Young Turks Rising; The 22nd Istanbul Film Festival Honors Local and International Talent
by Kerem Bayrak
The 22nd annual Istanbul Film Festival, held April 12-27, came to a close on Saturday night with rapturous praise for a local offering: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's new film, "Uzak" (Distant), which swept most of the major award categories in the competition.
The film, an artful and masterful display of filmmaking, is sure to gain recognition and acclaim in Cannes next month, as the first Turkish film to be selected in 21 years in the Cannes competition. It tells the story of a photographer living alone in Istanbul, finding himself obliged to host a young relative who has left his village to look for work abroad. The attempt to grasp life widely and generally in long takes, the attitude of natural existentialism that is combined with a saintly philosophy, and the capability of finding out the tiniest, seemingly most unimportant -- but perhaps most fundamental -- details in life, produces a near-perfect result.
A worthy successor to last year's national festival winner, Umit Unal's "Dokuz" (9), "Uzak" won best Turkish film, best director, and the FIPRESCI award in national competition here in Istanbul.
The international competition jury, chaired by Irish director Jim Sheridan and including Kutlug Ataman (Turkey), Mahinur Ergun (Turkey), Aluzio Abrenches (Brazil), Ahmed Baha Eddine Attia (Tunisia), Dimitris Haritos (Greece), and Catherine Wyler (USA), screened 13 competition films and awarded the Golden Tulip prize to Diego Lerman's "Tan De Repente" (Suddenly). Lerman's debut, about two teens that kidnap a salesgirl in Argentina, has previously claimed prizes in Locarno, Buenos Aires, Vienna, and other festivals. Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity," about women dealing with life changes, was also given a special jury prize as the Radikal people's choice award. Baltasar Kormakur's "The Sea," about a dysfunctional family in an Icelandic fishing village, was chosen as the FIPRESCI award winner in international competition.
The festival screened about 200 films and provided a rich collection that not only embraced new works of high caliber (many films here received much praise and prestigious awards at prominent festivals last year), but also encompassed cinema classics and works by both the older and the younger generation masters of the seventh art. The collection of films was brought together from cinemas of different countries and not limited to any particular geography, era, length, or topic. Furthermore, the program was enriched with stimulating documentaries and creative new works of animation movies. The festival also included a tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and American filmmaker William Wyler, and retrospectives of the works of Claude Chabrol, Brian De Palma, Turkey's Zeki Okten, and Taiwanese director Edward Yang.
The specialty of this particular festival lay in its aim to bring to the attention of the Turkish movie enthusiasts, films from all over the world that would not necessarily be able to get a proper distribution outlet due to the limited resources present in the country. For example, Estela Bravo, whose latest work, "Fidel," received high acclaim and wide public attention throughout the world, came to Istanbul to receive an honorary award. Organizers also presented eight medium-length films by her, under the title of "The Witness of Her Times: Estela Bravo."
Although world cinema fares moderately well at the Turkish box office, smaller and less-recognizable films suffer from underexposure. As a result more and more Turkish distributors have preferred to acquire America movies due to healthy box-office returns. In recent years Turkish film has suffered a decline and the festival's intention to promote its national film industry was for all to see in the line-up of films that were not only in national competition but also in the section devoted entirely to Turkish filmmakers working abroad. Films such as Fatih Akin's "Solino," Bilge Ebiri's "New Guy," Sulbiye V. Gunar's "Karamuk," Asli Ozge's "A Bit of April," and Elisabeth Rygard's "House of Hearts" were given the chance to be screened to the international film community.
However, to say that the Turkish film industry is still suffering a decline in production is an understatement. Since the heyday of the 1960s and early 1970s -- when an average of 300 Turkish features were shot per year -- the domestic output is now expected to reach around a mere 15. The problem is primarily financial, as there are no local production houses with money to spend and financiers are reluctant to invest in Turkish film. As a result, more and more producers are seeking funding from outside of the country.
This downsizing of production, though, has not affected the quality of work produced. For example, at Cannes 2002, not one but two films by director Zeki Demirkubuz were selected for Un Certain Regard sidebar. Consequently both "Fate" and "Confession" went on to find critical success on the festival circuit. Similarly, Yesim Ustaoglu's third feature "Waiting for the Clouds" won the Sundance/NHK international filmmakers award earlier this year. The film starts shooting next month with Celluloid Dreams handling the international sales.
The success of this year's Istanbul Festival was in part due to the wealth of films that screened in and out of competition. Although the debut of a market here this year was cancelled by events occurring in neighboring Iraq, plans are now in place to launch the next year. However, significant absentees this year included John Malkovich, who had been scheduled to appear to promote his directorial debut, "The Dancer Upstairs." The crowds at this festival weren't industry dealmakers, but film lovers.
With the enthusiasm for film here, and potential talent coming out of the country, it only seems a matter of time that both the festival and the filmmakers will become a major voice amongst the global film community.
[Kerem Bayrak was born in Turkey and lives in New York City where he works at the Sloss Law Office.]