At a welcome dinner for the 37th Istanbul Film Festival, an actress stood up and in halting, emotional English asked everyone to listen to a story the world needs to hear. This March, a troupe of actors were an hour away from performing a tribute to the anniversary of Gallipoli at the Turkish Parliament when Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman, who has called for secular Turkey to adopt a religious constitution, forbid the women from being onstage. Males only, ordered Kahraman, who was offended that actresses playing the mothers of soldiers would be giving guys public hugs.
That day, Turkey’s increasingly empowered conservative movement won. It started a public fight, of course. In the last several years, there’s been a lot of fighting, and thousands of journalists, academics, student activists, and artists are in jail. (And another 150,000 have lost their jobs.) In the 15 years since Recep Erdoğan became Prime Minister, then President, the prison population has quadrupled, especially after a youth rally in Taksim Square in 2013 grew into a massive protest that the narcissistic Erdoğan took as a personal insult. Erdoğan’s excuse, new at the time and now globally familiar, was that the kids were actors hired by George Soros. Things were bad, and after the failed 2016 coup they’ve gotten worse.
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Three years ago, the battle came to the Istanbul Film Festival, whose main theaters are just blocks south of Taksim Square. Every commercially released Turkish film must get a registration certificate from the Ministry of Culture confirming its copyrights and clearances. Then the Ministry made the certificate mandatory for all Turkish films, down to the smallest festival short. And it decided to withhold approving films it didn’t want people to see.
People half-ignored the new rule until the Ministry ordered the Istanbul Film Festival to pull the documentary “Bakur,” a sympathetic film about the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, hours before its first screening. Other uncertified films still played, proving that the choice to censor “Bakur” was political even before the Ministry slammed the doc as “PKK propaganda” and “terrorism.” Twenty-three outraged directors withdrew their films, too. The jury quit, the festival director quit, and the major competitions and closing ceremony were canceled. Now, the festival is strong-armed into obedience. As soon as the programmers finalize their line-up, the festival sends its list of movies to the Minister of Culture to try to help the approval process, even paying for the short films made by filmmakers who can’t afford the registration fee.
No one is sure what the moral rules are. The Ministry of Culture won’t write them down. At least the Hays Code in classic Hollywood had 11 clear don’ts. Specific rules can be subverted. But Turkey’s veto power is capricious and vague. Filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers telling unflattering stories about modern Turkey, could spend years on a movie that can’t be shown. Unpredictability pressures artists to play it safe.
Some hire lawyers to help them guess whether their work might be rejected, and if so, hunt for foreign producers willing to take a controlling stake as international films don’t require a certificate yet. But as Saudi Arabia opens its first movie theater in 30 years with a screening of “Black Panther”—imagine women who finally got the right to drive this year beholding the Dora Milaje—Turkish people are alarmed that their government, which just disrupted the last major dissenting newspaper chain, threatened people over their footage of Taksim Square, intermittently shut off YouTube and Twitter, and is poised to ban teaching evolution in schools, is making it hard to share their stories with the outside world. Over a bottle of wine, a director sighed as she pointed toward the west, “News comes one way.”
The impact was everywhere. “I can say that there are less political movies than before,” said current festival director Kerem Ayan on a group boat trip circling the Bosporus River. “But cinema is very creative. Everybody finds a different way to express what they want.”
The Turkish films in this year’s program were heightened, absurdist, and surreal. Their overall mood was unease. Characters wandered the streets feeling out of place for reasons the script wouldn’t explain. In Emre Yeksan’s “The Gulf,” a mysterious stench forces an entire city to cover their faces, hide indoors, and eventually flee their homes under an official state of emergency. “What’s going on?” asks lead Selim (a too-blank-faced Ulas Tuna Astepe). Yeksan doesn’t answer, instead testing Selim with giant fires, blocked roads, cop beatings, and quicksand-like pools of mud.
Audiences loved Burak Cevik’s “The Pillar of Salt,” a moody piece about an immortal (Zinnure Türe) searching for her twin sister, who looks a half-century older. Time slips through her fingers like water. (She also bathes a lot while the camera spins around her in dizzying circles.) In an early scene, she questions a pet store shopgirl about the life span of her new bird. Later, the cage is empty, the store is empty, and every mortal we’ve met is gone, dead, disappeared, who knows.
I preferred Mehmet Güreli’s bleak black-and-white comedy “Four Cornered Triangle” about a strict, silver-haired Observer (Mustafa Dinç), a character crossbred from Monty Python and Chekhov, who insists, “Observing is the greatest freedom humans have.” His aggro boss wants him fired from his metaphorical job, especially after the Observer spots the jerk romancing another employee’s wife. It’s a film about false accusations and slippery speech, or as the Observer says, “It’s about the mismatch of two facts.” (A phrase Kellyanne Conway could steal.) The second half loses focus and settles into an oppressive gloom, but it cast a spell.
The biggest crowd-pleaser at the festival was Tolga Karaçelik’s unhinged road flick “Butterflies,” which won Sundance’s World Cinema Grand Jury prize this January. When three estranged siblings return to their childhood village, the mayor is a coward, the imam is a fool, and the chickens keep exploding and covering the youngest brother in blood. Nothing is sacred. Without ruining the final punchline, the trio scales a hill to meet an old blind man meditating under a tree and ancient mysticism is popped like a balloon—or doomed poultry.
Traditionally, Turkish films have been manic comedies like “Butterflies” or “Kolonya Cumhuriyeti,” a movie that had me in stitches on the plane when a Jack Black-looking mayor gets his island expelled from Turkey after he sinks an American battleship. There’s a bit where a space alien converts to Islam that you just have to see for yourself. Or they’ve been neorealist dramas in the model of Palme D’Or-winning Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who led the dissent against the “Bakur” ban. (His new film, “The Wild Pear Tree,” plays in competition at Cannes 2018.)
“We don’t have David Lynch in Turkey,” said Ayan. “There was never a cinema like this.” But the Turkish David Lynch is coming, someone who can slip through dark ideas that can’t be said aloud, and Ayan is hunting for him or her. Seven films in the national competition were from first-time directors, mostly from the young adults in their 20s that older people wrote off as unpolitical until they took over Taksim Square.
“The new generations is more free and young, a really different kind of cinema,” said Ayan. “We lived thorough lots of coup d’etats in Turkey, but they didn’t so they are really fighting for their rights.” At the subway station underneath Taksim Square, where Erdogan has torn down a famous opera house that was a centerpiece of the protests to build a giant new mosque, there was a billboard advertising a new translation of “Fahrenheit 451.”
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