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The Space Between: A Panorama of Cinema in Turkey. 27 April – 10 May 2012, Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY.
Introducing “The Space Between: A Panorama of Cinema in Turkey,” a major retrospective of Turkish cinema featuring twenty-nine films from 1958 to the present recently screened in New York City, Richard Peña, the revered director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, noted that he first proposed the idea of a major series on Turkish cinema when he was hired in 1987. It took twenty-five years for this vision to be realized; easily the largest retrospective of Turkish cinema to be held in the United States, “The Space Between” is a fitting example of Peña’s great commitment to world cinema.
And yet that twenty-five-year gap between inspiration and realization might make us pause a bit. It suggests several things. The first is that as early as 1987, at a time when the “new wave” of Turkish auteurs who have come to achieve international prominence—figures such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Fatih Akın, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Semih Kaplanoğlu, Reha Erdem, and Özcan Alper—had yet to make a film, the notion of a retrospective devoted to Turkish cinema was not an outlandish suggestion. This should help to counter the notion that not much worth noting happened in Turkish cinema before the 1990s. But equally noteworthy is the fact that such a retrospective did not in fact come to pass until 2012, which also suggests that even after the rise of this new generation of filmmakers, whose work joined that of internationally esteemed predecessors such as Yılmaz Güney, Metin Erksan, and Şerif Gören, Turkish cinema has remained largely unrecognized and unappreciated among audiences in the United States.
In his opening essay to the excellent catalog that accompanied the retrospective (which can be downloaded from the festival website), Peña cannily references both the accomplishments and the relative neglect of cinema from Turkey. As he notes, one of the intentions of programs like “The Space Between” is “to ‘help write film history’ by trying to fill in the gaps that exist in terms of our knowledge of certain artists, periods, or national cinemas.” But in a certain way, these particular gaps only become visible “when suddenly a national cinema about which we know very little begins producing a number of provocative, high quality works.” This has certainly been the case with Turkish cinema in recent years, “which has clearly become one of the national cinemas to watch,” Peña states.
And yet, as he goes on to add: “Experience teaches that these ‘waves’ don’t come out of nowhere: they’re generally the fruit of trends and developments that have existed, sometimes for years, outside of the purview of most international film critics and scholars.” In the case of Turkey, the great achievements of filmmakers over the past two decades “rest on a solid foundation of courageous, ambitious filmmaking that has been part of cultural life in Turkey since at least the Fifties.” It is to the great credit of “The Space Between” that it takes as its goal the attempt to begin to trace the outlines of this cinematic legacy. Indeed, the festival’s title, in addition to referencing the “in-between” status occupied culturally and geographically by Turkey, could as easily refer to the space within the imaginations of US audiences just being introduced to cinema from Turkey.
In her excellent catalog essay “Cinema in Turkey: Inspiration Across Generations,” Zeynep Dadak helps to fill in the necessary background for new viewers. She begins by focusing on the pioneers of the Fifties and Sixties, such as Güney, Erksan, Lütfi Ö. Akad, Halit Refiğ, and Atıf Yılmaz, and takes pains to note that even during what is generally seen as the “decline” of Turkish cinema during the Seventies and Eighties, there was important work being done by film makers like Ömer Kavur, Ali Özgentürk, and Şerif Gören, all of whom were represented in the festival. But most of Dadak’s emphasis is on what she calls the “revival” that began in the 1990s; she includes here directors like Yavuz Turgul, Mustafa Altıoklar, and Derviş Zaim, who have not necessarily received the same international attention as some of their compatriots but have made important and quite popular films. Dadak also reminds us that this “new wave” of the Nineties has now been succeeded by the next generation, who rose to prominence in the mid-2000s. This new new wave of Turkish cinema was represented at “The Space Between” by Seyfi Teoman’s Tatil Kitabı [Summer Book] (2008), Raşit Çelikezer’s Can (2011), and Özcan Alper’s Gelecek Uzun Sürer [Future Lasts Forever] (2011), which was the closing film of the festival.
Of course, for all the noble efforts of the curators, the impossibility of representing such a rich tradition of cinema covering more than fifty years is obvious—imagine a similar attempt to capture the last fifty years of film from, say, Italy, or Iran, or Brazil, or Germany (feel free to add your choice to the list) in one festival. And one can always play the game of quarrelling with some of the choices: classic Yeşilçam could have been better represented, for example, and among contemporary filmmakers, the absence of Semih Kaplanoğlu was striking. The 2001 blockbuster Vizontele seemed to have been chosen largely for sociological reasons, as an example of a successful popular film, but a more interesting choice might have been Turgul’s Eşkiya [The Bandit], a beautiful film that was also hugely popular.
In terms of the directors best known to audiences in the US, Fatih Akın was represented by his musical documentary İstanbul Hatırası: Köprüyü Geçmek [Crossing The Bridge: The Sounds of Istanbul], a lovely film (and a clever choice for representing the filmmaker’s outside-in vision of Istanbul), but artistically a lightweight compared to his almost unbearably intense Duvara Karşı [Head-On], his deeply moving Yaşamın Kıyısında [The Edge Of Heaven], and even his scrappy and under-appreciated recent film Soul Kitchen. The great auteurs Demirkubuz and Ceylan had one film apiece, in each case a fine example of their work—the brooding Dostoevskian vision of the former is certainly on display in İtiraf (Confession), and İklimler (Climates) is a perfect example of the ice-cold beauty of the latter’s work—but it would have been interesting to have featured films from earlier in each of their careers, films that might be unfamiliar to their fans in New York. Ceylan’s latest film, Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da [Once Upon a Time in Anatolia], had a (brief) run in the US; one can only hope for something similar for Demirkubuz’s recently released film Yeraltı [Underground], loosely based on Notes from Underground.
I was only able to view a handful of the films screened over the two weeks of the festival, and so missed out on several of the great neo-realist films of the Fifties and Sixties, and also, to my great chagrin, missed the chance to see Zaim’s darkly comic Tabutta Rövaşata [Somersault in a Coffin]. As Naira Antoun has recently written in a review of another festival, the act of watching a small selection of disparate films as part of a larger festival allows the viewer to come away with a particularly personal set of reflections, which is one of the most wonderful things about retrospectives such as “The Space Between.”
For me, one set of such reflections was set off by the film that made the strongest impression on me, Tunç Başaran’s 1989 film Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar [Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite], described in the program notes as a “cult favorite.” An unabashed melodrama, with a screenplay by Feride Çiçekoğlu based on her novel, Başaran’s film tells the story of Barış, a young boy who grows up in a women’s prison. He is raised collectively by the women (his young mother is by turns affectionate and neglectful), but his closest bond is with İnci, a young and idealistic political prisoner. The film manages to avoid the traps that would lead it into mere sentimentalism, and it is also a deeply political film that never falls into didacticism. In one emotional sequence, a pregnant inmate gives birth to a son, lovingly assisted by her cellmates. A group of young political prisoners suggest a series of possible allegorical names for the newborn, all of them suggesting freedom, liberation, and peace; after a dramatic pause, the boy’s mother looks up and declares: “His name…is Ahmet.” With such deft moments of humor, Çiçekoğlu and Başaran leaven the darker themes of the film, before soaring back into emotional territory. Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar is the sort of genuinely moving film that makes you want to recommend it to everyone you know (which is, I suppose, the definition of a cult film). It is also the sort of film that is difficult to follow: after watching it, Ustaoğlu’s Güneşe Yolculuk [Journey to the Sun], while a fine film, felt a bit didactic and dry, while Kavur’s Gizli Yüz [The Secret Face], though it was made two years after Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar, seemed dated and rather staid (although the fault was not so much with Kavur’s beautiful cinematography, but with the script by Orhan Pamuk, adapted from a story that worked much better as a subplot of Pamuk’s brilliant novel Kara Kitap [The Black Book]).
I was also struck by the extraordinary vision of Yılmaz Güney, which dominated much of the festival. Güney’s influence on cinema from Turkey is enormous (“We are all somehow his children,” Akın has said), and his presence as a director, screenwriter, and actor in a number of films featured in the festival bespeaks this influence. Güney’s masterpiece Yol was actually directed by Gören, based on Güney’s detailed screenplay, while Güney was in prison, but their collaboration was so close that it should best be considered as a co-production. Yol is often described as the most famous Turkish film in history, in part because of its dramatic victory at Cannes in 1982 after the film was smuggled out of the country. It remains an incredibly powerful achievement. I saw it in a packed theater, with audience members who were clearly familiar with the film as well as those who were seeing it for the first time, all of whom were visibly moved.
But the festival also contained other examples of Güney’s mastery, for example his ability to elevate genre films with his intensity and keen political and aesthetic insights. The critic Murat Akser has drawn an interesting comparison between Güney and the American actor, writer, and director John Cassavetes; like Cassavetes, Güney first made his mark as an actor in mainstream films, eventually becoming a popular star (he was nicknamed the “Ugly King”), and then was able to parlay this success and influence into his work as an independent filmmaker, making films with his own production company. He was also incredibly prolific: between 1966 and 1972, he directed or co-directed nineteen films, among them important and influential works such as At Avrat Silah (Horse Woman Gun) (1966) and the 1970 film Umut (Hope), which was screened at the festival.
Another film featured in the festival, Ağıt (Elegy) (1972), which Güney wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, gives a good example of his approach to popular genres. The film’s anti-hero, played by Güney, is Çobanoğlu, who leads a group of smugglers eking out a living in southeastern Turkey; they find themselves alternately employed by and targeted for destruction by the landowners who control the territory. On the one hand, the film is recognizable within the genre of the spaghetti western, with clear nods to the work of directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone; an unsympathetic viewer might see it as simply a derivative example of this form. But on the other hand, the film is also clearly influenced by the work of Turkish writers such as Yaşar Kemal, combining folk elements with portraits of contemporary society (the film also thematizes this storytelling itself, by featuring an urban intellectual who is shown writing the story of Çobanoğlu’s exploits). For all its conventional elements, the film is marked by strong writing and performances; the dynamics between the members of the smuggling gang are particularly complex, and one can sense Güney’s instincts as both a director and a performer, in the moments when he scales back his own performance to let other actors come to the fore in particular scenes. The film also exemplifies the humanist vision that guided Güney’s larger body of work. At one point, one of the smugglers is shown sewing a button onto his shirt; later on, a lowly member of the police force is shown performing the same action. In such moments, Güney transcends the division into “good guys” and “bad guys” that is too often at the heart of genre films; such gestures of parallelism echo a humanist tradition of filmmaking that hearkens back to similar moments in films like Renoir’s Grand Illusion.
Güney’s vision was, unfortunately, not very well represented in the discussion offered by film critic and curator Erju Ackman before and after the screenings of Ağıt and Yol. Ackman is a distinguished scholar involved in curating a festival of Güney’s work that has recently toured North America. But for some reason, in his remarks, Ackman took up a defensive and apologetic attitude towards Güney’s work that almost bordered on the patronizing (he also took pains to downplay the political persecution that Güney faced, remarking that he spent time in jail, but it wasn’t really such a bad jail, since he could receive visitors and work on his films from there). The two themes that ran through his comments were both linked to an insistence on progress: first, that Turkish cinema had come a long way since the slightly embarrassing films of the Sixties and Seventies; and second, that Güney’s films showed a country with many social and political problems, but that things had gotten much better in Turkey since then. Even in response to quite sophisticated audience questions, Ackman fell back on glib quips: asked about the clearly symbolic meaning of the rock slides that occur throughout Ağıt, he simply marveled that Güney had been able to shoot such scenes without the use of CGI effects; asked about the ways that Güney constantly undercut the seemingly “timeless” elements of a village story with visual references to modern technology, Ackman responded, a bit defensively, that Turkish directors couldn’t build fancy sets like Hollywood directors and so had to shoot their films wherever they could—as though having automobiles visible in a scene was simply a bit of carelessness on the part of the director.
Overall, Ackman’s remarks suggested a particularly contemporary sort of political and cultural position: one that combines a strong sense of Turkish nationalism (a nationalism that is deeply suspicious of any attempts to talk too much about “the past”) with a simultaneous sense of shame about Turkish culture, especially before a Western audience (this has been one of the major themes of Pamuk’s fiction). Of course, the complex work of an artist like Güney can never be accommodated by such a constricting position. Indeed, it may be that the worldly vision of Güney’s cinema was better served when Yol was screened a few years ago as part of the First New York Kurdish Film Festival (subtitled “A Cinema Across Borders”), alongside the work of that other great iconoclastic humanist, the Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (their respective directorial debuts—Güney’s Horse Woman Gun and Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses—would make a spectacular double bill).
The discussion following the festival’s closing film, Özcan Alper’s Gelecek Uzun Sürer (Future Lasts Forever) (2011), was quite a different thing. In his remarks before the film was screened, Alper noted that he didn’t like to say much before audiences watched one of his films, but he did want to offer us one analogy. Turkey, he suggested, was like a family living in a large house with many rooms; when something was happening in one of the rooms that was disturbing or displeasing, the reaction was simply to close the door to that room. The problem was that eventually, all the doors are closed, and there is no place left to live, so the necessary thing to do today is to open up all those closed doors.
I must admit that, however apt this analogy may be, it struck me as somewhat heavy-handed, dangerously close to the realm of cliché, and left me with a few misgivings about the film I was about to see. I was delighted to be proven wrong. Gelecek Uzun Sürer shows us a young filmmaker with immense imaginative powers, great intelligence, and a huge heart. The film follows Sumru, an ethnomusicologist, who travels from Istanbul to Diyarbakır for her research: she is collecting and recording elegies sung by women who have lost loved ones in the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Many of their lost fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers are among those who have simply disappeared, or who turned up dead and were counted among the myriad cases of “unsolved murders.” Much of the film takes place in a “Memory Center” in Diyarbakır (an invention of the film), shot against a back wall covered with photographs of these dead and missing men.
Sumru, we learn, has her own missing loved one who lies behind her seemingly academic interest in the topic, a Kurdish lover who disappeared suddenly from her life in order to return from Istanbul to his village. It is to the film’s immense credit that this element is handled with great delicacy, such that we can never quite gauge what motivates Sumru’s work: how much is personal, how much political, how much intellectual, and how much aesthetic, motivated by her love of music, and of sound in general (she spends many of the early scenes of the film walking from roof to roof with her microphone, recording the early morning sounds of the city). Gaye Gürsel gives a fine performance as Sumru, but it is Durukan Ordu’s stunning performance that anchors the film. Ordu plays Ahmet, a bootleg DVD vendor, avowed cinephile (in an early scene, we watch Ahmet rapturously watching the scene of Lenin’s statue floating down the river in Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze, while his friend mutters “Uff, abi, how long is this film?”), and amateur archivist. Sumru approaches Ahmet, having heard that he had access to the archives that she needs for her research; having asked him over tea whether he will help her with her work, there is a long pause. Ordu doesn’t move, but his eyes shift rapidly back and forth, three times, before he finally meets her gaze and replies cautiously that he might be able to help. That pause speaks volumes about the difficulty of reckoning with the history that lies behind Sumru’s elegies.
Gelecek Uzun Sürer must grapple with the question of how to make a film about the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. By filtering its story through the eyes of Sumru (quite literally, in a number of scenes), Alper has found a way to make the search for the truth of this history part of the film itself (in this sense, the reference to Ulysses’ Gaze, a film about a search for a lost film that is also a search for the lost history of the Balkans, is hardly accidental). And by placing her alongside the character of Ahmet, whose apartment features prominently displayed posters of Güney’s films alongside those of Tarkovsky and Godard and Kurosawa, he informs us that he plans to use all the gifts of world cinema to help him in this search.
A number of scenes in the film show Sumru and Ahmet recording women and men talking about their lost loved ones, and in some cases singing elegies in their honor. These are real-life testimonies of actual cases. But one never gets the sense that this mixing of documentary and fiction film is done in the service of trying to increase the “realism” of the film. Indeed, by having us watch these actual testimonies through the eyes of those who are recording them, the film succeeds in reminding us that documentary, even when it attempts to strip itself of all aesthetic pretenses and simply confront us with the voices of others, always has to deal with the problem of mediating these voices and representing these stories. Similarly, when Ahmet goes in front of the camera to tell the story of his own family, this does not feel like a cinematic trick being played on the audience; it feels like a deeply ethical reminder of the thin line between “documentary” and “fiction,” and the distance between both of these and what we would call “the truth.” The juxtaposition of documentary and fiction, in other words, reminds us anew that at their best, both forms are attempts to represent bits of reality however they can, somewhere between truth and beauty.
Gelecek Uzun Sürer was greeted warmly by the audience in New York, as were Alper’s responses during the question and answer period. But what was most interesting was his response to a question from an audience member, about whether he feared for his safety having made this film, or was afraid to return to Turkey. There was clearly a desire on the part of such audience members (well-intentioned, but not untouched by Islamophobia) to contrast the forward-thinking artist with his monolithically repressive society. In his response, Alper took pains to refuse the black and white model of Turkish society, pointing out that as in any society, there are those who fight to uphold the status quo, and those who fight for a more democratic society, and that Turkey today is a place where such a struggle is taking place. But he added, with a wry smile, what he saw as the irony of the situation: that if America had not sided with and strongly backed the army in the 1980s, then Turkey might be a more open and democratic society today; but what the US wanted at the time, he suggested, was not a democracy, but a moderate Islamic government as an ally in the region. Later in the discussion, Alper also noted that a quote from John Berger featured prominently in the “Memory Center” portrayed in the film—“The records have to be kept and, by definition, the perpetrators, far from keeping records, try to destroy them”—was originally part of a message written by Berger in support of a session of the World Tribunal on Iraq held in Istanbul. This quote, adopted by Alper for his meditation on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, is thus also part of the effort of remembering the suppressed history of the US-led war on Iraq—a war that has, among its many other horrific and genocidal consequences, had more than a little effect upon the Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
Alper’s comments seemed to cause a bit of discomfort to an audience more prepared to enjoy the representation of the recent bloody history of a “far away” place rather than be confronted by its own implication in that history. Thinking back to Alper’s “house of many rooms” analogy, it struck me that if all those doors were to be opened, it would not only be those living in Turkey who would have to reckon with the consequences. In other words, this was a deeply ethical moment, one that reminded us of a shared responsibility for a shared global history. This has always been part of the ethical work of cinema, that great border-crossing art form. One of the mightiest achievements of “The Space Between” was to quite literally open the space for this ethical work. Let it continue, in a future that, indeed, lasts forever.
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