Nestled between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is undoubtedly one of most fascinating cities in the world – combining the sensibilities of both continents, it’s an exciting and constantly surprising cosmopolitan city with a rich vein of history. Istanbul is also a very vibrant arts capital: the city is awash with festivals, exhibitions, concerts and plays all year round – and perhaps the crowning event is the International Istanbul Film Festival.
The festival showcases the best of both mainstream and independent cinema for an intense and very exciting two weeks every April. It provides an excellent opportunity for foreign visitors to explore Turkish cinema with a selection of the best new productions, as well as restorations of classic (and sometimes thought to be lost) Turkish films. It also introduces audiences to important directors and actors/actresses and gives the prestigious Golden Tulip Award every year to one international and one national production, alongside the FIPRESCI Prize and the Council of Europe Award.
Here are some of the stand-out films from the festival, including the award winners:
The Misfortunates (De helaasheid der dingen)
(Winner of the international Golden Tulip)
Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Belgium’s entry for the Oscars last year follows the story of young Gunther Strobbe, who lives with his father, three uncles and his grandmother. While the male members of the house waste their days away drinking heavy quantities of alcohol, chasing loose women and getting into bar fights, Gunther tries to find his own role within this eccentric and decidedly odd household. Director Felix van Groeningen captures the stark brutality of growing up in what can only be described as unusually appalling conditions. The Strobbe Clan are like overblown, grotesque versions of characters from a Mike Leigh film. Their aspirations are inexistent, and it seems that Gunther might be destined to follow into the same kind of dead-end life. The film is exceptionally simple and yet walks a thin line between pathos and humour as it paints a portrait of an extremely dysfunctional, yet endearing family. The performances are stellar and Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentijn Dhaenens, Wouter Hendrickx and Johan Heldenbergh shine as older members of the Strobbe family. Although there is no distribution deal for the film in the UK so far, one can only hope that it won’t be long before this small and charming masterpiece arrives on our screens.
(Winner of the national Golden Tulip)
At once idiosyncratically Turkish and yet marvellously accessible to any foreign audience, the Taylan brothers’ third film delivers on the promises made in their previous feature. Borrowing heavily from the films and tone of the Coen Brothers, they create the darkest of comedies in a quintessentially Turkish setting. Engin Günaydin, who also wrote the film, stars as Celal, a hapless electrician whose business and marriage are not going so well. In love with a cheap ‘pavyon’ singer from Samsun, Celal decides the solution to his problems lies with his wife Sevilay’s secret stash of money, sent by her father from Germany. A devious plan slowly hatches in Celal’s mind whereby he can solve both his problems with one single act. Reminiscent of Fargo in mood and action, Vavien is a pitch-black comedy. The growing desperation of Celal, his attempts at wooing Sibel, and Sevilay’s abrupt conversations with her dad in Germany, are all played straight, and yet the humour never gets lost, thanks to an intelligent and well-written script. Special mention must also go to Serra Yilmaz, who, in spite of her short screen time, manages to steal every scene she is in. A must-see for any lover of intelligent and unique cinema, Vavien is also an indication of the new standards established within Turkish cinema.
(Council of Europe Film Award)
Already screened at the London Film Festival to great success, Ajami holds the unique honour of being the result of a collaborative effort between Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli director. The film is set in Ajami, a tough neighbourhood in Jaffa populated by Jews, Arabs and Christians, and tells five different but interconnected stories using a daring narrative structure reminiscent of Amores Perros. The fact that the film was made using a largely non-professional cast also serves as a testament to the raw power the directors manage to extract from their material. At once a tough crime drama and a powerful statement about life in the multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of Israel, Ajami is an admirable effort using exceptional cinematographic language to tell an exceptional story.
I Killed My Mother
(People’s Choice Awards)
Canada’s bid for the Oscars in 2010, Xavier Dolan’s semi-autobiographical film is one of the most emotionally honest and refreshing stories to emerge in years. Focusing on gay teenager Hubert and his tempestuous relationship with his mother, for whom he feels both guilt and contempt, Dolan’s feature debut explores the myths and mysteries of adolescence in an unexpectedly direct, amusing and emotional way.
Gainsbourg (Vie HéroÃ¯que)
Almost as creative and outrageous as its subject matter, cartoonist Joann Sfar’s debut film based on his graphic novel covers the entire gamut of Serge Gainsbourg’s life, from growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris through to his death in 1996. Filled to the brim with Gainsbourg’s unique compositions, the film easily sidesteps the usual traps a biopic can fall into, instead creating an amusing and breathtaking ride through its never-felt 140 minutes. Eric Elmosnino’s performance as the titular character is exemplary, effortlessly bringing Gainsbourg’s charm and cool to the screen.
A daring and unusual effort from Israeli directing duo Yoav Paz and Doron Paz, Phobidilia is a modern take on the horrors of the everyday world. After suffering an emotional breakdown in a public place, an unnamed young man vows never to leave his apartment: much to his delight, he quickly discovers that in today’s world all his needs can be met easily within the four walls of his apartment. But four years later, his idyllic existence comes under attack from two figures: Daniela, a free-spirited girl who barges into his life, and Grumps, the building’s real estate agent. But the young man is not willing to let anyone take his comfortable existence away from him. Both claustrophobic and visually inventive, the debut feature from the duo behind a number of exceptional music videos shows real talent. Add to this a script that dares to ask some very unusual, some might say controversial, questions and you have the makings of a genuinely transgressive film.
Following on from the success of My Only Sunshine, which played to great acclaim in the London Film Festival last year, Reha Erdem moves further into more inexplicable and fascinating territory. His new film tells the story of a thief who can work miracles. He arrives in an unnamed, snow-covered border town weeping and immediately rescues a boy from drowning. The townspeople look upon the thief as a wise man, but a sudden rash of robberies and his honest declaration that he is looking for love make them suspicious: in a short time the atmosphere becomes electrically charged. Erdem’s film explores the mystical and the unexplainable through a universal story set in one small town. Magnificent visuals aided by an intriguing story, and what is perhaps the best sound design of any film in the last 20 years, elevate Kosmos to a new level of filmmaking. Bound to create as much hatred as love and fuel many discussions, Kosmos represents the sort of European cinema that we seldom get to see.
Christian Frei’s new documentary takes the audience into a fascinating world full of wonder and surprise. Using breathtaking imagery as well as magnificent music by Jan Garbarek, Christian Frei tells the story of Anousheh Ansari, who was the first tourist in space after paying $20 million for the privilege. Her story is juxtaposed with the many other intriguing people who revolve around space travel, from Kazakh rocket debris collectors to photographers exploring abandoned Russian cosmonaut villages. The film is constantly surprising, unexpected and a delight to watch. Christian Frei was awarded the well-deserved Sundance World Cinema Directing Award in the documentary category this year.
Deliver Us from Evil (Fri os fra det onde)
Ole Bornedal returns to the big screen with another re-imagining of the genre film, just as he as done before with science fiction in The Substitute and film noir in Just Another Love Story. Taking the basic idea behind Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Ole Bornedal twists and reshapes the story into something surreal, disturbing and very, very unique. The film opens with Lars, a drunken failure, running over the town’s saintly figure, Ingvar. Although he is racked with guilt, he finds an easy solution in blaming the crime on the local Bosnian refugee Alain. Ingvar’s partner Frederik is furious – Ingvar was his only connection to the real world and the only person who could control and subdue his violent rage. The one person who stands up for Alain is Lars’s brother Johannes, who has recently moved back to town with his family. When he rescues Alain from being lynched by the mob and retreats to his place, an angry and vicious group lays siege to the only home he now knows. The results are both deadly and tragic. Featuring a blistering final 20 minutes, this film confirms Ole Bornedal’s credentials as a major filmmaking talent.
A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)
Based on the Belgian animated cult TV series, A Town Called Panic is perhaps the wackiest, most surreal comedy anyone can hope to see this year.
When Cowboy and Indian want to make a surprise homemade gift for Horse’s birthday, little do they know that their efforts will result in the destruction of their entire home and all their belongings. What is even stranger is that the events bring them face to face with an alien race who lives in the centre of the world and whose aim is to steal anything precious. A surreal, mad, hilarious and completely irreverent adventure ends up engulfing not only Cowboy, Indian and Horse, but also their neighbours, the postman and even the local police. With basic stop-motion animation and some of the most charmingly insane characterisations ever seen on the screen, this is the kind of film that reminds you of the power of comedy. It’s no surprise that the film won the Audience Award at Austin’s prestigious Fantastic Fest last year, as well as the Best Animated Feature award at Sitges 2009.
Actor Jacob Tierney’s second directorial effort focuses on high-school student Leon Bronstein, who believes himself to be Leon Trotsky. After starting a strike at his father’s factory during a summer job, Leon finds himself quickly exiled to public school by his father. However, Leon’s instinct for revolution is not easily thwarted: this move gives him an even bigger cause than before – to prove that his fellow students matter to his arch-nemesis, the Stalin-like Principal Berkhoff. Witty, warm and exceptionally acted, The Trotsky comes across as a beautiful and thoughtful combination of Election and Rushmore. Hiding a serious message under its surface, this might be the best teen comedy to come out of Canada in years.