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.
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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I thought of that billboard, and I thought of the Observer’s fast-talking boss, when I learned about how Istanbul prohibited its Pride parade, which rallied more than 100,000 people, for the LGBT community’s own protection, the government claimed. It’s not that Governor of Istanbul disapproves of gay people, it’s just that he can’t ensure their safety if other groups attack the celebration, double-speak that isn’t fooling anyone—especially when the cops attacked marchers with rubber bullets and water cannons. And the capital city of Ankara seized the executive clout granted the country’s technical state of emergency since the 2016 coup (Erdoğan re-ups the power grab every three months because he can) to outright ban to all gay events.
Transgender activist Hande Kader, who marched at the forefront of Istanbul’s police-sieged final Pride parade, was soon after raped, mutilated and murdered. Yet, the 32-year-old TV star Rüzgar Erkoçlar, a child actor who became nationally famous for a sanitary pad commercial, recently transitioned from female to male in the public eye. “Even my grandmother knows who he is,” said a local. Two filmmakers are finishing a documentary on him and hoping it will get past the certification board. For now, the festival programmed foreign LGBT movies like “Good Manners,” a lesbian werewolf musical from Brazil, and the Greek-made transsexual celebration “Obscuro Barroco,” which was selected for the Human Rights section.
Turkey has taken a large step backwards since it became the first country in the middle east to embrace a Pride parade. It had been the most progressive state in the Middle East, a country literally straddling the east and west. The dividing river runs right through Istanbul, which means you can cross into Asia for lunch. For a long while, it faced toward the European Union. But the EU never accepted Turkey, and lately, the country has turned east. Better to head the Arabic world than be on the lowest rung of the west.
Western visitors have plummeted, especially after ISIS bombed the airport, a nightclub, and tourist sites like Blue Mosque, Freedom Square and Istikal Avenue, a shopping and bar street that leads up to Taksim Square and is the main artery of the film festival. The majority of tourists now come from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Turkey is one of the only countries where Iranians don’t need a visa.)
And then there’s the Syrians trying to cross Turkey to get to Europe. Over three million have entered the country and they were all over the films, too. Kenan Kavut’s “The Escape” opens with a slow boat ride up the river border between Turkey and Greece, where a group of desperate refugees stand weary, wet and hushed. The only sound is the puff-wheeze of the hand-pumped inflatable raft. Then the cops arrive, the group scatters, and we follow one man across the muddy fields in a run for his life that winds up with him sick and shivering in a Turkish woman’s barn. “The Escape” veers into melodrama—at one point, the man cries a single tear—but its overwhelming despair and the escalating disasters of just trying to survive felt like an update of the Hays Code-era’s “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”
“Turtle Shells” was a compact 30-minute documentary packed with implications about human and animal rights. A bomb killed a Syrian woman’s husband, but left their pet turtle Ayshe—”our daughter,” she says—alive. Yet when the refugee makes it through Turkey into Munich, nervously scribbling over the Syrian rebel flag she painted on her shell with black eyebrow pencil, the German government locked up Ayshe in a reptile rescue facility for lacking documentation. Forever. “Even if Assad were to come in with a turtle, it would be taken away,” insists the caretaker. So the woman, who’s now lost every trace of home, visits and cries and cuddles Ayshe on her shoulder, and when “Turtle Shells” was over, a German woman in the audience was so mad at her country’s laws she cursed all the way to the cafe.
And then there’s the Kurds, who crept around the edges of Ercan Kesal’s “Gone With the Hazelnuts,” a documentary about the rural Turkish village of Düzce. Over the last five decades, this farming hamlet changed from communal to capitalist as the government, pressured by the United States, commanded the residents to stop growing their own food and produce hazelnuts for global distribution. Most of the doc is filmmaker Kesal looking mournful as he interviews elderly locals who rhapsodize about how lovely life was in the past when they all shucked each other’s corn. Now, they hire seasonal Kurdish workers for the hazelnut crop, and while they claim to cling to their old inclusive spirit, Kesal cuts to the Kurds in their cinder block apartments as a Kurdish man admits that he doesn’t always get paid his already below-minimum wages.
The Kurds starred in the tragedy “Colorless Dream,” which opens with young Mirza’s nightmares about violence he’s seen—and might see. Though Mirza wets the bed in fear and can’t catch up with the Turkish spoken in school, life is stable until a Kurdish acquaintance named Mir Ahmed asks his family if he can hide out in their home. He’s not political, Mir Ahmed claims, but the Turkish police are stalking him because his younger brother is a rebel soldier. Mirza and Mir Ahmed’s friendship is gradual and sentimental, but the film is haunted by things we can’t clearly see: shadowy masked men in the background and murders that happen offscreen, made more unnerving by their absence. It felt like a film that knew it couldn’t show too much.
“Art is getting more creative when politics get more tough,” said Ayan. “It’s interesting to see how it changes and where it goes. I hope it won’t get worse, I hope it will get better, but who knows. Really you can’t predict this. The only thing we can predict in Turkey is we can’t predict anything.”
In Turkey, as in the States, the country is suddenly betting everything on the young. Yet, the Istanbul Film Festival entry that’s stuck with me is from a Turkish cinema veteran, Orhan Oğuz’s terrific satire of bureaucracy, “Minus One.” The film opens with three deputies on night patrol listening to the repeated radio calls about freezing immigrants burning trash. It’s deathly cold when they get the order to scoop up an old, injured homeless man from the backstage of a theater. The stink of his uncontrollable bowels smells so bad, he’s ruined the show.
The cops aren’t bright—one thinks Galileo discovered America, another mistakes Rapunzel for Shakespeare—and they aren’t incredibly sensitive. The chief posts photos of the man to Instagram and notes that most commenters write he should just let him die. Keeping the vagrant alive isn’t pleasant. His stench forces them to roll down the windows and shiver, which becomes more and more of a problem when no shelters are willing to take him in for excuses that get increasingly insane.
“Minus One” is hilarious. I loved the astonishment on a deputy’s face when he realizes that tomatoes were imported so late that the first Sultans didn’t eat a proper shepherd salad. But Metin Belgin plays the old man with a pathetic dignity that twists the audience in knots. He knows Shakespeare, even if these goons don’t. And he knows that no matter what the cops do with him tonight, this world has no place for him. The image that lingers is two Turkish ushers desperately spraying huge, white clouds of air freshener in the aisles, a duel between human rules and human needs—or just another night at the theater.
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