila Cvikova in collaboration with the heady critics, most still in their twenties, at the Turkish film magazine Altiyazi, which translates as both "Subtitles" and "Subtext." The fledgling filmmakers of the "Young Turkish Cinema" elaborate on the groundbreaking works of such masters as Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Three Monkeys), Ustaoglu (Pandora's Box, Journey to the Sun), and Dervis Zaim (Somersault in a Coffin), several of whose films are included in the sidebar for purposes of highlighting connections, nevertheless revising them and adding their own imprimatur.

Of the newest bunch, the great find is Autumn, the debut of Ozcan Alper. The story, told simply but profoundly, is about Yusuf, a thirtysomething political activist recently released from prison for reasons of health. Autumn tells us almost nothing about the cause he fought for or his experiences while incarcerated, focusing rather on the time he spends after his release in the village home of his traditional mother in the Black Sea region of eastern Turkey. We learn about him, a misfit in the provincial milieu where he grew up, principally in the here and now.

Yusuf says very little. His face and subtle gestures convey his pain, his angst. He discovers a soulmate in Eka, a prostitute from Georgia who also has a troubled past. As in most of the films of both this newer generation of Turkish filmmakers and their mentors, the achingly beautiful landscape--here, cloud-enshrouded mountains--sheds metaphorical light on the protagonists' feelings.

At a panel on "Young Turkish Cinema" that I moderated, Serken Acar, one of Autumn's producers, complained that "the Hubert Bals Fund (an oft-imitated Rotterdam initiative that provides some funding for projects in Third World and other underdeveloped countries) rejected us!" "But WE love the Hubert Bals Fund," countered Seyfi Teoman, director of Summer Book, another first feature in the program. "They gave us money." (Summer Book is a lovely coming-of-age tale about a 10-year-old boy, an innocent who learns over one summer vacation about death, corruption, and misanthropy.) Acar and Teoman do agree on the overall economics underlying their films' budgets. They obtained most of the money privately, which means, just as it does in the U.S., credit-card debt.

Altiyazi critic Enis Kostepen writes in the handsome brochure that accompanies the exhibition that the financial underpinnings are what the films made by these two generations of independents in Turkey have in common. He explains that directors like Zaim, Ustaoglu, and Bilge Ceylan lay the foundation for indie production by finding new sources of funding (abroad, for example) and learning to shoot on the cheap. He adds that a network that includes assistance from rental houses, post-production facilities, and small independent distributors makes these films possible, as do grant allocations, beginning in 2005, from the Ministry of Culture's Committee for Supporting Cinema, some geared specifically toward first features. Directors' individual expressions emerge from this confluence of money sources, he concludes.

Firyat Yucel, editor-in-chief of Altiyazi, sees as the common denominators of these works their themes and narrative stategies more than economic conditions. "They share one common trait," he says during the panel discussion. "And that is the pursuit of vocalizing and visualizing the unspoken, especially those feelings that the commotion or monotony of everyday life make difficult or impossible to articulate." Yucel finds rich drama in what he terms "the tension of the inexpressible." This would, it seems, explain the prolonged stares, the long takes held on faces, and the vast silences.

Programmer Cvikova notes the unique relationship between filmmakers and writers such as those at Altiyazi. "A new generation of young film critics is closely following what is happening in film in their country," she says. "This is an ideal combination: a generation that is artistically and intellectually connected."

This article is related to: Festival Dispatch