New Turkish Cinema
Jan Topolski: Poetry, severity, silence, new Turkish cinema

The New cinema of Turkey has taken Europe by storm. The Golden Bear went to Honey by Semih Kaplanoğlu in Berlin 2010, the best director award to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Three Monkeys in Cannes 2008, retrospectives at festivals in Rotterdam in 2009, a season in Switzerland in 2008 and English books by Gönül Dönmuz-Colin and Asuman Suner. These are recent successes, while for several years now reviews have been organized in London, Boston, Berlin and Nuremberg. It began with debuts by an entire generation of filmmakers born around 1960 and made in the 1990s. They overcame a two-decade long crisis which had started after the fall of the golden era of Yeşilcamu (a studio production of predominantly lavish melodramas) and the attack of video and Western blockbusters on their industry. Today, over 70 films are produced in Turkey annually and domestic commercial productions have taken the first places in rankings for years. The country itself is undergoing fascinating transformations being torn between provincial backwardness and cosmopolitan Istanbul; between Asian tradition and aspirations for Europeanization; between the customs of a Kurdish minority, peoples from the Black Sea and Greeks and Armenians, and the nationalist myth of one Turk.

At first, we are struck by the poetic mood of the new cinema in Turkey. Slowed narration, the contemplation of landscape and faces, creative light, sound and editing, the use of symbols and significantly reduced dialogues. This may be seen in the works of the most awarded directors in the West such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan (*1959), Reha Erdem (*1960) and Semih Kaplanoğlu (*1963). The first director set an example to others by self-financing his initial films and engaging his family as actors (father in Clouds of May from 1999, his wife and himself in Climates from 2003). Ceylan is a master of melancholy, which was manifested in Distant (2002) with silent characters set against the backgroud of an Istanbul mist while in Three Monkeys from 2008 his disposition for photography was marked even stronger. The second filmmaker debuted as early as in 1989 with an audiovisual poem Oh Moon; he made his name with a coming of age diptych Times and Winds (2006) and My Only Sunshine (2008) shown at the ENH 2007 and 2009 respectively. Erdem uses well-though-out camera movement, a creative sound landscape and characters who challenge reality (like the 'prophet' coming to Kars in Kosmos from 2009). Finally, the last director in his early film Angel's Fall from 2005 consolidated his style concerning the relationships between characters (father and daughter) full of silence and tension and dilemmas of individuality and dignity. Kaplanoğlu's talent bloomed in his half-autobiographical Yusuf's Trilogy, achronologically following the transformation of a sensitive boy (Honey from 2010) into a lost teenager (Milk from 2008) and an alienated poet (Egg from 2006, show at the ENH 2007).

This peculiar Turkish minimalism appears alongside a slowed action, limited editing and even camera movements and is predominantly in silence. Local critics frequently interpret these films as a symptom of oppression be it of women or children or historical traumas (martial laws, expulsions and massacres of minorities). A major director working within this trend is Zeki Demirkubuz (*1964) who is inspired by Dostoyevsky, Camus and Beckett. His films draw extensively on the tradition of melodrama or film noir, which is particularly visible in an untypical triangle and dark scenes in the lobbies of run-down hotels in Innocence (1997). His debut Block C (1994) raises questions about the identity of a new middle class in an original way; Fate (2001) is maybe the best adaptation ever of The Stranger by Camus about a man without emotions or beliefs; Envy (2009) is a successful attempt at historical cinema about a battle of proprieties with desires. However, there are more radical minimalisms such as silent dramas of unfulfilled love by Uygar Asan (Shell, 2007 and Knot, 2005) and Sombre Stories by Tayfun Pirselimoğlu about plunging into crime (Riza, 2007 and Fog 2009).

Turkish auteur cinema does not steer clear of experiment. Ümit Ünal (*1965) can shoot film in any genre, 9 (2003) is an urban comedy-drama, Istanbul Tales (2005) is novella-type cinema, Shadowless (2009) is a fantastic fairy tale, and The Voice (2010) a modern-time horror film. Distinctive productions are Ara (2007) a boldly edited mosaic of experiences by liberalized Istanbulites. Somersault in a Coffin (1996) by Derviş Zaim (*1964) enjoyed renown as an off-debut owing to a homeless, maladjusted and daydreaming protagonist. It is full of unexpected close-ups and cuts as well as original music. Later, the director set to an ambitious trilogy of traditional Turkish arts, whereas in Waiting for Heaven (2006) he dealt with miniatures, in Shadows and Faces (2010) with shadow theatre and in the middle Dot (2008) with calligraphy. In an original manner, he introduced an action film located in a dry salt lake and combining in several frames. Being completely outside the mainstream, youth is represented by Ismail Necmi and Fatih Haciosmanoğlu. Should I Really Do It (2009) by the former artist is a paradocumentary about a hair stylist who discloses her secrets in sessions with a man in a latex mask; Concrete Pillow (2007), by the same director, is a completely auteur creation about returning to Turkey after many years, full of unsaid words, sudden changes and syncope.

Despite noble exceptions, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of Turkish cinema, beside obviously commercial productions, constitutes, more or less literal, realism. A great example is in the feature debut by Pelin Esmer, 10 to 11 (2009). Being a recognized documentary film author, she once again portrayed her uncle, keen collector, yet she added some arranged scenes. Typical features in this film include a care for details in the background; slow action and the thorough mapping out of characters are also found in My Marlon and Brando (2008) by Hüseyin Karabey. The spontaneous acting by both protagonists is worth emphasizing, and for this genre there is an equally fresh combination of melodrama and a film of the road to the East. A modest comedy-drama The Salt of Life (2008) by Murat Düzgünoğlu depicts rare surroundings with three brothers in the provinces trying to find the meaning of the existence included in the film title. Much effort was exerted by Kazım Öz (*1973) to depict the everyday life of migrant shepherds in The Last Season: Shawaks (2008), a dying-out way of life involving living with a herd and one another in primitive settlements layla in highlands.

Kazım Öz gained his reputation not only for his flair for documentaries but also for introducing difficult themes as he is a Kurd himself and acts for this community. In the area of social cinema, Yeşim Ustaoğlu (*1960) is the main figure due to her themes involving minorities and traumas. In Journey to the Sun (1999), a friendship between a Turk and a Kurd is paid with the highest price and in Waiting for the Clouds (2003), she reminds us about the expulsions of Greeks in the 1920s from the angle of modern times. Finally, Pandora's Box (2008) is a protest against life without roots which have been torn out due to the drive for wealth and mass emigration from taşra to Istanbul. In the centre of the last films, there are strong women who do not always enjoy an equal status in the Turkish cinema; although they might be self-reliant in Demirkubuz and Erdem, a male dominates in Kaplanoğlu and Zaim. This important motif was frequently discussed by Serdar Akar (*1964), for instance in On board (1999) where a woman and a prostitute both enter the life of a ship's crew. In addition, In Bar (2007) a group of young men destroy the life of happy peers due to sexual frustration. Expulsion, unemployment and life on the margins returns in more comic tones in Absurd Dialogues in the Suburbs by İzmir and in Bornova Bornova (2009) by Inan Temelkuran and bitter humour based on blunders of a loser protagonist in Dark Cloud (2009) by Theron Patterson.

As you can see, Turkish cinema today offers a wide spectrum of characters, trends and problems. It is not an accident that the subtitles of two books mentioned at the beginning are Identity, Distance and Belonging, and Belonging, Identity and Memory respectively. Undoubtedly, affiliation is the hottest motif of recent years both in an ethnic context (Ustaoğlu, Karabey and Öz) and as effects of migration from rural areas to cities, a theme which is most readily exploited, and finally in expelled characters, from the first film by Zaim to the last one by Erdem. Identity is created also through maturing, which was beautifully and metaphorically presented by Kaplanoğlu in his entire Yusuf's Trilogy and by Erdem in his diptych. Another key problem for a Turkish soul seems to be the entangling of the melancholy of lonely characters (Ceylan, Asan) with tragic love (Demirkubuz, Ünal). It is even referred to as an arabesque sentimental style somewhat inherited from the golden era of Yeşilcamu.

The selection of the repertoire involved many stages and had plenty of twists. First of all, as if to spite expectations, we decided on a restrospective of Demirkubuz''s work who is completely unknown in Poland. Secondly, two films each (usually, a debut and the last one) in the review were reserved for other masters such as Ceylan, Erdem, Kaplanoğlu, Ustaoğlu and Zaim. Thirdly, during the process of agreeing on which titles we should show, it turned out that, outside the time bracket of 1994-2010, it was worth reminding people about the harbinger of a trend represented by Erdem's debut and respecting the selection of Kaplanoğlu as the central figure of Ale kino! Filmy Świata Festival. Fourthly, there were awards at the most important festivals such as those in Antalya and Istanbul and then trips full of adventures such as screenings without subtitles and being trapped by a volcanic cloud on the second one. The selection of Akar and Ünala resulted from their skilful oscillation between commercial and artistic films. Fifthly, there was the purchaing of DVDs, in particular, from a secret store in a small side street in the Istanbul district of Beyoğlu. You knock on the door on the second floor above the barber's and after an inspection a display case filled with the best productions, but not exactly legal ones, is offered to you. Still, Ceylan is reportedly buying here... Finally, we had conversations with other critics and qualifiers. Particularly, we would like to thank Ludmila Cvikova who was the curator of a large review of Turkish cinema in Rotterdam in 2009; Cüneyt Cebenoyan for discussions and all of the contacts; Fırat Yücel and the team of Altyazı Monthly for their advice and assistance with the book. This is why we have films by such authors as Karabey, Esmer, Öz, Necmi, Temelkuran and Düzgünoğlu. Obviously, many films and directors were passed, yet it is always like that when making choices. Let me mention three names for those of you who will catch the bug: there are Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, Kutlug Ataman and Handan Ipekci. I hope that the New Cinema of Turkey Section at this year's ENH is just the beginning of your and our adventure with this fascinating cinematography. Have a nice meeting!

Jan Topolski

The text based on an article published in "Kino" 06/2010

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