«The films are slack for lack of fire, and so are the boys who make them, runs the criticism. There are shocking stories of people of talent doing nothing for a year and losing their competence.»
So fumed the godfather of British documentary, John Grierson, surveying what he diagnosed as a crisis-beset non-fiction UK filmmaking scene in the summer of 1947.
Grierson, responsible for such landmarks as the silent classic Drifters (1929) was at that time Director of Mass Communications at UNESCO, which had been only formed in the November of the previous year, His jeremiad appeared in an essay entitled «A Time for Enquiry», published in the brochure for a remarkable and ground-breaking new eight-day event which would begin at Edinburgh’s Playhouse Theatre (still standing) on August 31st under the august banner «First International Festival of Documentary Films.»
Spool forward 71 years to the summer of 2018 and the «Athens of the North» continues to host the same celebration, which after several changes of name and emphasis is known as the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). Readers may be surprised to learn that this is actually the longest-running continually held film festival in the world, having begun just days before the Venice Film Festival – the world’s oldest, dating back to 1932 – resumed after its wartime hiatus.
New voices and young talents
The Scots are forward-thinking in many respects and in their history have been nothing if not innovative, with the bicycle, telephone, television, toaster, indoor toilet, basketball and radar among their most notable contributions to human culture. But they also have a strong regard for tradition, and documentary has always been a major element in the programming of EIFF and its forebears. Many seminal works of non-fiction have had their world, international and national premieres at Edinburgh, and countless doyens of the format have been welcomed and toasted there with warming drams of single malt.
«The narrator uses art as a «coping mechanism» in the aftermath of July 2016’s failed «coup».»
EIFF’s commitment to introducing and sustaining new voices, meanwhile, is maintained by its on-going partnership with the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), formed in 2004 at the Edinburgh College of Art. Every year a selection of fresh talent from the SDI is showcased at EIFF under the title «Bridging the Gap» and in 2018 half a dozen works were shown. Of their seven directors, five were female –timely indeed given the global cultural conversation in recent months, and proof that the world has moved on some way since Grierson was able to casually refer to «the boys» back in 1947.
But the rate of progress across the globe has not, of course, been uniform. Nor does its arrow only ever move in one direction. Two of the best films in Bridging the Gap 2018 prove these points, and they also testify to the dazzling multi-cultural composition of Edinburgh in the 21st century –near-unrecognisable from the stolid, smug, ethnically homogenous and piously religious Scotland of 1947.
A miniature of Turkish anguish
I Don’t Want to Call It Home is a ten-minute animated documentary by Léa Luiz de Oliveira and Nisan Yetkin – the former a French-Brazilian who started producing and documentaries when studying at the Sorbonne, her earliest efforts notable for their engagement with social debates and human rights matters in south America, Scandinavia and Korea.
Yetkin, meanwhile, has been moving back and forth between the UK and her native Turkey for the past few years. Their collaboration takes the form of a colourful extended postcard from that country, written by a young woman (presumably based largely on Yetkin herself) torn between her desire to stay in her homeland and a dawning realisation that the increasingly authoritarian rule of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (here dubbed a «Muslim democrat» who became an «Islamonationalist») might render this untenable.
The narrator uses art as a «coping mechanism» in the aftermath of July 2016’s failed «coup», which Erdogan used as a pretext to unleash arrest tens of thousands of opponents and unleash waves of repression. «I can’t give you a reason to stay,» counsels the protagonist’s concerned mother, as the pair, holed up in their western-style apartment, contemplate an Istanbul stuck in a «never-ending cycle of destruction and reconstruction.»
The agonising, interlocking dilemmas («staying is not enough») are dramatised in the form of simple animations in which humans take on the characteristics of birds. It‘s a basic but effective metaphor for an innate desire for liberation and self-expression, and for the complex allure of «flock» behaviour.
A touching and piquant dispatch from a country which has, as the film notes, been an unceasing source of «bad news» even since Erdogan’s ascent to power in 2014, I Don’t Want To Call It Home had its world premiere at Edinburgh on June 21st, just three days before elections in Turkey cemented and even extended Erdogan’s grip. While authors such as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk have an international profile, iTurkish cinema – which is perhaps the most visible manifestation of the nation’s astonishingly rich culture –is headed by Cannes Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, Uzak, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and 2018’s The Wild Pear Tree). As Erdogan’s «strongman» tactics intensify, a close eye must be kept on artists and filmmakers in the country, and emerging talents such as Yetkin need to be carefully nurtured.
Scottish mother, Algerian father
While I Don’t Want To Call It Home is a miniature of anguish, an encapsulation of lost tranquillity recollected in a period of tumultuous emotion, Carina Haouchine’s subtly perceptive Ululation – also just ten brisk minutes long – is more celebratory and upbeat. It’s an autobiographical piece with elements of home-movie, chronicling one of the regular trips taken by the director back to her father’s homeland: Scottish born and raised, now based in Glasgow, Haouchine has a Scottish mother and Algerian father.
Direct and heartfelt, the film could perhaps have been titled I Do Want To Call It Home, as the director ponders the similarities and differences between Scotland and Algeria, from her unique trans-cultural perspective. Diaristic and essayistic, the film is especially keen-eyed on the role of women in a country where traditional Muslim-based family structures are a crucial element in the social fabric.
In an atmosphere of laughter, song, dance and excellent cuisine, Haouchine chats with her cousins and members of extended family about the expectations and opportunities available to females. She wryly observes her long time-UK-resident father as he quickly gets re-accustomed to a cushy social environment where, as he remarks, «it’s a man’s life.»
Algeria is, in terms of regional comparators, relatively «progressive» in terms of female rights and representation: in 2012, Algerian women comprised 31 per cent of MPs, ranking it number one in the Arab world, while the 2014 government of long-time President Bouteflika included seven women – 20 per cent of the total – in cabinet positions. It’s a drastically different picture from the days before Algeria became independent from its colonial master France in 1962, when (mainly thanks to grossly unfair French educational policies) the vast majority of native Algerian women were illiterate.
Haouchine’s grandmother is a flinty survivor of that era, and her advice to her granddaughter is surprising and inspiring: «You must live your life!» she sparkly counsels. Thus emboldened, Haouchine stands at the very earliest stages of what promises to be a worthwhile career in film. «Slack for lack of fire» she most certainly is not.
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