Istanbul film fest wraps up with surprises

Every year in April that special festival buzz reigns the streets of Beyoglu. It’s not just the good movies that are normally inaccessible any other time of the year, but the fraternity of viewers who inexpiably feel connected after watching a festival film.

And that’s specifically why the Istanbul International Film Festival is more of an audience festival than a public one; you finally run into friends you postpone meeting in the city’s traffic frenzy, you meet new people in cafés near movie theaters and most importantly, the festival allows you to realize that the coming of spring brings along the sensation of rejuvenation that you’ve long been searching for.

Let’s first get to the heart of the matter — namely, the festival’s international and national competition section. The national competition was incredibly prominent this year, thanks to the county’s ever-growing film output, which has expanded without losing touch with quality content. Newcomer Seyfi Teoman’s “Tatil Kitabı” (Summer Book), which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, grabbed the award for best film along with the International Critic’s Prize. The film is a touching coming-of-age story set in the small Mediterranean town of Silifke, supported with a great ensemble cast and mesmerizing cinematography. The best director award was given to acclaimed director Dervis Zaim’s “Dot,” which is a successful reflection of second chances told through the art of Turkish calligraphy. The best actress award was given to Ayça DamgacI for her performance in “Gitmek” (My Marlon and Brando) (my personal favorite in the competition, although it received no other awards). “My Marlon and Brando” was based on Damgacis real-life journey to the border of Iraq to find her lost lover. The best actor prize was awarded to Serhat Tutumluer in Ümit Ünal’s “Ara,” in which he depicted a gay man slowly coming out of the closet — it’s nice to know that we’re growing out of our prejudices.

Moving on to the international competition section, I’m pretty sure it was a difficult choice for the jury headed by master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. But among the variety of great films — Poland’s “Hope,” Belgium’s “BenX” (it also got a Fipresci prize), the US “Honeydripper,” Denmark’s “Erik Nietzsche — The Early Years” and France’s “Darling” — Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu received the award for the international feature with this year’s world festival sweetheart “Yumurta” (Egg). Kaplanoğlu had already swept the Golden Orange awards at the national competition in Antalya this past year, but nobody really expected that his film would end its festival season with another glorious result. The hype around “Egg” is amazing; perhaps it is not the most captivating Turkish film of the year, but it definitely creates a resonance in every viewer. A favorite Turkish narrative, the film follows a young poet living in İstanbul who decides to go back to his hometown in Anatolia to find his roots. In the meantime he meets a beautiful village girl and tries to rekindle his failed family relationships. The film’s style is rather familiar to national treasure Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Uzak” (Distant) and “iklimler” (Climates), with its minimalist and pensive camera movements, still colors and little dialogue. There’s no doubt Kaplanoğlu has a huge smile on his face right now.

In recent years the festival’s glitz and glamour has been provided by its main sponsor, Akbank, through the Gala section, showcasing a batch of crowd-pleasing independents that will most probably get distribution in the country. This year the most exciting and provocative films included Michael Haneke’s American remake of his previous Austrian film “Funny Games,” which follows a brutal weekend in an upper-middle class summer resort; Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s best selling book “Into the Wild,” starring up-and-coming actor Emile Hirsch as a young man searching for life’s meaning in nature; Todd Hayne’s “I’m Not There,” which brought another Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett, who portrayed one of the six versions of Bob Dylan (she truly is magnificent and the only one in the lot who actually feels like Dylan); and veteran Canadian filmmaker’s latest masterpiece “The Age of Ignorance,” a tragicomedy about an ordinary civil servant’s fantasy life.

The Human Rights in Cinema section was also a groundbreaker this year, with very strong films including Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” a minimalist yet outspoken film following the daily life of a Latin-American 11-year-old orphan who tries to make ends meet in the mean streets of New York; “PVC-1,” directed by young Greek talent Spiros Stathouloupolos, who depicts in a single shot the struggle of a young woman transformed into a time-bomb; and finally Chinese Li Yang’s latest picture “Blind Mountain,” which focuses on the abduction of a female student who is sold as a wife in northern China. Li Yang had previously made the wonderful “Blind Shaft,” which also premiered at the festival two years ago and was the bitter comedy of a group of mineworkers in provincial China. “Blind Mountain” received the Human Rights FACE prize at the festival for its outstanding story.

Also this year, the festival brought a breath of fresh air in its animation section by solely showcasing the works of Russian animation artist Alexander Petrov, who uses a very different technique in his artistry. Depicting classics such as Pushkin’s poem “The Mermaid” and Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea,” Petrov paints each of his frames on a glass plate using his fingers. The result is an entrancing dreamscape that leaves the viewer in awe.

So the festival season has ended, with some surprises and also fulfilled expectations. It’s a pity we have to wait another year, but then again the organizers of the festival, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art (IKSV), will bring us a batch of great independents in October with their mid-year Filmekimi, the Istanbul Autumn Film Week.

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