The jewel in the crown of Istanbul’s buzzing cultural scene, the Istanbul International Film Festival. is a unique event that acts as a crucial bridge between east and west – it’s hard to deny the importance the festival plays in unearthing Asian and Middle Eastern films, screening them alongside their European counterparts.
Although the line-up was as strong as ever, this year’s 32nd edition of the festival was home to much dissent: the closure and subsequent attempts to destroy one of Istanbul’s oldest cinemas, Emek, has been opposed by many local activists, artists, and actors. However, the mantle this year was also taken up by international guests like Costa-Gavras and Patricia Arquette, who not only raised the social media profile around this issue, but also stood in the front ranks of the protest walks. An unnecessary show of power by the local police, though, meant that most of the cinematic luminaries were on the receiving end of pepper spray, as well as being harassed, harangued and generally shoved around. Turkey’s oldest film critic, Atilla Dorsay, was also one of the figures who received such maltreatment, and, as result – and a sign of protest – quit his column at the Sabah newspaper after having written there for more than 20 years. Whether the construction company that plans to erect yet another shopping mall within the Beyoğlu area took any notice of the ruckus remains to be seen, but it seems as if Istanbul residents will not let this issue die without a fight.
Going back to the pride of the festival – its strong programming – this year’s slate revealed new trends within contemporary Turkish cinema. Although it’s obvious that the country’s filmmakers still feel the need to follow the example of their most successful luminary, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and create suffocating character pieces, a number of attempts at varying styles stood out.
Among these, perhaps the most ambitious was Onur Ünlü’s Thou Gild’st the Even. Highly unusual in both content and style, Ünlü merges the story of the inhabitants of an Aegean town and their small-town problems with that of a superhero movie to prove that, even in a universe where everyone has a superpower, the petty, basic characteristics of humanity still prevail. The film boasts some incredible set pieces (a sprawling, gorgeous scene involving a hail of rocks is particularly impressive) with terrific sound design, showcasing the work of a director who has been steadily carving his own strange path within cinema. Perhaps the criticism to direct at the film is its weak scenario – it’s hard not to feel that had Ünlü perhaps written one more draft, the entire film might have played much stronger.
On the international front, the festival showcased some of the most anticipated films of the year – titles such as Chan Wook-park’s Stoker and Shane Carruth’sUpstream Color sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale and new screenings had to be added to meet the incredible demand. With inexpensive matinee tickets, the festival organisers ensured that most screenings were as full as possible. (A side note here has to be that the screening for Thou Gild’st the Even was sold out three times over, and there was not a single empty space in the theatre: not the seats nor the stairs nor even the doorways.)
Mikael Marcimain’s Call Girl from Sweden was another title that created much excitement among the crowd. With an aesthetic style reminiscent of both Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976), and a killer soundtrack, this dramatisation of a true story weaved an intricate, elaborate tale that ensnared the entire audience within the first few minutes, and did not let go until its heartbreaking, brutal end.
As per tradition, the festival ended with the televised and much-loved award ceremony, where Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant What Richard Did won the International Golden Tulip and Bruno Dumont won the Special Jury Prize with his historical piece Camille Claudel 1915. Thou Gild’st the Even was named best film, winning the National Golden Tulip award, while Asli Özge won best director for her brutal examination of the disintegration of a middle-upper class marriage in Lifelong. The Special Jury Award in the national competition was presented to Derviş Zaim, who, with his new film The Cycle, continues to explore forgotten branches of Turkish art and history, reflecting these through modern storytelling. The Seyfi Teoman award for first film went to Deniz Akçay Katiksiz with the promising Nobody’s Home, while the Fipresci jury chose to award Bruno Dumont and Onur Ünlü. Ziad Doureri’s The Attack was picked as the winner of the Human Rights in Cinema section, bringing the festival to a close.
Representing a terrific opportunity for audience members, professionals, journalists and filmmakers to come together in cinematic joie de vivre, the Istanbul International Film Festival continues to raise its own bar, attracting incredible talent and films each year, while fast becoming one of the unmissable film events of the festival calendar.