The Istanbul Film Festival, which held its 33rd edition in April, presents a formidably comprehensive showcase of Turkish cinema. In addition to the main competition, the programming is a good way to catch up on Turkish films that have made a splash at recent international festivals. But, as with many comparably scaled affairs, non-Turkish films that have traveled to other festivals also make up a substantial portion of the slate, with gala screenings and a competition of their own. I was only able to see 18 films out of the 150-plus titles in the program, but even this handful of highlights reflects the diversity of the selection.
Master of the Universe
Among the better-traveled films was Master of the Universe, which the Anthology Film Archives will be giving a theatrical run on June 6. In Marc Bauder’s documentary, former investment banker Rainer Voss theorizes at length about the workings of modern finance and recalls the luxurious lifestyle he led until only a few years ago. He waggishly dishes out factoids about a changed industry: “20 years ago, the holding period of shares was four years on average. Today it’s 22 seconds.” Bauder interviews Voss on the abandoned floors of a vacant Frankfurt stock-market building, emphasizing his solitude and the wreckage—tangible and intangible—that is left behind by wanton capitalism. Voss’s answers offer a fascinating peek into a hermetic universe, symbolized by the glass veil of windows wrapping around the building, in which financial transactions took place on a scale unimaginable to the hoi polloi.
Cinematographer Börres Weiffenbach’s compositions add a frigid veneer to proceedings, always finding a way to foreground Voss’s wrinkly and regretful face amidst the callous disrepair of his environment. As Voss elaborates on how financial institutions manipulate everyone, from governments to ordinary people, for astronomical profits, brief montages of archival newsreels help break the stifling sterility of the surroundings, but what they reveal is no less disturbing. Like Chris Smith’s bleak environmental documentary Collapse, this is part-interview and part-sermon. Master of the Universe provides an insight into economics that everyone should sit for, and it left me feeling meek.
I'm Not Him
Tayfun Pirselimoğlu’s I’m Not Him is about a mid-life crisis within a much humbler socio-economic milieu. Winner of the Golden Tulip Best Film Award in the national competition, the film revolves around a middle-aged unmarried loner named Nihat (Ercan Kesal) who feels defeated by the monotony of his life and the lassitude of his mind. A dinner invitation by a young colleague, Ayşe, leads to a whirlwind romance with a tragic culmination. Nihat deals with his grief by embarking on a quest to abandon his boring old life, an effort that has unforeseen results.
Pirselimoğlu’s film combines minimalism and a deadpan style of filming with a languorousness that ensures each scene plays out in full awkward glory. When Nihat and Ayşe have sex for the first time, the brutality and absurdity of the moment is self-evident; this is not “making love” in the slightest. The screenplay, which was awarded honors in Rome as well as here in Istanbul, resembles a puzzle of varied interlocking pieces. As I’m Not Him proceeds, Nihat’s quest to start anew keeps failing because details and memories from his past keep popping up in the present. These bemusing coincidences heighten the film’s surreal tone. A regular from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, Kesal is superb in the lead role and deserved the Best Actor honor awarded to Sercan Keskin (for Let’s Sin). His poker-faced demeanor is perfect for conveying ennui, and his lumbering frame embodies the world-weariness of his character. His co-star, Maryam Zaree, is also excellent—the way she shifts her eyes while in bed with Nihat conveys more about their situation than a two-page monologue could.
My Sweet Pepper Land
Strong lead performances also bolster Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land, which had its world premiere at last year’s Cannes festival but remains a highlight of recent Turkish cinema. Described as a “Middle Eastern cowboy movie” in its official synopsis, Pepper Land follows Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), a Kurdish war hero who becomes chief of police in a remote village in Kurdistan. There he bumps into Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a gorgeous and headstrong woman who has defied her family (and their efforts at marrying her off) to teach the children living in this no-man’s-land. The two obdurate characters strike up a friendship, while their principled stances draw the ire of the village’s more conservative elements.
Few contemporary actresses can hold a close-up as convincingly as Farahani does, or imply so many emotions wordlessly. As evidenced in Asghar Farhadi’s bruising About Elly, a sorrow flows from her eyes even during times of gaiety. Govend’s beauty and intelligence is her curse; one gets the feeling she would be much happier if only she didn’t know better. Farahani’s chemistry with Arslan is palpable, and the film would have been stronger had it focused on the romance more. Subplots involving a local don, Aga, and a band of female revolutionaries are markedly inferior; the clashes between Aga and the protagonists drown in clichés. These cardboard-cutout conflicts detract from Pepper Land’s strengths, among them cheeky references to the Western genre. During a horse-fighting sequence, even the score resembles something out of Ennio Morricone’s back catalogue.
While shining a spotlight on contemporary film, the Istanbul festival keeps one eye trained on the past. This year being the centennial anniversary of Turkish cinema, the lineup included restored versions of classics such as Yavuz Turgul’s 1987 drama Muhsin Bey (a winner at San Sebastian in 1988). The festival also honored the Manaki Brothers, Yanaki and Milton, Aromanian pioneers of early 20th-century cinema in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. One screening featured Baba Despina, a 1905 Lumière-like actualité of the brothers’ 114-year old grandmother weaving. The poignant sight captured how, in Istanbul, cinema is interwoven with history, and both are very much alive.