Women directors are leading the way.
A sampling of films screened at this year’s Istanbul International Film Festival and Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival-the two most important international and national annual showcases for new Turkish film productions-revealed a strong, forceful presence of mostly young, women documentary filmmakers. Whether tackling upfront, highly sensitive political issues in Turkey, such as the question of minorities, or depicting slices of life, each provides a fresh, sensitive insight into an astonishing, multifaceted country that makes us question our sometimes opinionated views.
Peasant Women on Stage
Pelin Esmer’s compelling documentary The Play-about a group of women in a remote village in south-east Turkey who created their own theatre group and wrote and performed a play based on their real lives-premiered at the Istanbul Film Festival, electrifying critics and audiences alike. The filmmaker and her protagonists were honoured with a standing ovation by an enthusiastic crowd that attended the unique out-of-competition screening. Unanimously acclaimed as the best surprise of this year’s Turkish production in Istanbul, the vivacious energy of these simple peasant women could certainly be seen as a “bracing corrective to the rather apolitical, aestheticized melancholia of estranged, submerged males unable to navigate the emotional terrain of human relations on display in much of the rest of today’s Turkish cinema,” as one Turkish critic put it.
The force of Pelin Esmer’s arresting vision of a rural community in the Mersin region is the amazing ingeniousness of its characters. Despite a life of hard labour in the fields and at home, these nine women, none of whom had the possibility of formal study, would meet over weeks every evening in the school, leaving the kids at home with the husbands who were in total agreement with them. Together with the teacher, who comes from the same village, they would share and confront their sometimes tragic, individual stories to weave them together into a play, The Outcry of Women, which is finally performed on a stage (built entirely by themselves) in front of the whole village. Capturing the developing process of their play with her camera, the filmmaker reveals the changes these peasant women went through during this process, their joyful transformation into self-confident actresses of their own lives and their immense hopes for a better future.
But, “those women would have in any case written and put on stage a play based on their life stories, whether or not I made this movie,” says Esmer, a 33-year-old sociologist who has previously worked as an assistant director and who also produced and edited her film. “I wanted to shoot a feature-like documentary rather than a documentary-like feature film, without trying to be invisible but quietly integrating myself into their village lives. It was extremely exciting to walk the thin line between a documentary and a feature film, whilst the line between their real lives and the play blurred. Working under similar circumstances, they created, at the end of five weeks, the play of their lives, and I, at the end of two years, the film The Play.” The first screening for the women and their husbands took place on a giant TV screen in the village school, followed by huge party with belly-dancing. This was on 8 March 2005, the same day when women celebrating the International Women’s day on the streets of Istanbul were violently beaten up by police.
Hardworking, Resilient Women
A poignant portrait of the life of women in rural Turkey is also the centre of a very different documentary, made by internationally acclaimed filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu, which takes us over 1000 km north into the Black Sea region bordering on the Russian Caucasus. In her documentary Life on Their Shoulders, set among the Laz, a Caucasian minority originally from neighbouring Georgia, we discover yet another community of women engaged in a fierce struggle in a harsh world. Set against a stunningly beautiful landscape of mountain chains covered in fog, of deep valleys and high, green plateaus, the filmmaker follows these women on their long, trying seasonal migration, leading the cattle along small, dizzying paths and across deep ravines up to the summer camps, situated at an elevation of over 3000 metres in the mountains rising above the Black Sea, where the women finally leave their herds to graze.
We get a poignant image of the weight of tradition watching these women, young and old, literally shouldering all the necessary equipment including the stove and kitchen utensils for their summer camp, while the men leisurely walk beside them smoking cigarettes. As Ustaoglu explains, the men usually work in the cities, mostly on construction sites, leaving the village work to the women. But once again, beyond these pictures, Ustaoglu reveals extremely resilient female characters who analyse their situation clearly and express a calm confidence in a better future.
Ustaoglu, who herself grew up in north-east Turkey, discovered this extraordinary world of peasant life in the mountains while researching her new fiction film Beyond the Clouds, which tackles the highly taboo topic of Greek minorities in Turkey who used to live just as the Armenians in this region. Although both minority groups were deported or killed by the nationalist Turkish government during WWI, many children of Armenian and Greek descent supposedly survived under a Turkish identity. “This whole issue was never talked about in public or taught in schools. On that score, a Turkish audience is as ignorant of these events as a Western audience might be,” concludes Yesim Ustaoglu.
Migrants in Transit
Apparently, this issue is also slowly making its way into the subjects of current documentaries. Berke Bas, a young filmmaker who studied in the US, presented her first film Transit, a sensitive documentary about three transmigrant families who, like many others, got stuck in Istanbul on their way to Europe or America. Bas had just made headlines with her new project that tackles the issue of Armenian children who were saved from genocide by Turkish families and converted to Islam. Until now, the very existence of these children has been largely denied, and the news of her findings in her home town of Ordu on the Black Sea coast created a stir in the Turkish media.
In Transit, Bas followed-over the course of one year-an Iraqi Arab family of five from Mosul (the family waited three and half years before finally being allowed to enter Canada), an Iraqi Kurdish family of six from Kirkuk who have been waiting for four years now and a Nigerian couple who met in Istanbul in 1998 and got married here. Her debut film bears witness to their struggle to adapt to the new culture, their waiting for visas and work permits that may or may never come. They are forced to live in rundown areas and kept at a distance by the locals. The film also sheds light on the shadowy, largely unknown, marginal existence of these immigrants stranded on this major transit road on their way to an elusive future.
Both social issues and those of everyday life in Istanbul are the main topics of Belmin Söylemez, whose shorts and documentaries are widely known of outside her country. With 34 Taxis she reveals the megalopolis Istanbul from a new perspective, this time through the eyes of taxi drivers.
Filming Outside of Turkey
In the only film in this selection set outside of Turkey, Melis Birder took the opportunity of a short journey to Baghdad to present us with a story from inside Iraq which we haven’t seen in the news. The Tenth Planet is about her meeting with Kawkab, a vivacious young woman from Baghdad who works as a secretary at a university. “There are nine planets in the universe and I am the tenth,” she claims joyfully, since her name in Arabic means planet. Indeed, this extraordinary woman full of resources in a more than depressing environment is a world of her own and not afraid to deliver to the camera her uncensored opinions about anything from love and virginity to pro-Saddam patriotism. Birder’s debut film is an astounding, refreshing document of the joys, fears and aspirations of a young Iraqi woman.
Last but not least, the award for best documentary at the 42nd Antalya Film Festival went to a surprising little gem, Cicadantn Bingöl Elmas warm and touching portrait of Ibo, a man who lives for a dream nobody but he believes in. Ibo, 45, lives in a small town and has five jobs: a public announcement officer, a tea-maker for his colleagues at the municipality, a farmer and a marriage official. Thus he combines alternatively and with unfailing energy the life of a hard-working ant with that of a joyful cricket. This is a film about the force of utopia in a world that generally does not favour such dreams.