The Turkish, Female Cinematic Rebellion

Beginnings - Rebel Yell

While female directors are underrepresented around the world, there really weren’t many efforts made by women in Turkey until roughly 1980. Bilge Olgaç made close to 30 films between 1950 and 1980, but it wasn’t until a military coup in the early 80s that feminist cinema began to flourish in the country. Even then it took until the 90s for any real strides to be made, and now with the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s brief, late summer series Rebel Yell: A New Generation of Turkish Women Filmmakers (running Thursday, August 22nd to Thursday August 29th), the spotlight is placed firmly on some truly great work coming out of the country within the past decade.

The work on display here – much of it rarely, if ever, screened in Canada – certainly isn’t nationalistic in nature. Often depicting the country as a country containing deep secrets, visual scars, and little to no opportunities for people both young and old, all five features and three mid-length and short documentaries feel borne from frustration and a country’s denial to come to terms with its past.

In Belmin Söylemez’s Present Tense (kicking off the series Thursday at 6:30pm), a young woman (Sanem Oge) struggles with the fallout from a bad marriage and is on the verge of getting evicted when she takes a job as a psychic despite not having any mystical abilities whatsoever. She might not have the skills necessary to be credible in her new profession, but just the hope and grounding skills she provides are enough to get her and her clients through the days of living under close to hopeless circumstances.

In the only other fictional entry in the series, Ilksen Basarir’s Merry-Go-Round (Friday, August 23rd, 6:30pm) comes with a loaded title signifying the cyclical nature of grief and being a single, widowed mother (Nergis Öztürk) raising teenagers with a deeply hidden family secret and an even bigger, darker social stigma hanging over her head.

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Quite interestingly enough, the genre and style most commonly employed throughout the series is documentary, and the techniques being employed are more overtly critical than any kind of subversive fiction. While Asli Özge’s Men on the Bridge (Sunday, August 25th, 1:00pm) is a fiction-documentary hybrid (with two main characters essentially playing themselves in recreations), it comes bearing a gritty, lived in style that captures the tenuous nature of living in low income squalor in the section of Istanbul where Europe and Asia intersect.

Pelin Esmer’s The Play (Thursday, August 29th, 6:30pm) is heralded as a landmark document in Turkey, chronicling the struggles of nine women attempting to mount a stage production based on their lives, all in the face of daunting creative hurdles, gruelling days jobs, and a male population that can’t seem to understand why they would do such things.

Two other documentaries – Somnur Vardar’s Beginnings (Saturday, August 24th, 1:00pm) and Berke Bas’ Concrete Park (Tuesday, August 27th, 6:30pm, showing as part of a triple bill of shorter docs alongside The Moustache and On the Coast) – don’t specifically take looks at women being marginalized in society, but instead confront the country’s ability to strip young people of their future and cultural identity. In Beginnings, a group of Turkish and Armenian teenagers are on a trip to learn about the ghosts left in the wake of the often denied Armenian genocide. In Concrete Park, young men in the coastal town of Ordu sometimes relish going to combat zones as part of mandatory national military service simple because it’s something to do.

We caught up with TIFF programmer and series curator Rasha Salti to talk about the series, Turkey’s depiction as a land of few opportunities, how economics have impacted Turkish cinema, the transgressive art of cinema, and how the current political landscape views the country’s past.

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Dork Shelf: I think one of the things that strikes me the most as a common theme running through many of the films showcased in this series is that they often depict Turkey as a whole as a land of few, if any, tangible opportunities for people. In Present Tense, Mina is driven into an already marginalized job that she’s ill equipped to handle just to survive. In Men on the Bridge, the poverty on display leads to greed and bitterness. In Concrete Park, young people are aching to get out of their town even to perform military service because their lives seem that boring and static by comparison. Do you think this could certainly be seen as a credible theme that comes up frequently in new, female Turkish cinema?

64th Annual Cannes Film Festival - TIFF PortraitsRasha Salti: Great question, thank you! I’m not an expert on world economy, but in the past few years Turkey has ranked among the twenty most important economies in the world. It’s neither a developing country, nor an ’emerging’ economy; it’s a force to be contended with. In fact, if you peruse the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and The Economist, you will see that much ink has been spilled on the Turkish “economic miracle”. It’s an issue that has given the presently ruling party a great deal of self-righteous arrogance. The party’s central constituency is a merchant and entrepreneurial middle-class that has benefited greatly from the neo-liberal agenda in full force for two decades. The reality of the so-called miracle is no different from the reality of much touted such miracles further south in Asia, whereby ‘entrepreneurs’ are granted more protections than workers, and their margins for benefits are increased at the cost of social safety nets cut drastically and workers pauperized.

In other words, Turkey produces more and is able to sell more across the world, its rich have become richer and its poor have become poorer. This type of growth is obviously short-term and dangerous, especially when the country’s population is so young. In present-day Turkey, young people are profoundly disenchanted because of rampant unemployment and prohibitive inflation. The country’s political class and ruling party is furthest removed from embodying their aspirations for a life of dignity. Concomitant with the so-called “economic miracle”, the ruling party has effectively disabled realms for political dissent and enforced conservative social codes as per their understanding of religious observance.

The established, internationally acclaimed Turkish auteur filmmakers – like Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu, to cite a couple of names – make films that deal with the question of disenchantment, social and economic marginalization, alienation, etc. However, the films screening as part of Rebel Yell are far more hard-hitting, uncompromising and articulate. The conceit of the series draws a causal relationship between the marginal place relegated to women filmmakers and their choice to make artistically and politically transgressive, subversive work. I locked the selection in the month of April, the protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park erupted shortly thereafter. The protestors were indignant against the government’s social conservatism and economic injustice policies. Themes these filmmakers have dealt with in their films without reserve.

DS: Another common theme I noticed is this concept of maturity, not only with regard to many of them featuring characters and subjects that are still fairly young in the grand scheme of things, but also to the country itself. The promise of being European (or in Present Tense, American) seems quite enticing, but it always seems to be running up against an almost torturous system designed to never allow one to transcend the social strata they were born into. How are these films, which in some cases are wake up calls designed to arouse thought about the world around them, being perceived in Turkey? It’s just interesting to think of when you talk about emerging cinema in what some might still refer to as an emerging country.

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RS: Turkey is demographically a young country, but not an “emerging” country. Film production came to Turkey only a few years after it emerged in France. The Turkish film industry has been notoriously a “man’s world” for the span of its history, the fact that a number of women have been able to stake a presence within this systemic gender inequity is why I have used the term “emerging” to describe the overall situation. There is an insurgent, mutinous drive inspiring them to make their films without compromise, to represent a lived reality with all its paradoxes with less decorum perhaps. All the films in the series have screened in Turkey, at film festivals but also in theaters and sometimes in grass-roots venues (community centers, union halls) in the country’s far confines. Some have won awards, all have earned very positive critical acclaim. Some have generated uninhibited debate and dispelled the veil of taboo or self-censorship.

DS: One of the most striking sequences in any of the films comes at the end of Beginnings, when there is simply a lengthy, sustained dialogue about the Armenian genocide that starts tense and grows increasingly uncomfortable. I can’t imagine that a film like this with that loaded of an ending could have been easy for a filmmaker to produce in a country where simply admitting that the genocide even happened could be seen as slandering the martyrs that still get openly spoken of during the nightly news. How was that film received, and as a follow up, have any of these films generated a lot of controversy in their country to a point where the films might not be exhibited? 

RS: In the beginning of its rule (its first term in office), the governing party paid lip-service to recognizing Armenian genocide. However, by the second term, their position changed and it became clear that whatever small progress had been made in that direction was a mere media stunt and not a genuine commitment towards resolving the question. Beginnings premiered at the Istanbul International Film Festival this year and had animated discussions after the screening, but the film was lauded by reputable film critics and audiences were generally enthusiastic. The wide disenchantment with the ruling party’s policies is also about their handling of that question. I have not had a chance to follow-up with the filmmaker and producer to know whether the film will be released in theaters. It would be interesting to find out now, after the social movements have been galvanized to take to the streets and forced authorities to take stock of the depth and scope of dissent. At the edition of the Istanbul Film Festival this year there was also a film on the assassination of Hrant Dink the famous Turkish-Armenian editor, columnist and activist.

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DS: It’s interesting that despite all of the documentaries, it’s the fictional Present Tense that opens with the most loaded and overt political message by asking for freedom for Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. It certainly had to stir up at least a small bit of controversy, especially coming from a female filmmaker, but do you think by leading off a fictional film with such a message makes it a bit more forgiving because of what comes after it? Do you think that a female made Turkish documentary could take the form of a Michael Moore styled polemic or that many of them would continue to let their images and subjects speak for themselves? Do you think such a film could be made by a woman in Turkey?

RS: In the arts, and specifically in the circles of overtly politically engaged art, women have been generally more daring, confrontational and transgressive than men. Openly gay men have also been remarkably courageous. If a Michael Moore type figure were to emerge in Turkey, it’s more likely that a woman would embody that role than a man. When you watch Pelin Esmer’s The Play, you will have a more acute sense of my speculation. Belmin Soylemez’s political message is not surprising, it is part of her worldly position as a filmmaker, as well as her position as an politically engaged artist in Turkey. She, like the other filmmakers in this series, is not locked into a one-dimensional militant gender position. Their critical outlook and political identity is lucidly multi-layered, complex, variegated and sophisticated, they understand that misogyny is a manifestation of system predicated on social, economic and political exclusion of women, workers, and ethnic groups as well as state-enforced social conservatism and religiosity. They denounce injustice against women, deconstruct masculinity (as in Berke Bas’s Concrete Park), and bring the very taboo question of incest center stage (Ilksen Basarir’s Merry Go Round).

DS: All of the films being shown to some degree speak of the tenuousness of living in Turkey (even when talking about something as simple as a man’s moustache). Have any of these filmmakers gone on to make films outside the country and what is happening over there now that people should keep an eye on in the future?

RS: As far as I know, none have actually made films outside Turkey per se. Asli Ozge, director of Men on the Bridge, lives and works between Berlin and Istanbul, her new film, Lifelong, released this year after premiering at the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section, is set in Istanbul. However as far as I know, none of the filmmakers in the series have plans to leave Turkey to make films or find better sources of support for their artistic and professional pursuits.

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