It is a chilly, rain-spattered early evening in Istanbul and the most famous shopping street of the Turkish megalopolis – Istiklal Caddesi – is heaving with humanity.
For a street that never sleeps and is always awash with people, it is busier than usual. The narrow thoroughfare is jam-packed with a massive crowd of women, noisy and exuberant, blowing whistles and beating drums, as they celebrate March 8: International Women’s Day.
Violence against Turkish women
In a country where religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism is on the rise – the rule of right-wing populist President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan entrenched following a failed military coup in 2016 and a subsequent crackdown on liberals in the media, academia and judiciary. The annual display of feminist solidarity that gathers near Taksim Square before it flows down to the 15th century Genoese Galata Tower, is a potent symbol for those that understand the country is at a critical juncture.
According to Bianet – a Turkish website that monitors media reports of male violence –men killed at least 290 women in the country in 2017, with 22 girls and 34 men who were nearby at the time of the incident also left dead. A total of 101 women were raped and 376 girls were sexually abused. At least 417 women were left injured by male violence in 2017.
«Women teeming on Istiklal Caddesi carry placards that include a depiction of an erect penis alongside a statement in English: “Does this give you great rights?”»
“Strong and Beautiful”
The women’s march is one of the few public outlets women with modern, liberal and liberated attitudes today in Turkey. Men are largely not welcome at the annual fixture, though the tens of thousands that gathered this year included scores of men to support their female friends, partners and relatives. Although outright gay or LGBT manifestations in public would likely draw a swift crackdown from the republic’s militarised police – a ubiquitous heavily armed presence on Istanbul’s streets, with armoured cars parked at strategic junctions – the March 8 crowd includes plenty of rainbow-toned placards, signs and slogans.
Safety in numbers, noisy but well-mannered, the women teeming on Istiklal Caddesi carry placards that include a depiction of an erect penis alongside a statement in English: “Does this give you great rights?” Another, also in English, shows a happy half naked young woman, her breasts bare and long dark hair flowing down her back as she holds a flower aloft beneath the words “Strong and Beautiful”.
«The women tell their stories with economy and force, each shocking and heart rendering in their own unique way.»
Others carry images of some of the women who have lost their lives in recent years to male violence as male street vendors – never slow to miss a trick in Istanbul –weave their way through the dense crowds selling whistles, rattles and head bands with feminist slogans.
Women’s cinema in Turkey
The feminist show of force comes just a couple of days before the opening of Turkey’s 16th International Filmmor Women’s Film Festival on Wheels. Staged annually since 2003 and now enjoying the support of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, international cultural and diplomatic entities including the Institute Français, the Goethe Institute, Dutch and US Consulate. The festival opened in Istanbul March 10 before moving on to cities around the country including Antalya, Bodrum, İzmir, Mersin, Diyarbakır, Adana and Trabzon. Partnering with various national and regional women’s solidarity organisations, Filmmor combines screenings and discussions with programme and panel themes this year that included “Our Bodies are Ours”, “Women are Everywhere” and “Time’s Up: Sexual Harassment in the Film Industry”.
Alin Tasciyan, a film critic and writer who is a member of the women’s collective that organises the festival, says: “Filmmor aims to show the productivity, creativity and diversity of women’s cinema.”
In a nutshell: “We celebrate the glory of cinema of women in an unfair, male dominated film industry.”
And by putting the festival “on wheels” to take it around the country, it “can reach out to different audiences and show solidarity with the women’s movements that invite us.”
With a program that combines features, documentaries, shorts and experimental films, there is something for everyone with feminist politics writ large and more discreetly.
People, faces and places
In her gently subversive documentary feature Faces, Places (Visages, Villages) – which premiered in Cannes last year – Belgian-born veteran director Agnes Varda, who turns 90 on May 30 this year, teams up with J.R. – the pseudonym for a Paris based street-artist who is a kind of French Banksy – to explore their common love of people, places and faces.
A lyrical amble through the French countryside, Varda and J.R. travel around in J.R’s trademark “image van” – a photographic studio on wheels that produces giant poster images of its subjects ready to pasted up on walls, his trademark artistic conceit.
J.R., a slender and lithe man in his mid 30s who is never seen without his dark glasses and pork-pie hat, had long admired the woman who is renowned both as chronicler and participant in the post-war cinematic French New Wave. Both are obsessed with the human image and both are inlove with the subversive democracy public images allow.
J.R. who began his artistic ascent as a teenage graffiti artist before finding a camera on the Paris Metro and starting to photograph, then photocopy his images for pasting on walls and windows, has achieved fame for his larger-than-life murals. More public in his persona than England’s Banksy (who goes to extreme lengths to avoid any kind of appearance), J.R. is a gadfly to Varda’s graceful humour and acceptance of the physical limitations ageing brings.
Varda – impish and youthful, despite her chronological age – represents a kind of artistic and socialist continuity, picking up themes from films and projects of half a century ago to bring into the present.
Faces of Harassment
Most films in Filmmor’s selection are a bit closer to the bone of contemporary feminist politics than Varda’s documentary – pleasant and dreamy in comparison to Brazilian director Paula Sacchetta’s Faces of Harassment.
Here, a mobile van with an in-built photo booth, is used not for picturing faces of public art, but for allowing women to record in their own words experiences of sexual harassment. The project is inspired by the social media hashtag campaigns, MyFirstHarassment and MySecretFriend. During Women’s Week (marked in Brazil March 7-14) the van visited several locations in Rio De Janeiro and San Paolo, where 140 women aged between 15 and 84 stepped inside the van to tell their stories of assault, rape, cat calls and humiliation direct to the camera.
Testimonies of abuse
Faces of Harassment, presents a feature length edited selection of the testimonies (the full 12 hours is available on the project website faceofharassment.com). Aside from its clear editing and careful arrangement, the film is essentially unadorned. Testimonies are balanced – with stories from teenagers, women in their 30s and 40s – and the octogenarian, who recounts a rape at gunpoint by an 18 year old boy from her daughter’s school when she herself was in her 40s.
The cinematic conceit of the woman alone in a dark space looking into a dark screen as we, the members of the audience in a cinema, sit alone in our seats in a dark space looking at a screen, is a powerful one. The women tell their stories with economy and force, each shocking and heart rendering in their own unique way.
Two stories stayed with me long after I watched Faces of Harassment. A young woman who told the story of her three-year relationship with a man that culminated in he beating her so badly that she ended up with a broken nose, leg and three broken ribs, telling her as she lay on the ground of a dirty back street that that was her place: Below him.
«Allowing women to end their silent collusion with their abusers is at the core of Faces of Harassment.»
And there is the tearful masked girl, who in a tremulous voice related how she had lost her «innocence and purity» at the age of 15 when raped by a boy at a party who objected to her being in relationship with another girl. By the end of her testimony she is sobbing and repeating that she cannot even summon the courage to tell her therapist for fear of being judged. Being the root cause of her chronic sense of devastation – she knows her depression and sense of worthlessness cannot be healed without revealing this.
Allowing women to end their silent collusion with their abusers – to speak out and reclaim their lives – is at the core of Faces of Harassment. As global gender imbalance realign, expect more documentaries of this type.