Istanbul film festival aims to be relevant

With the largest number of films in its history and – according to most critics – the widest range of genres on offer, the 23rd Istanbul International Film Festival wrapped up this weekend with many satisfied customers.

The award-winning Boats Made out of Watermelon Rinds
The award-winning Boats Made out of Watermelon Rinds

Yet before the prizes had been handed out at what is likely the Muslim world’s largest film event, the festival had been the source of some controversy.

A boycott by Turkish cinema workers underscored an ongoing debate over just what the festival is for – and what response it should have to the growing power of the global film industry.

“When it started on its adventure 23 years ago,” recalls Cagri Kinikoglu, spokesperson for the Turkish cinema union Sine-Sen, “the festival was known as the Istanbul Cinema Days.

“Thanks to the opportunities it provided the creators and producers of our cinema, and to the place it gave Turkish films, the festival carried a special importance and a place in the development of our cinema.”

Now, though, Kinikoglu claims the “internationalisation” of the festival has “externalised Turkish cinema” – excluding home-grown film from its own most important showcase.

The union and its supporters see the festival as having lost touch with its local roots.

They allege that few who work in the industry were able to gain access to the films, due to the high cost of tickets – $6.50 – which is far beyond many in a country with average incomes of only $3-4000 a year.

“The festival has been carried to a position where it has become elitist,” Kinikoglu says.

Consequently, the union called for a boycott, with posters protesting the festival stuck up outside every cinema.

Film competition

But film festival organisers deny that any such exclusion has taken place. They say that as the festival relies on local cinemas to screen the films, these venues decide on prices and passes.

Waiting for the Clouds tackles the taboo subject of transfers

Waiting for the Clouds tackles
the taboo subject of transfers

The festival also has a Turkish film competition running alongside its international one, with this year’s award for best Turkish film going to Boats Made out of Watermelon Rinds (Karpuz kabugundan gemiler yapmak) by director Ahmet Ulucay.

In addition, a best Turkish director prize went to Zeki Demirkubuz, whose latest film, The Waiting Room, finished a trilogy of recent work.

A special jury prize was also awarded to Waiting for the Clouds (Bulutlari beklerken) by director Yesim Ustaoglu, which tackled a previously taboo subject – the forced Greek-Turkish population transfers of 1923.

“For me, and also for the foreign critics, this was one of the best programmes of the last couple of years,” says Esin Kucuktepepinar, the editor of the website, a member of the festival’s consultancy board and of the FIPRESCI international jury.

“The international jurors liked the Turkish films in the national competition a lot as well,” she continues.

“This was because there were films in many different categories. There is usually a difficulty with this in Turkish cinema, as people are making films with their own efforts.

“Of course, there are some bigger projects as well, but usually this is the case.”

Turkish film revival

Turkish cinema is widely seen to be going through something of a revival in recent years, with films by Nuri Bilgi Ceylan and Fatih Akin winning at Cannes and Berlin.

“Over the last couple of years, there’s been a feeling of the need to rejuvenate the festival.   It is a festival that is trying to make too wide an audience happy”

Yesim Tabak.
Turkish film critic

The festival has expanded in tandem with this – as have audience sizes. This has its drawbacks as well as advantages.

“Over the last couple of years, there’s been a feeling of the need to rejuvenate the festival,” says film critic Yesim Tabak. “It is a festival that is trying to make too wide an audience happy.”

“This year the programme seems more attractive,” she continues. “There is dynamism in the international competition too.”

This year’s winner of the Golden Tulip – the festival’s international prize – was Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang.

It was perhaps an appropriate choice, given the controversy over the place of the national cinema industry.

It has a ghost as well as a love story theme, describing the last day in the life of a local cinema, now abandoned by its audience – and by its projectionist.

Source: Al Jazeera

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