Documentarist-Istanbul Documentary Days celebrated its fifth year with yet again a superb selection of films as well as stimulating side events. As organizer Necati Sönmez put it, this festival created its own audience, and since its launch as the biggest festival dedicated to documentary film in Istanbul, there has been a visible increase of interest in the genre, both in terms of film-making and the audience.
The fifth year of the festival, which was held on 1-6 June 2012, marked a change in the presentation of the New Talent Award as well. This award, which has been granted at the festival since 2010 in collaboration with the Consulate General of the Netherlands in Istanbul to Turkish directors for their first or second films, will henceforth bear the name of Dutch documentary director Johan van der Keuken. The film which took the award this year was “Waiting” by Bülent Öztürk, a poetic insight into the lives of the survivors of the Van earthquake in October 2011. Within a month after the earthquake, it began to snow and most of the survivors were still living in tents. Emergency relief was far from adequate and the Turkish institutions responsible for providing support were criticized by nongovernmental organizations and the volunteers who worked very hard to help the disaster victims. The earthquake occurred in the east of Turkey, which is one of the most isolated areas of the country where the majority of residents are Kurdish; as a result, there were some rather shame-inspiring commentaries in the media suggesting that since many of the victims were Kurdish (and thus supposedly against the Turkish state), what right did they have to receive aid from the government. The film, however, doesn’t explore the issue in this regard but focuses solely on the personal and psychological aspects, telling the story through the lives of a couple of victims rather than taking an outside position. The audience is brought into the lives of two kids who try to make a little money by selling the metal they collect from demolished buildings, and they also meet Sıddık, a father who lost his daughter during the disaster and mourns her while trying to survive in a tent with his family under the snow. As the name of the film implies, these people are in a constant state of waiting to pick up their lives from where they were cut off, yet it seems like the rest of the country has forgotten them and they are left on their own perpetually waiting in tents. Director Öztürk blurs the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction in his film, both in the narration and in the visual language which employs long scenes of meditative nature landscapes reminiscent of the cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Semih Kaplanoğlu, auteurs of contemporary Turkish cinema.
“Maya” by Rodi Yüzbaşı, (2012) is also set in an eastern corner of Turkey and turns the camera to the yearly cycle of villagers who live by a lake close to the Turkey-Armenian border. In the film, we follow this cyclical time, which is opposed to the linear notion of time of modern urban life, both through the mesmerizing scenery of nature as well as the stories told by dengbejs, storytellers who were the main transmitters of the Kurdish oral culture and who are on the verge of disappearing today. Another film, “Cneydo” (2011) by Hüdai Ateş, is a short documentary set in the southeast of the country in a village in the district of Antakya, an ancient multi-cultural settlement on the Turkish-Syrian border. This film also follows a pace of life which appears to be in slow-motion compared to the speed of life in crowded, busy cities. This is a village mainly inhabited by old Christian people and over the years it has witnessed regular abandonment as the result of deaths and migration, and Ateş successfully reflects the sense of isolation and loneliness pervasive in the village today.
One of the best films of the Turkey Panorama section of the festival was “A Knock on the Door” by Halil Fırat Yazar and Metin Çelik. It is also about the east of the country and focuses on the pressure on the Kurdish political movement in Turkey. The film is about the KCK operations in the country which have been carried out since 2009 and have led to the arrest of thousands of people connected with Kurdish politics. The film depicts how the Turkish government started a TV channel in Kurdish and launched a Kurdish Language and Literature department at a university but still when Kurdish detainees attempt to defend themselves in their native language, their microphones are turned off and their language is referred to as “unknown.” The film’s main question is this: The Turkish government has urged Kurds to take up political rather than armed struggle, but when most of the members of the Kurdish political party or other Kurdish organizations are arrested, how will it be possible to continue on a political platform? The film reveals through a unique narrative style and superb editing how members of the Kurdish press as well as lawyers involved in the cause have been placed in jails, and to date nearly 6,000 such individuals have been arrested. The film employs neither cliché nor a blatant agenda to incite; it simply sheds light on the awful truth through admirable documentary film-making. This film has the ability to fight against false consciousness concerning this ongoing complex problem about Kurdish people’s democratic rights in Turkey, a consciousness very much created by the mainstream media which is used as an aggressive ideological apparatus by the state.
The film “Agadez, the Music and the Rebellion” (2010) by Ron Wyman explores a similar struggle for democratic rights and ethnic identity but this time in Niger. This film focuses on the life and the rebellion of the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara, an ethnic group known for their independent spirit and strong musical traditions, and the narration focuses on the story of Omara “Bombino” Moctar. This intriguing documentary not only explores the inspiring lives of this uncorrupted, unique culture but also gives the audience the opportunity to hear some great examples of Moctar’s music. “Slingshot Hip Hop” by Jackie Reem Salloum (2008) was another must-see documentary at this year’s festival about the potential of music to mobilize people in their struggle for their rights. This first feature-length documentary about the Palestinian hip hop movement follows the history of Palestinian rap via its representatives and followers. The film depicts the extremely difficult lives of young people who have suffered as the result of inhumane acts and the abuse of human rights by the Israeli state and the army, which have been carried out for decades. These teenagers cling to music as a means to heal their wounds as well as fight against the system inflicting those wounds through physical, political, economic, psychological and symbolic violence.
These two films were shown in a special section of the festival titled “Music Documentaries” in which “Telvin” (2012) by Okan Avcı and “Can’t Live Without You” (2012) by Bertan Başaran, two interesting and well-made Turkish documentaries, were also screened. The former is about an avant-garde music trio and their project called Telvin, which means “change of state of consciousness” in Sufi philosophy. The trio, led by the cult musician Erkan Oğur, creates improvised jazz through a blend of Anatolian melodies with blues chords, along with other sources of inspiration. Cinematographer Serkan Yüksel deserves much praise for his mesmerizing depictions of the heavenly atmosphere of the Aegean coasts of Turkey as the film follows the trio in a tour, an atmosphere which resonates as the main theme of the music of Telvin: contemplation and reflection. The latter of the two films is about a legendary musician, Barbaros Erköse, a clarinet virtuoso from Turkey with Gypsy origins but who prefers to look at identity beyond these categories of race, ethnicity, or nation. The most interesting and touching part of the film, which followed him to different parts of the world, was the stop in Rajasthan, the land of the roots of Roman/Gypsy culture, and the audience of the film was blessed with a chance to hear the powerful music which Erköse played with some musicians while there.
This part of the world appeared in another film at the festival, although dealing with a heavier theme, in “Cartography of Loneliness” (2011) by Nocem Collado. The director follows women in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan who have lost their husbands and are trying to survive on their own. The film explores the stories of widows who are abandoned by their families, fall victims to trafficking, or suffer from social violence. Despite the gravity of the situation, the film shows how some women are strong enough to stand up for themselves and start life anew.
Like every year, documentaries from different parts of the world were screened, making it possible for film-goers to explore realms distant from their own. “Canicula” (2011) by José Álvarez, paints an elegant picture of the life of the Totonac people during the forty hottest days of the year, and is set in a small village in Mexico. Images rather than words speak in the film, and the harmony between humans and nature emerges as a language of its own. “25th Meridian: Imvros Island” (2012), a film by Chrysa Tzelepi and Tania Hatzigeorgiou, also depicts the slow pace of life on an Aegean island. The theme of this film focuses on what has been lost and what has been rescued on the Greek-Turkish island of İmvros, which, as the result of hostile policies against the Greeks of the country, has witnessed the loss of many of its inhabitants over the decades. Here we see those who were so attached to the island that despite all the suffering they had to endure, did not leave. Through interviews with the Greek inhabitants of the island which were conducted between 2005 and 2009, we are presented with the island’s past, a past so distant yet so vivid in memories.
One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Heddy Honigman retrospective, which included such films as “Metal and Melancholy” (1994) and “El Olvido” (2008). The director also met with the audience at a master class at the festival. Apart from this very popular event, the festival included other events such as a panel on Contemporary Greek Documentary Film as well as Creative Documentary Development Workshops, and once again this year the festival served as a means for documentaryphiles of Istanbul to learn more about the genre.
N. Buket Cengiz writes on popular culture for the national Turkish newspaper Radikal’s Sunday supplement, Radikal Iki, and works in Istanbul as a writing tutor at Kadir Has University’s Writing Center.