Last year's Brand Israel controversy behind them, TIFF looks to Istanbul this year as a representative nexus of Turkish filmmaking. I look forward to sampling their national cinema. As TIFF Co-Director Cameron Bailey announced: "This has been a hard secret to keep! When we began discussions about a short list of possible cities back in January, Istanbul quickly emerged as a leading candidate. Most people know Istanbul as a dynamic city with a rich history, but its film scene is less well-known. Over the past five years, filmmakers from this vibrant metropolis have been winning awards at Cannes and Berlin. Now, some are making the leap to festivals outside of Europe. We're so pleased to feature films from Istanbul this year: audiences will have access to strong emerging filmmakers, at the moment just before they're sure to be discovered somewhere else."
10 to 11 / 11'e 10 Kala (Pelin Esmer, Turkey / France / Germany, 2009)—An elderly man clashes with his neighbors as they try to remove him—and his elaborate collections of ephemera—from his apartment. Official website. IMDb. Wikipedia. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.
Paraphrasing the synopsis at the film's offical website: Living on the fourth floor of the Emniyet Apartment Building, Mr. Mithat (Mithat Esmer) has—after facing numerous threats—managed to protect the collection he has been working on for years, even though it leaves him very little space in which to live. For Mr. Mithat, Istanbul is as unlimited as his collection; any piece in his collection could lead him anywhere in the city.
By contrast, for Ali (Nejat Isler) Istanbul is limited to the apartment building where he works as concierge and its surroundings. When the other tenants of the apartment building seek to demolish and rebuild the building out of fear of earthquakes (and with the added incentive of owning a more valuable property), Mr. Mithat faces his greatest challenge yet to save his collection. The building becomes the shared destiny of these two lonely men. Their relationship graduates to a different level when Mr. Mithat turns Istanbul over to Ali and it ends when they unknowingly change each others' destinies.
From the 2009 San Sebastian Film Festival, Neil Young dispatched to his Film Lounge that 10 to 11—to the surprise of many—went away empty-handed at the prize giving. "Taking its tone and pace from its 'unhurried' protagonist," Young writes, "this is the lightly fictionalized tale of the director's fiercely independent octogenarian grandfather—an educated, old-fashioned gent whose Istanbul flat is crammed floor to ceiling with 'collections' accumulated over the course of the decades. In its best moments a Bosphorus twist on Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the picture exudes a beguilingly unusual atmosphere—one can almost smell the dusty piles of yellowing newspapers and magazines—that sustains what is, objectively speaking, a relatively slender storyline." At Variety, Jonathan Holland concurred: "There is something noble about Mithat's refusal to let the modern sweep him away: His collection represents Istanbul itself. Pic is loaded with such metaphors, but the script doesn't force them, preferring to remain focused on our impassive hero, directed by his granddaughter to ensure that no empty sentimentalism creeps in. The mood swings between melancholy and gently surreal comedy; the dialogue, like most of the pic, has been adapted to Mithat's own leisurely rhythms. But despite the script's inability to fashion any real drama, the pace remains compelling rather than dull." At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha describes 10 to 11 as a "lively, melancholy comedy-drama of people forced to accommodate to a city in constant change, loosely inspired by real people and situations and shot in documentary style."
At MUBI, David Hudson relies on member Mutt who writes: "Turkish director Pelin Esmer (Oyun) follows up on her début documentary short Koleksiyoncu: The Collector with this full-length feature loosely based on the story of her obsessive collector uncle which has picked up awards at the Istanbul, Altın Koza and Ankara international film festivals as well as a number of foreign awards." Mutt synopsizes: "Elderly collector Mithat and newly arrived concierge Ali find their lonely lives becoming increasingly intertwined with each other and the city Istanbul itself, which for one exists to be catalogued and for the other is a fearful unknown, as they become the last two inhabitants of a condemned apartment block. Consummate professional Nejat Isler (Everything About Mustafa and Egg) puts in a subtly nuanced central performance whilst ageing débutante Mithat Esmer looks a bit shaky in places but none-the-less performs admirably in a role based on himself and together the two evolve a convincing and emotive relationship. The director has cleverly counterbalanced the story of her uncle with that of an equally alienated individual in a way that allows the characters to drive the story in a way still seemingly innovative in Turkish cinema whilst at the same time preventing the all-too-easy descent into sentimental nostalgia that could have all to easily plagued the production."
40 (Emre Şahin, Turkey)—Capturing the dazzling intensity of Istanbul's 12 million souls, Şahin's groundbreaking feature crisscrosses the lives of a petty crook, an ambitious nurse and an African migrant as they seek money, luck or just a way out. Official site. IMDb. Facebook. TOFilmFest. International Premiere.
Block-C / C-Blok (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey)—Zeki Demirkubuz's career-launching debut feature dissects the melancholy and repression inherent in bourgeois life in dreary apartment blocks. Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. Canadian Premiere.
At Strictly Film School, Acquarello writes: "Something like an unpolished Michelangelo Antonioni film in its interpenetration of alienating landscapes and interior turmoil, Block-C is a flawed, yet seminal film in Demirkubuz's body of work—a complex character study that provides the psychological and visceral paradigm for his subsequent films." Acquarello has also taken extensive notes from a panel discussion on Turkish Cinema with Zeki Demirkubuz.
Dark Cloud / Bahti Kara (Theron Patterson, Turkey)—A black comedy in the style of a lucid dream, Dark Cloud looks at Adnan (Reha Özcan) a middle-aged man who can't move on from the death of his wife, and his teenage son Burak (Kamer Çelenk) who needs him to wake up. Iksv program capsule. IMDb. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.
At The Hürriyet Daily News, Emrah Güler found Dark Cloud "a refreshing combination of real characters, impressive acting, and improvised dialogue." Belying fixed definitions of national cinema, Güler pointed out director Patterson's American nationality (further profiled by Ceylan Yegįnsu at the Hürriyet). Güler likewise detailed the controversy associated with the film's multiple awards at the Bursa Silk Road Film Festival: "Following the awards, it was revealed that Hülya Uçansu, the head of the jury, was somehow linked to the movie. Later, rumors surfaced that a film with no script had won the screenplay award." Güler chalked off the rumor the film had no script to a misunderstanding of Patterson's method of working with improvised dialogue, which in his opinion ranged from "natural to amateurish." According to Emįne Yildirim at Today's Zaman, however, this practice of improvisational screen acting "so strongly holds Bahtı Kara (Dark Cloud) together, despite its minor flaws, and adds such genuineness to the overall universe of the film that it makes it a significant milestone in Turkish cinema that will not be forgotten." Yildirim added: "I have never seen a Turkish film that so vividly, fervently and unapologetically presents a human being who just cannot move on with his life." At Sunday's Zaman, Elįf Nesįbe Özbudak offered specific examples of how Patterson's improvisational method worked on set and at Today's Zaman Yasemįn Gürkan examined the film's controversial association with Hülya Uçansu.
Distant / Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)—Distant maps Nuri Bilge Ceylan's signature exploration of existential heartache onto the wintry shores of Istanbul. Using the Wayback Machine, David Hudson rounded up reviews at the Greencine Daily when Distant was held close by critics at Cannes. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. TOFilmFest.
Hair / Saç (Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, Turkey)—An ailing Istanbul wig-maker becomes obsessed with a woman who enters his shop one day. Screened earlier at Locarno. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.
TOFilmFest expands the synopsis: "An ailing Istanbul wig-maker becomes obsessed with a woman who enters his shop one day. Hamdi, a wig seller in a run-down district in Istanbul, is desperately lonely. He's addicted to cigarettes and spends his time, day and night, bored, in his store, which is also his home. His cancer means he has only a short time left to live, but he chain-smokes, staring out of his window at a woman in red, a prostitute standing on the pavement on the other side of the noisy road. Hamdi also believes he is shrinking and measures his height every day. He has no expectations: except perhaps of going somewhere far away before he dies. Brazil is the furthest place he can think of, a paradise with no pain. One day a strange thing happens: a woman, Meryem, comes to his store to sell her very long hair. Hamdi is stunned as he contemplates her. He cuts her hair as she hides her tears. Hamdi becomes obsessed, following her when she leaves the store and then everywhere she goes. As Meryem, married to a churlish man who washes corpses for a living, realizes that Hamdi is pursuing her, the situation becomes ever more bizarre."
Leslie Felperin reviewed the film at Locarno for Variety. Situating Hair as the third part of a trilogy, along with Rıza and Haze—though, curiously, at the Hürriyet Daily News Emrah Güler alternately lists Rıza and Pus as the first two entries in the trilogy—that explore lives of quiet desperation in contemporary Turkey, "Pirselimoğlu's latest has the kind of formal precision and meditative quality that will endear it to highbrow critics. However, with its indulgently long, static takes and painfully indirect storytelling method, pic will be a hard sell even to arthouse auds." Noting that Pirselimoğlu makes "abundant use of carefully composed long shots that afford the opportunity to feast on images of Istanbul's jolie-laid urban landscape"—providing "diverting enough viewing"—Felperin cautions that "the impression grows incrementally that the script doesn't add up to much more than a severely attenuated short film, and a last-act transition into weirdsville doesn't work on the intended psychological level." Ray Bennett had the honors at The Hollywood Reporter and dismissed the film as "a dreary and dispiriting tale" that is two hours more "than most viewers will likely want to sit through." Bennett regretted that Pirselimoğlu didn't do more with the film's "one small visual note of irony that a man who sells hair for a living is losing his own due to chemotherapy." Güler profiles Pirselimoğlu further: "Turkish audiences know director and writer Tayfun Pirselimoğlu from his directorial debut Hiçbiryerde (Nowhere Land) of 2002 and 2007's underrated Rıza, as well as his writing credits in last year's Güz Sancısı (Pains of Autumn). He's also a familiar name as a novelist with four books to his name."
The Majority / Çoğunluk (Seren Yüce, Turkey)—A young middle-class man rebels against his father's brutish authority and seeks a rough romance with a woman of ethnic minority. Yüce's moral tale draws from the example of today's Turkish youth and the timeless shadow of fathers over sons. As synopsized for the Venice Days program: "Life is hard for Romeo and Juliet even in Istanbul. Especially when he is a member of the conformist middle-class and she is a Kurdish girl seeking her own normalcy in a world where the majority does not allow for transgressions." TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.
Tadeusz Sobolewski quotes Seren Yüce in his program capsule for Venice Days: "Humanity's complicated structure, which is disguised under the veil of technology, is always affected by the power of masculinity. Majority is a critique of myself and Turkish society, of which I am a member. My aim is to look at 'us' through a family, which is the core of society."
Sobolewski queries: "Will it be possible one day for a character of a Turkish movie to look back at his youth and get to understand his tyrannical father as did the liberated character of Padre padrone? Nowadays, we hear a great deal about the oppression suffered by women in many traditional societies, but Seren Yüce shows us an oppressed young man. The son is subdued to his father. Fear of his father proves more powerful for him than his love for an 'alien' girl. Is this passive character aware of this oppression? This film makes us face a paradox: In a patriarchal society a woman may find it easier to emancipate herself than a man."
At MUBI, Boyd von Hoeij anticipates the Venice World Premiere of The Majority: "A new generation of Turkish filmmaking talent has quietly grown up in the shadow of Cannes darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Yüce makes his feature debut here with Majority after working as an assistant director on Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, the Akin-produced Takva: A Man's Fear of God, and Yesim Ustaoglu's Pandoras Box. What these dramas have in common is that they look at Turkish society with a sharp and critical eye while never letting their socio-political ruminations take precedence over their narrative- rather than issue-driven stories; they never reduce the specific characters in their stories to clichéd stand-ins for larger groups of society. Hopefully, this will also be the case for Majority, which looks at a son's infatuation with a Kurdish girl, and the problems this creates with his father."
My Only Sunshine / Hayat Var (Reha Erdem, Turkey / Greece / Bulgaria)—In this potent, widescreen portrait of an Istanbul wild child, Hayat (Elit İşcan) lives in a shack beside the Bosphorus sea with her criminal father (Erdal Beşikçioğlu) and wheezing grandfather (Levend Yılmaz). Life is harsh, but Hayat watches and learns: "You'll face up to every ordeal and say 'that's life'." Official site. IMDb. TOFilmFest. Toronto Premiere.
At MUBI, David Hudson offers the film's trailer and cites MUBI member Mutt: "Celebrated Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem (Beş Vakit & Kaç Para Kaç) continues his international success with this elegy to alienated urban Turkish teenage life which took home awards at both the 58th Berlin International Film Festival and the 3rd Yeşilçam Awards and secured international distribution." Mutt notes that "Digitürk Young Talent Award-winning Turkish starlet Elit İşcan (Beş Vakit) reunites with the director for a powerful performance which holds the entire film together and drives it forward despite the young actress barely speaking a word, while veterans Erdal Beşikçioğlu, Levend Yılmaz and Banu Fotocan follow in her emotional wake. The Yeşilçam Award-winning director plunges into the dark underbelly of urban Turkish life, with the few splashes of color there coming from the beautifully captured Bosphorous of cinematographer Florent Herry and the arabesque dominated soundtrack, for a moving film which somehow manages to find its sunshine."
At Eye For Film, Jennie Kermode praises Elit İşcan's central performance: "Elit İşcan demonstrate[s] a confidence that belies her years. She's not demonstrative but quietly resilient, intelligently interpreting the withdrawal common to children in such circumstances. The problem is that, brave though the film may be, this is pretty difficult to watch for an hour and a half, and the occasional flashes of humor are not sufficient to leaven the weight of the central narrative. Instead we rely on lyrical images of the river landscape, some of which work beautifully but most of which fail to stand out from the great bulk of such imagery you'll see in films like this."
September 12 / 12 Eylül (Özlem Sulak, Turkey / Germany)—In this meditative and monumental examination of the legacy of Turkey's 1980 military coup, individual narrations of the tumultuous event are juxtaposed with quotidian routines, 30 years on. IMDb. TOFilmFest. North American Premiere.
Emrah Güler backgrounds the film for the Hürriyet Daily News: "The joint production from Turkey and Germany features interviews with 12 people at different ages and from diverse backgrounds as they reminisce about the day of the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980. The Sept. 12 coup and its aftermath is one of the more popular subjects of Turkish cinema, with seven thousand people imprisoned, 50 executed, and political opposition silenced."
Somersault in a Coffin / Tabutta Rövasata (Dervis Zaim, Turkey)—A thief with bizarre compulsions—and possibly good reasons—tries to get by in this essential Istanbul film. Somersault in a Coffin was the winner of multiple festival awards, including the SKYY Prize at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival and several Golden Oranges at Antalya's 1996 Film Festival. IMDb. Wikipedia. TOFilmFest.
Despite its festival pedigree, Stephen Holden (The New York Times) found Somersault in a Coffin "compassionate but hopelessly sketchy" and argues that—despite its intriguing characters—"this cinema-verite-style movie never finds its narrative focus. Key incidents in Mahsun's sad life are insufficiently developed, and the abrupt changes in his relationships remain frustratingly inexplicable."
Along with its sampling of narrative features and feature documentaries, the City to City spotlight offers seven shorts.
ascents in february / subat'ta yükselisler (Yoel Meranda, Turkey)—An abstract, impish spot of light leads the camera onto Istanbul's streets. World Premiere.
not be or… / yok ya da... (Yoel Meranda, Turkey)—This whiplash montage of Istanbul's urban imagery conveys a pure sense of speed and disorientation. World Premiere.
On Thin Ice / Ince Buz Uzerinde (Burcak Kaygun, Turkey)—A painterly composition explores movement and sound in the abstract, as skaters on a winter ice rink swirl round and round. Canadian Premiere.
rauscht / hisirtilar (Yoel Meranda, Turkey)—A politician's televised speech is utterly transformed into stunning abstraction. International Premiere.
Science Lab / Bilim Laboratuvari (Eytan Ipeker, Turkey)—This short is a visual compendium of experimental techniques, all uncannily mined from footage of the filmmaker’s piano keys. International Premiere.
straitscaping / denizgeçiti (Yoel Meranda, Turkey)—Yoel Meranda completely transforms brief footage of a ferry trip across the Bosphorus. World Premiere.
Waves / Dalgalar (Belmin Soylemez, Turkey)—This striking experimental documentary focuses on the boys and young men who jump into the Bosphorus to escape the city and the heat. North American Premiere.
In addition to the above features and shorts, a panel session entitled "Istanbul—A Conversation" will feature several guests, including Richard Florida, author of The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity and Who's Your City?; Reha Erdem, director of My Only Sunshine; Pelin Esmer, director of 10 to 11; and Seren Yüce, director of The Majority. This panel will be open to the public and will take place on Thursday, September 16 at 7:00PM at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall. Admission is free.