In his introduction before the screening of his film Microphone, the Egyptian director, Ahmed Abdalla, expressed his delight at presenting his film in a city that was, for many centuries, the center of the Muslim world. At the same time he gently pointed out that many important Turkish words and customs come from Arabic, asserting pride in being an Arab, in the land of the Ottoman Beys, who controlled Egypt for more than three hundred years. Abdalla’s film was made as the Tahrir square protests against the Mubarak regime were fomenting. The loosely structured film follows the lives of several young people in Alexandria. Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga) serves as the film’s guide. He is an engineer recently returned from the U. S., bored with his job and in search of the city’s underground music scene. His former girlfriend, sick of her stagnant life, is planning to go abroad just as he has returned. The city’s Arts Ministry promises to put on a concert featuring local acts, but rejects every artist that applies, on the grounds of the alleged obscene or subversive content of their songs. The film is a chronicle of disappointment and of stunted hopes, yet it bursts with exuberance. Abdallah’s camera captures the vivid street life of Alexandria and the creative energy of musicians, graffiti artists, photographers, and filmmakers all trying to express themselves. Microphone won Istanbul’s top prize, the Golden Tulip, partially as an endorsement of the Arab Spring.
Politics and an interrogation of the past were common themes in this year’s edition of the Istanbul Film Festival. The festival always promotes the ever-growing Turkish Cinema, with many fiction and documentary offerings. One particularly moving documentary chronicles the abuses of justice during the years of General Kenan Evren’s rule following his 1980 military coup. Your Son Erdal by Tunç Erenkuş, tells the story Erdal Eren, a seventeen-year-old boy who was executed as an eighteen-year-old for taking part in a student protest decrying a policeman’s wanton killing of another leftist student. Using compelling archival footage and present-day interviews, the film chronicles the deaths and torture of several young people under Evren’s regime. Erenkuş captures a brutal period in Turkish history as well as reminding the audience of the links between the past and the present and both the personal and political effect of wounds suffered in Turkey’s recent past. Ilksen Başarir uses her film Merry-Go-Round to shine a light on the taboo subject of incest in Turkey, which has recently been receiving attention in the Turkish press and among Turkish social scientists. The film tells the story of a family with two young daughters who leave the countryside for Istanbul. In the closer quarters of the apartment, the abuse begins to reveal itself. After a jump in time, Başarir tells her story through the eyes of their mother, who notices her daughter’s withdrawn behavior and slowly begins to unravel the family’s secrets. Although the film is marred by the overuse of melodramatic conventions and music, the director actively condemns the society as a whole. Countering the commonly-held belief that incest occurs only among the poor, uneducated, or mentally ill, Başarir focuses on a recognizably middle-class, professional family.
Erdal Eren on trial in Tunç Erenkuş's documentary Your Son Erdal
The ills of the past were not all confined to Turkey. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s Two Escobars tells the compelling story of “narco-soccer” in Colombia. Basing their narrative around two men with the same last name—the infamous cocaine-cartel head, Pablo Escobar, and the captain of the Colombian national soccer team, Andrés Escobar—the Zimbalists weave a tale of violence, poverty, national pride, and corruption. Until the late Eighties and early Nineties, Colombian soccer had not been competitive on the international level. During that period, however, for the first time, the country was inexplicably able to retain its best players, rather than lose them to the more lucrative European leagues, and the national team was the favorite to win the World Cup in 1994.
In a first round game in that tournament, the team’s unassuming and charming captain, Andrés Escobar, accidentally scored an own goal, dooming his heavily favored team to defeat by the United States and elimination from the competition. Shortly after returning home, Escobar was shot dead in his car as an apparent retribution. The murder only highlighted the extreme levels of violence and corruption in the country, which was controlled by warring drug cartels. The film documents the heavy involvement of drug money in the national team. Players were rewarded for remaining in Colombia and drug lords fielded their own private teams to compete in secret high-stakes matches. A complex portrait of Pablo Escobar emerges as both a deadly figure and a Robin Hood in the eyes of some. A poor kid who made it big, building affordable housing, and soccer pitches in the poorest, most ignored slums.
Drug lord Pablo Escobar and martyred soccer player, Andrés Escobar
Pablo Lorrain, the Chilean director of the chilling Tony Manero, offers another, more distanced portrait of the violence of the past in Post Mortem. Mario (Alfredo Castro) takes dictation at autopsies at the city morgue in Santiago. The story takes place in September 1973, during Augusto Pinochet’s coup and even includes the autopsy of Salvador Allende, whose death was a cause of great controversy. Pinochet claimed it was a suicide, although many people and much evidence points to an assassination. Although there is violence all around him, Castro is lost in his own world. He is in love with Nancy (Antonia Zegers), an aging, anorexic cabaret performer. She, too, exists in her own dream world of past stage successes and old romantic dreams. Mario conducts a stilted, slow pursuit of Nancy as the society around him crumbles and the streets echo with gunshots. The film is a bleak depiction of bourgeois complacency and a piercing portrait of loneliness.
In Black Venus Abdellatif Kechiche explores the imperial past through a subject that allows him to dissect the history of colonialist ideology. Saartjie, or Sarah, Baartman was a Khoi Khoi housemaid from South Africa, who was taken by her Afrikaans employer on a tour of England as a “genuine” Bushman. Advertised as the “Hottentot Venus,” she is ogled and groped by all levels of European society. First, by cockney sideshow audiences, then by French aristocrats, though she eventually works in Paris as a prostitute. Finally, and most humiliatingly, she is examined by the French Scientific Academy. The scientists are particularly obsessed with her swollen genitals. Although this condition was caused by venereal disease contracted as a sex worker, the scientists insist that it represents a genetic difference between whites and Africans. An exhibit of Sarah’s genitals appeared in the French Anthropological Museum until 1974.
Her remains were finally returned to South Africa 2002 at Nelson Mandela’s request. Documentary footage of her remains arriving in Johannesburg end Kechiche’s powerful film on an upbeat note.
One of Black Venus’s best achievements is to show the various ways in which colonial powers exert authority. The Friends of Africa, a benevolent society, tries to stop the exhibitions in England, but Baartman does not speak in her own defense, due to pressure from her Afrikaner master, Hendrick Caezar. The English courts ban the exhibitions, but Caezar escapes to France unscathed. The British maintain an air of moral superiority but are unable to aid Baartman. Caezar is a perfect example of the Afrikaner mind-set, both deeply resentful of European snobbery and exploitation, while at the same time a brutal exploiter of Baartman. The French aristocrats are thrilled by the exotic display of Sarah and she is openly exploited in brothels, palaces, and medical examination rooms. Nonprofessional actor Yahima Torres portrays Sarah with heart-rending sincerity. The director reportedly met her on the streets of a Paris suburb. The period details and costume are very well done. Kechiche manages to make an historical film with a pointed political purpose that does not seem like a polite and dusty schoolbook lesson.
Yahima Torres as Sarah Baartman, being "scientifically" examined by a French naturalist in Black Venus
These are just a few examples of the many films on display at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival, ranging from the big festival films in the International Competition to a look back at Classic Turkish films, a young directors showcase, a Claire Denis retrospective, a selection of art films from the last thirty years that included Tsai Ming Liang’s wonderful Vive L’Amour, Derek Jarman’s Blue, and Shohei Imamura’s strange and haunting Ballad of Narayama, among many others. The festival, like the magnificent city in which it takes place, truly is a crossroads of both East and West and old and new.
Rahul Hamid, a Cineaste Editor, teaches film at New York University.