Film sans Frontières

By Metin Alsanjak

uzak-nuri-bilge-ceylan-1.jpgUzak, 2002

London’s Turkish Film Festival seeks to serve the needs of a diverse international community  

For the launch of the latest London Turkish Film Festival last October, one of Dalston’s many Turkish restaurants was heaving with people from across the capital who had come to support the event, from local business sponsors and London-Turkish politicians to photographers, journalists and of course the Rio cinema staff who host and run the event every year.

Wandering through the throng, it appeared that everyone seemed to know each other and those who were Turkish were speaking in mainland-accented Turkish. Beyond this initial impression of a singular social cohesion however, the festival attempts to reflect in its programming vastly divergent voices and views. It challenges the Turkish-speaking community – the majority of its audience – to consider many different linguistic, cultural, political and historical works, often opposed to their own traditional standpoints.

The London-Turkish film audience consists of Turks from the mainland nation, Turkish-speaking Kurds from within Turkey, Turks from Cyprus, and more than two generations of British-born Turkish Cypriots, as well as at least one generation of British-born Turks from Turkey.

As well as attempting to include films for these audiences, the festival also serves to introduce non-Turkish cinemagoers to a wide range of titles that fall under the very expansive umbrella term “Turkish”.

Vedide Kaymak, festival director for more than a decade, describes the event as “quite an inclusive festival”. This inclusiveness takes the term ‘Turkish’ and goes beyond nationality and language. The festival also showcases film-makers who are emigrant second and third generation Turks and those who make films without Turkish characters, such as Fatih Akin’s Solino (2002). “Turkish cinema” also means films by Turkish-speaking directors from off the mainland, such as Turkish-Cypriot Dervis Zaim’s Mud (2003), partly set in, and about, North Cyprus (the film also happens to be a co-production between Italy, Turkey and Cyprus).

uzak-nuri-bilge-ceylan-2.jpgUzak, 2002

However, the festival’s core programme consists of mainland Turkish cinema, particularly independent productions that have done well on the international festival circuit (notably, the absence of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak (2002) was a blow to the festival directors – see the following interview). In this respect, Mud and Solino are good examples of how the festival caters for the wide audience it seeks to challenge and entertain. Solino shows that ‘Turkish film’ can even mean something quite abstract. Shot in Italy and Germany, with Italian and German the main spoken languages, the film’s only Turkish connection lies with the director. Akin is of Turkish parentage but is German in nationality. However, his film has a great ability to speak to migrant communities through its themes and register.

A story about two young brothers who leave the beautiful Italian village of Solino as economic migrants with their family, to go to industrial Germany, Solino borrows a great deal of its ‘fairytale Italian’ atmosphere from Cinema Paradiso and, like that film, it is a perfect example of classical, emotional filmmaking. But Solino also delves into the issues of migrant identity, focusing on how place affects culture, memory and language.

Solino was certainly a film that Vedide Kaymak could identify with. A first generation Turkish immigrant herself, Vedide’s immediate feeling towards the work is pride for a director whom she considers first and foremost a fellow countryman, a sentiment I have often noticed is shared right across the Turkish-speaking community, where nationality and linguistic preference take second place to parentage and ethnicity.

“This film speaks about forgiveness,” she says. “Immigrants blame their country for making them have to leave it, and they blame themselves for leaving, so this film is important to all immigrant communities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s set in Italy or Germany, because it’s an immigrant story and so it would be important to show.”

Solino demonstrates a striking awareness of the basic difficulties migrants have in adjusting to their host country. The family go from the bright Mediterranean sunshine and whitewashed villas of Solino to the dark rainy climate of a German mining town. Their new apartment is the polar opposite of their living space in Solino – small and gloomy, with dark wallpaper. There are telling touches of comedy here, as fiery Italian wife and mother, Rosa grills her husband on every aspect of German life she disagrees with, right down to the size (tiny) of vegetables.

solino-fatih-akin.jpgSolino, 2002

The family do adapt, however. First the young brothers make friends and learn the new language. Their assimilation then helps their parents, the boys acting as translators and guides to their new home. However the process of assimilation only becomes complete when they channel their own culture and identity through their daily lives and work. Akin makes the point clearly and very well. The family open the first pizzeria in the town and name it “Solino”, so that it will be “just like home”.

Meanwhile, Dervis Zaim’s Mud brought a completely different cinematic sensibility to the festival. A film that addresses the most contested, traumatic, political issue in the Turkish-Cypriot community – the future of North Cyprus and the memory of its history – it’s a low budget, experimental and challenging allegory. Set in modern-day Cyprus, it follows three friends who all have the shared experience of being part of revenge killings in the 1970s. It’s a brave film that tries to offer as objective a view of the past and future of Cyprus as possible, through the tropes of memory and metaphor.

The catalyst for the film’s unfolding is the discoveries a soldier, Ali (Ahmet Ugurlu), makes whilst posted to watch the mud flats on the no man’s land border between the island’s north and south. Ali has a strange illness that renders him unable to speak and prone to sudden fainting. He finds the mud by the border a tonic for his illness but, as he digs deeper, he discovers statues and effigies of pregnant women and the Goddess Cybele, associated with ideas of fertility.

Ali’s pony-tailed brother-in-law, Halil (played by the only Turkish-Cypriot actor in the film, Bulent Emir Yarar), sees a quick buck to be made, carelessly dismissing the history and memory buried in the mud, and as result bringing terrible danger into the lives of all the characters.

Zaim denies that he used the complex metaphors as a way of avoiding conflict with the authorities; rather, he wanted to avoid being trapped by history and its narrative. However, as he acknowledged, “it is a film that has a special capability, both in its subject matter and narrative strategy, to divide people’s thoughts on it.” (The film encountered no censorship or governmental opposition, which may surprise some critics of the North Cypriot authorities).

mud-dervis-zaim.jpgMud, 2003

Mud was shown in the festival at a time when political polarisation amongst the Turkish communities in North Cyprus and London was worsening, with people divided over the most promising, but also highly problematic, UN plan for unification of the island to date. The film was poorly attended by the Turkish Cypriot community here, which may be down to their being so politically polarised, with Zaim’s film (intentionally) unable to be claimed as a propaganda tool for any position.

“I’m not a political filmmaker, and if I was one it would be a dangerous thing,” Zaim notes. “But because of my history – I was born and live in Cyprus – it’s something I feel I have to make films about.”

There may also be deeper issues resulting from where the festival takes place. Much of the London Turkish-Cypriot community has moved out of Hackney to the suburbs. Amongst young Turkish Cypriots in particular, Dalston and the Rio Cinema are not thought of as desirable areas in which to socialise. However, the work of the festival, in creating and sustaining such a diverse and entertaining week of Turkish cinema, can only help in bringing new audiences to the area, and challenging any prejudices that might exist.

And even if some parts of the diaspora community are keener on escaping their identity than experiencing it at the cinema, then keeping things ‘inclusive’ means it’s only a matter of time before the festival will be showing films people cannot afford to miss. Kaymak certainly believes films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak are going help. “People are becoming more aware of a stylish world cinema from Turkey and, maybe, from now on they are going to become more interested.”

Metin Alsanjak is a London-based freelance writer.