Category: Turkish Cinema

BIFF 2011 #13: Honey (Bal, Turkey/Germany 2010)

Yakup and Yusuf in the forest

Honey is something of a companion piece to Le quattro volte as another example of ‘slow cinema’ (and as a prizewinner, the 2010 Golden Bear at Berlin). It’s the final film of a trilogy but since I haven’t seen the other two I’ll discuss it as a one-off. The title refers to the occupation of the protagonist’s father. 7-year-old Yusuf lives in the mountains of Rize Province near the Black Sea Coast in the far North-East of Turkey. His father Yakup places hives in the tallest trees and the sale of the honey is the family’s chief income.

Yusuf is devoted to his father and every day he rushes home from school to see if Yakup has made any progress in carving a small wooden sailing ship. At school Yusuf desperately wants to get the medal that his teacher bestows on any student who successfully reads out loud, but Yusuf is too self-conscious to manage this and can only stutter – much to the amusement of his classmates. At home, he reads the almanac for his father each morning, safe and confident in his home surroundings. Father and son have a close bond and Yusuf whispers to his father about their secrets as they walk through the forest to check the hives.

A classic image of exclusion – Yusuf watches his classmates play through the classroom window

The film shares the narrative structure of the Japanese film Seesaw featured earlier in the festival. It opens with an incident that leaves us literally hanging and to which it returns later in the film. The local bee hives are failing and Yakup is forced to look for suitable sites in a forest some distance away. When he doesn’t return after a few days Yusuf’s mother Zehra begins to worry. She takes Yusuf to stay with his grandmother and also to a big local festival where she seeks news of Yakup. These are the only scenes outside the home, school and local forest tracks.

The cinematography is beautifully composed, scenes are well lit, the performances are extraordinary, especially that of Bora Altas as Yusuf. Writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu writes about how he managed to get Bora to act the part of Yusuf – a boy with a very different personality (see the Press Pack from Olive Films). Kaplanoglu describes his approach to filmmaking as ‘spiritual realism’. This is something he has discovered through making the ‘Yusuf trilogy’. He seems to invest a great deal in every decision he makes about locations, actors and technology/techniques. I’ve discovered that the trilogy has actually been made in reverse chronological order so that Honey finally reveals some of the events that helped to make the adult Yusuf in Milk (2008) and Egg (2007). Neither of these films seems to have reached the UK, but I’m intrigued to see them now. Kaplanoglu is not interested in period drama as such so all three films (which cover 30 years or so and have different actors playing Yusuf) are set in the present. Even so, Kaplanoglu tells us that the forest setting in Honey is magical and traditional in an area of outstanding beauty that is disappearing under the pressure of development.

Honey is scheduled for a June/July release from Verve in the UK. I hope it does well – I could certainly watch it again. Here’s the German trailer which gives a good indication of the fantastic use of natural sounds in the film:

Kosmos (Turkey/Bulgaria 2010)

In 2.35:1 colour, with English subtitles.

Screened at the Leeds International Film Festival, 2010.

This is another fine Turkish film. After years of being practically invisible, the last decade has seen Turkish cinema producing a series of beautifully crafted and fascinating features. Notable among these have been the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The terrain in this film reminded me of the winter sequence in Ceylan’s Climates (2007), though that was set in Eastern Turkey and this film is set in the North West border territories.

It is from that border wilderness that the central protagonist of the film emerges. This is a great opening shot as a small figure gradually emerges from the wintry wasteland. He is called Kosmos He arrives at a border town. Whilst washing in the river he spies and saves a drowning boy. The boys sister Neptün believes Kosmos has bought the boy back from death. As this news spreads in the close-knit town community Kosmos is made welcome.

Attempts are made to provide him with accommodation and work. But Kosmos is a wayward spirit. He is taciturn, and his occasional utterances sound like quotations from sacred volumes, most likely the Koran. Moreover, as he tells the townsmen, he is looking for love. He finds this with Neptün, a kindred spirit. They often communicate by shrill, laughing cries.

Kosmos’ search for love crosses the cultural taboos about sexuality. And his attempts at other good deeds, including procuring medicine for a desperate and lame young woman, capture the attention of the army: the actual law enforcing agency in the town. By the film’s end Kosmos is sought by both hopeful townspeople seeking miracles, and by an army officer and his squad. The film ends as he disappears back into the wintry wilderness. However, Neptun’s own screeching at the captain suggest the possibility that she now also possesses Kosmos’ unusual powers.

The film treads an uneasy but successful line between drama and farce. The recurring cries of greeting between Kosmos and Neptün are bizarre by conventional film standards. But the film manages to evoke both a magical world and the staid everyday world into which it collides. This is partly done by effective characterisation and a remarkable mise en scène. The film makes fine use of the widescreen imagery, and snow, mist and shadows contribute powerfully to this. An atmospheric soundtrack accompanies the visuals. One set of the recurring sounds on this are distant or not-so-distant explosion, as the army conduct manouvres near the border.

There are also suitably bizarre episodes to match the wayward world of Kosmos. So a Russian space capsule crashes nearby one night and provides a notable distraction in town life.

The film also manages to retain some ambiguity about Kosmos’ powers. His ‘miracles’ are not uniformly beneficial. There is a young boy who has been dumb for a year after a traumatic experience. Kosmos restores his powers of speech, but the boy is then struck down by a fatal illness. This adds to the antagonisms that develop towards Kosmos.

The background to the story and main characters are sketched in with detail and frequent eccentricity. One recurring scene shows a band of four feuding brothers, driving round with their fathers coprse and coffin whilst they struggle over his inheritance. Some of the recurring motifs are clearly symbolic, and a little over emphasised. Thus there are frequent shots of cows being led to an abattoir: and also a flock of geese waddling down a street. But most of the motifs add to the atmosphere of the film and story: the recurring thefts from the shops: the café where only men drink their tea and talk: the scenes by the river, a fast-flowing icy torrent; a mist-laden square dominated by a statue, presumably Ataturk: all help to build up the enclosed world of the town.

Definitely a film to be seen and enjoyed: though it may take a little time to adjust to the film’s oddball flavour.

Global soap

Photos of the stars of the Turkish soap opera "Noor" are sold in Ramallah on the West Bank. (Muhammed Muheisen/ Associated Press, taken from the website of the Boston Globe in 2008)

The global soap opera is a phenomenon that should get much more attention in both film and media studies. TV soaps are primarily the television offspring of traditional cinematic family melodramas, albeit in ‘serial narrative’ form rather than single narratives. Their production flourishes in those countries with a heritage of film production in this genre.

The US and UK, other English-speaking countries (e.g. Australia) and much of Europe have produced soaps for home consumption and exports within their own language markets. The same is true in India (and probably East Asia – can anyone confirm this?). But the interesting development is what global media theorists refer to as the ‘contra-flow’ of exported soap operas outside the American-dominated English-language market. The Latin-American telenovela in Spanish or Portuguese conquered much of Africa and parts of Eastern Europe decades ago, but it has competition from another source – the Arabic-language soaps primarily from Egypt, but according to a recent news report also in dubbed form from Turkey.

Noor is a Turkish soap which when it finished its run was attracting up to 80 million viewers from “Morocco to Palestine” according to the Guardian and which is now promoting tourism from Arab countries to Istanbul. This looks like an effective move into ‘soft power’ as Turkey seeks leadership across the countries of North Africa and Western Asia. It goes well with the recent resurgence of Turkish Cinema. Researching this story, I’m all too well aware of my ignorance of a programme that has become a cultural phenomenon in the Arab world through showings first on the MBC channel.

Here’s a BBC business report on the success of Turkish soaps:

Kolkata IFF screening 4: My Marlon and Brando (Turkey 2008)

Ayça Damgacı as the central character in My Marlon and Brando

With sensitive handling by a distributor I think that this film could do well in major markets. I’m sure that it will be appreciated in Turkey and Germany but its story is also universal. It has already won several festival prizes and been well reviewed by Variety and Screen International.

The film’s story is based on the real love affair between a Turkish actor and the Iraqi Kurd she meets on a film set. The opening sequence made me think that it might be a reality TV take-off, but the final sections reminded me strongly of Michael Winterbottom’s Berlin prizewinner, In This World from 2002. The film was co-written and directed by the documentarist Hüseyin Karabey.

The two actors, Ayça and Hama Ali effectively play themselves in a narrative that is presumably only slightly fictionalised. They fall in love but are separated and Hama Ali finds himself in Iraq when the British and Americans invade. He sends Ayça video love letters in which he acts out one of his roles as a comic Iraqi Superman. But Ayça is very much in love and she despairs at the separation and despite her severe lack of funds she determines to travel to Iraq to be with him. The second half of the film then becomes a form of road movie as she experiences great difficulty in making a border crossing from Turkey, eventually travelling to Iran to attempt a crossing over a different border.

I enjoyed the film and especially the performances. Ayça is not a conventionally pretty ‘leading lady’ but she is a character who invites identification. Hama Ali is similarly engaging. Although there are several comic sequences, the latter stages of the narrative are harrowing. The realism of the journey helps in the representation of rural Turkey and the problems a woman travelling alone encounters in conservative communities where she is expected to be veiled.

Turkish Cinema is on something of a roll at the moment and I hope that this film gets picked up for wider distribution. For a European audience it offers real food for thought about the boundaries between sophisticated European communities (which may well include Istanbul) and those in rural ‘Asia Minor’ as we used to call it. As the director points out it reverses the usual narrative of movements from East to West and in doing so shows that the borders between Turkey, Iran and Iraq are irrelevant (and of course the Kurdish people do not have borders for their ‘virtual state’).

A trailer and a detailed Press Pack are available on this sales company website. I do hope the film finds a distributor prepared to promote it properly.

Bes vakit (Times and Winds, Turkey 2006)

The Imam's family

The Imam's family in Bes vakit

Bes vakit is the kind of film that brings out the best in some reviewers and rather than go through the same points, I’m tempted to point you towards Jonathan Romney in the Independent on Sunday. I’d go along with all of Romney’s points, but perhaps I can add some other ones as well.

At the beginning of the film, I had no expectations about how it would look, but I assumed that it would be similar to the work of Abbas Kiarostami or the Makhmalbafs (given that geographically and culturally they are perhaps the closest other major filmmakers). The first surprise then was to find that the film is a CinemaScope presentation. ‘Scope at 2.35:1 makes a big difference to the representation of landscape – and, importantly here, to the placing of figures in that landscape. The views of mountains, valleys and the distant sea necessarily become ‘panoramic’, stressing width not height, and characters are shown in medium shot or MCU they appear much more constrained than in 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 (the more familiar ratios for the neo-realists). Of course, it helps if the projectionist can get the anamorphic lens working properly – surprisingly, the print at London’s Renoir Cinema seemed out of focus at either side of the frame. Despite this, I enjoyed the views of the area.

There are familiar elements from the Iranian films (though I discovered that the location was on the most north-westerly coast of Turkey overlooking the Hellespont – i.e. closer to Europe than Iran), but I was reminded of a range of other films. The ‘distanced’ feel of some of the village scenes reminded me of Carlos Reygadas and Silent Light (2007), the Mexican film about a Mennonite community and the children in school reminded me of several European films and especially of some Spanish films set in isolated villages. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) sprang to mind. Bes vakit does not have the strong narrative sense of either of the other films mentioned here, but it does share a sense of ‘other worldliness’. Romney points to the recurring compositions of the children lying seemingly asleep in a variety of locations. I found these quite disturbing and one occasion I thought the character was dead (a boy is lying amongst what looks like the ruins of a house). The use of music (by an Estonian composer) adds to this feeling. It seems very portentous and undercuts any sense of rural calm.

The trailer gives a sense of how the film looks and sounds, though I think it overemphasises the scenes of violence by adults directed at children and suggests that the narrative threads are much clearer than they really are:

Overall, this seems to me an enjoyable and rather beautiful avant-garde film, more like an art installation than a straight narrative movie. I’ve still not quite worked out the meaning of a film which is divided into five sections relating to the prayer times in the village (which are then offered in reverse order, so that the film ends in the morning). There are narratives – mainly associated with themes of growing up, sexual awakening, identity within a family structure etc., but also the simple narratives of daily life, here bound up in ideas of collective responsibility. But the film doesn’t offer any coherent sociological explanation of how the village functions. There appears to be a jointly owned flock of sheep, but it wasn’t clear how the families made their livings beyond animal husbandry. The village isn’t really that remote (and the boys are sometimes dressed quite formally – more as they might be in cities?). But this is good for the sense of mystery that underpins the daily routine. I think it might be quite useful in raising discussions about film narrative.

24 Frames: books on regional cinemas (1)

The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, Gönül Dönmez-Colin (ed), Wallflower Press, London 2007, ISBN 978-1-9056-7410-7

’24 Frames’ is a very welcome series from Wallflower Press that over the last few years has begun to introduce new audiences to films from ‘national and regional cinemas’ around the world. These are scholarly collections with 24 articles on individual films in each collection. The definition of a ‘regional cinema’ is always going to be arbitrary and the introduction to this collection by the editor turns the arbitrariness to the advantage of the book. On the one hand, the definition here of ‘North Africa and the Middle East’ includes three major film-producing countries, each of which deserves its own volume. On the other, there are good reasons, historical, political, cultural etc., why it is useful to group these cinemas. Commercially, the ‘region’ represents only a small part of the international film market, even though there are sizable local audiences and the potential for wider distribution. To illustrate the problem of definitions, the annual ‘World Film Market Trends’ publication, Focus (from the European Audio-Visual Observatory) includes all of Africa and the Middle East, but not Turkey. In this collection, Turkey is included, but not sub-Saharan Africa.

The Middle East is a highly problematic term that has arguably increased in usage with its importance as a concept in American foreign policy. The term was first popularised during the European colonial/imperial period, but then it referred primarily to Iraq and Persia/Iran. As a child, I remember the term the ‘Near East’. For the British, the ‘East’ began at Suez and the ‘Far East’ began at Singapore. India and Burma were the Raj. These are my memories of terms that lingered on after the Empire went. These terms at least had a (Eurocentric) logic that isn’t there in current usage. As Gönül Dönmez-Colin points out, the term ‘West Asia’ is sometimes used by Indian scholars and it does make more sense. Egypt and Turkey then conveniently straddle Asia and Africa/Europe respectively.

The region does not have a single language culture. Although Arabic, English and French are used extensively, Turkish, Hebrew and Farsi are distinctive language cultures. Religion and ethnicity are also mixed, especially in the littoral that the French used to call the Levant, with Lebanon and Beirut in particular celebrating diversity. This cultural mixing has contributed to several distinctive modes of film culture, both in production and in distribution/exhibition. The latter means that whilst some films from the region have been widely available in European and American specialised cinema circuits, others (generally those more popular with local audiences) have struggled to be seen outside parts of the region. There is now the beginnings of a Turkish popular cinema in limited distribution in Germany and other parts of Europe for the Turkish diaspora and also the possibility of Arabic-language films on satellite, but again these are unlikely to be seen by ‘Western’ audiences.

The difficulties of distribution mean that I have only seen three of the 24 films discussed in the book (although I have access to a couple more that I will get to eventually). It’s difficult therefore to evaluate the coverage of the diversity of material presented here. I can’t criticise a book because I haven’t seen the films, but the availability of films is an issue in opening up study. You can just imagine the headache the editor must have had trying to commission authors and titles, trying to represent an historical perspective and a spread across national cinemas, popular cinema and specialised cinema. For the record, the book has entries on four films each from Egypt, Turkey and Iran, four from the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) and seven from what was the Levant (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine – several involving co-productions, often with France) with the last entry about an Iraqi film, Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection, produced from Switzerland and Germany. The only films made before 1970 are Ghazal Al-Banat (Candy Floss) and Bab El-Hadid (Cairo Station), both from Egypt in 1949 and 1958 respectively, the first representing the Egyptian studio system, the second Egypt’s principal auteur, Youssef Chahine.

I have seen two of the films in the last couple of years, Silences of the Palace (Tunisia, 1994) and Uzak (Distant, Turkey, 2002), so I’ll focus on the analyses of these two. Viola Shafik’s essay (10 pp with references) on Silences of the Palace proved invaluable in working on the film for a recent course. The film did very well on the festival circuit winning prizes and it received distribution in Europe. It tells the story of a young woman growing up in the ‘women’s quarters’ in a Bey’s house (Beys were the aristocratic rulers in Tunisia, granted privileges by the French colonial administrators) in the 1950s. The story is told in flashback by the central character who has become a cabaret singer by the 1960s. Shafik begins with a commentary on the film’s critical reputation and she points out that although revered in the West as an ‘art film’, partly because it deals with the position of women in Islamic society, it is in fact a skilful re-interpretation of a classical melodrama. Shafik then notes that in 1995, the film was distributed widely in the West but, apart from within Tunisia itself, it was not sold to distributors elsewhere in the Arab world (i.e. unlike popular Egyptian melodramas). She goes on to explore the complex set of theoretical issues around ‘popular’ and ‘art cinema’, the denigration of Egyptian melodramas, the subtle transformation of the genre in Silences, the ‘moment’ of liberation from colonial rule as represented in national cinemas etc. By providing useful specific cultural knowledge as well as contextualising insights, Shafik makes possible a much richer reading of the film.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has ‘arrived’ in Europe and North America as an auteur, introduced outside the festival circuit by Uzak. In 2007, his position was firmly established by the critical reception to Iklimler. Uzak deals with the arrival in snowy Istanbul of a man from the rural hinterland. He comes to the apartment of his cousin, a photographer and very much the ‘metropolitan man’. The cousins have a very ‘distant’ relationship, exploration of which is the focus of the film. (The photographer is a typical character partly based on Ceylan himself.) S. Ruken Ozturk’s essay is just eight pages. Again, like Viola Shafik, she provides contextualising information about Ceylan’s earlier career, about the differences between Ceylan’s work and those of diaspora filmmakers such as Fatih Akin. She emphasises that Distant has been seen by far more cinemagoers in France (150,000) than in Turkey (60,000). What follows is again a rich reading of the film in terms of allegory and metaphor (Istanbul is a ‘distant place’ of 10 million souls caught somewhere between Turkey and Europe, the tale of the two cousins is played out in three scenes using a mousetrap – linked to the fable of the town mouse and country mouse) as well as in terms of a discourse of masculinity. I would have found this very useful after I’d first seen the film and again when I was teaching Iklimler.

If the rest of the entries are up to these two, I think that this will prove to be a valuable book. It has certainly encouraged me to think about hunting down more of these films on imported DVDs.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed), Wallflower, London 2004, ISBN 1-904764-20-7

The ‘naming’ of regions is also an issue in this collection. For far too long, the four countries of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been viewed as generally ‘East European’ and up until 1989 as part of an Eastern bloc dominated by Soviet Communism. As a result, the films have been viewed through a prism of ideological awareness – judged by the extent to which they have confirmed or resisted Soviet hegemony. But before 1939 ‘Central Europe’ was something of a powerhouse of artistic achievement deriving in part from the nationalist struggles of artists within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in the new nation states that followed the break-up of the Empire after 1918. In this conception, I would expect to include aspects of German and Austrian Cinema, but I’m sure they will be part of another volume (and in any case will have different kinds of concerns).

Peter Hames’ collection of essays covers the four countries and the films range from the 1930s to the mid 1990s with a perhaps understandable focus on the mid 1960s (the period of the Czechoslovak New Wave). Apart from some of the earliest films, most of the titles have been distributed in the UK and several are now available on DVD. These include films by well-known European auteurs such as Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958 and Man of Marble, 1977) and Krzyzstof Kieslowski (Dekalog, 1988).

In this case, I have seen many of the films discussed and I have used material in the book on an evening class covering Central European Cinema. I found it extremely useful and I’d recommend it.