Saturday, December 03, 2005

Post-Modern Turkish Cinema - Firecrackers in north East London

Turkish Cinema? – And the 9th London Turkish Film Festival (in 2001) in the Rio Cinema – Stoke Newington, not a ‘posh’ area of London, with total silence from the posh London newspapers, which cater for a moneyed middle-class readership, whatever that may mean… Their West-End 'Art-consuming’ classes would be frightened to visit ‘those areas’ even during the daylight hours, full of exotic Turkish restaurants, popular markets, and cheap goods sold cheaper even in brand-name supermarkets – not very different from the downmarket areas of New York reeking of middle-eastern kebabs-poverty…

The rat-colony visibly enjoying themselves on the grass elevations of the Stoke Newington train station could not be ‘ethnically cleansed’, according to the station-master, because the rats have wizened up to the nature of the warfarin poison that thins their blood to death (and is used in Ibuprofen tablets that millions of Britons take as painkillers…), so the local Council does not know what else to do to ‘genocide’ the Stoke Newington rat-packs backing the restaurants above them in the High road.

The presentational context apart, could ‘Turkish Cinema’ be defined as clearly as a Turkish Delight?

The concept surely does not even exist. Judging by what is offered on Turkish Television, according to a film-actor friend of mine who watches it occasionally – Vic Tablian (himself directed by no less than the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Alan Parker!), it is not even worth wasting time trying to ‘work it out’.

Not a single English professional film-critic writes about Turkish films – the critical situation had not changed by December 2004, the 12th year of the festival (and that of 2005 has not taken place yet) – no wonder I was as ignorant about it as the London critics, until my Turkish friends (Akgul and Cahit Baylav) had popped the Booklet-programme in the mailbox. A joke, Vic Tablian thought, and would not be persuaded to see any of the films with me.

What a shock I experienced when in 2001, I saw three of the films in a single day – three superb art-films, enough to announce to the whole world that Turkish Cinema had indeed arrived, was well-born and could be clearly defined with its own definitive features, a new powerful force to be reckoned with, in the arena of international serious film-making.

O Da Beni Seviyor (“Summer Love” / Dir: Baris Pirhasan) tackles the classical predicament of town and country, peasant folk fighting for their outdated way of life against the encroachments of urbanization, the children of farmers leaving derelict lands and oppressive societies behind (where everybody is in everybody’s business) for the anonymity of the sordid freedoms (mostly sexual) big cities offer and people long for.

Esma, a startlingly tall 12 years old in virginal submission is packed by her parents off to friends in the country, for a bit of clean air and practical education. It is the summer of 1973, and the landscape in Malatya (South-East of present day Turkey, or ancient Armenia) looks still wholesome, healthy, ravishingly beautiful – a Paradise if ever there was one, with its brooks and mulberry trees and incredible colours, as rich as the palette of a Titian. All praise to the remarkable tastes of the Armenian lady, the costume designer, whose name alas I could not download into my memory from the rolling credits.

Esma is plunged into this outwardly most divinely beautiful open-hearted world, magnificently clothed, but populated mostly by horrible old women, occasionally middle-aged tarts in heat, rarely young and pregnant, all guarding unspeakable secrets, like the Cicilian Mafiosi. Sentences are always incomplete, and what is said is mostly half-spoken, half-muttered. An incredibly oppressive matriarchal world, where women prettily dressed are the landowners and the fruit-gatherers and the food-makers and the guardians of all secrets, where the men just about manage to throw minor tantrums while being the object of women’s secret sexual desires. The young men occasionally explode into drunken violence just to remind themselves of their social existence. The older men concoct for themselves some social worth by going theological! Forming their own secret (Sufi) society where, like women, they sing and dance and play the Turkish lute. I doubt if any radical Lesbian feminist film-director could express the dark mysteries of an emasculating matriarchal society better. Perhaps it does need the male distance to give it its true worth.

The husband of the elegant tart from Ankara, Saliha, the black sheep of the family, finally turns up (at the end of the film) to demand his piece of the financial cake from the intended sale of the land – a land which anyway was more or less snatched by the family from the Armenian natives who, to escape genocide (this cause is not mentioned in the film) had fled to America (mentioned as a fact in the film, and very cleverly integrated by the Director into the story line with the implication that the absconding woman was another black-sheep member of the clan, which technically speaking makes the confiscation of her land legitimate and necessary…)

The money-obsessed husband (a living symbol of urban capitalism and globalisation) was gossiped as dead, and his menopausal Ankara wife in mourning, needed some comforting in the bosom of the peasant family. When the husband unexpectedly returns from Germany in his silly little car, he is violently attacked and viciously wounded in the paradise of the family forests, having disturbed their picnic and the children’s play – an ethnic version of cricket with sticks.

The complexities of Pirhasan’s film are delightfully endless. There is of course the mandatory love-interest, Esma falling in love with the village Beau, who is in love with the menopausal city-tart who uses Esma for her own ends while simultaneously initiating her into the female rites of passage – dressing and making-up, discovering menstruation, blowing the first kiss etc.

There is the evil boy in the village, labelled “The Fox”, and definitely symbolizing Satan in this matriarchal paradise, constantly on the prowl and lurking around the forbidden excursions of Esma, who is no village doormat, but a feminist Istambul tom-boy, engages the Fox in physical combat and wins!

The editing of the film is fast and occasionally appropriately furious. The theme-music on the violins is hauntingly sad, romantically mournful and very catching.

Baris Pirhasan, the Director, seems to be undoubtedly referencing Paradjanov’s most famous ethnic film NRRAN GOOYNE (=The Colour of the Pomegranate) with its trademark aerial long shots of moving sheep (in Paradjanov – A symbol of the Innocent – God’s lambs as sacrifices sent to genocidal slaughter).

Amongst all this impressive achievement, I could not understand why the outdoor shots in the city at the beginning of the film (for about five minutes) were unacceptably amateur, shot without creative lighting, in natural light, as if with a digital camcorder.

Herkes Kendi Evinde (“Away From Home” / Dir: Semih Kaplanoglu) shares the same thematic obsessions with O Da Beni Seviyor. I wonder if the two Directors are friends and frequent the same intellectual café-society. But no two films could be more different in the expressive means they employ to tackle the same predicaments. Equally, they represent the two aspects of Turkish cinema (1) the ethnic (Eastern), with quaint peasant customs and costumes, and (2) the modernist, urban and urbane, suffering from the existentialist angst of the European Intelligentsia. Forgotten are the miserable wretched lives of the ultra-poor of the Italian neo-Realism.

Selim (Tolga Cevik) is a thoroughly post-modern sensitive young man, with an affluent foul-mouthed feminist girl-friend who demands her pound of flesh every time! No wonder Selim suffers from a premature male menopause. To survive it, he decides to play the lottery of winning US citizenship, answering one of those notorious US government ads published globally. Incredibly, he wins it. Nevertheless, he needs money (and an excuse to free himself of the bondage to his virile girl-friend) to reach New York, his “hobby” – expressed to an American academic he bumps into in a Bar, who is surprised at Selim’s intimate knowledge of the New York map.

Out of the blue, a letter arrives announcing the immediate appearance of Nasuhi – a long lost uncle from of all places Russia. He arrives with no more than a back-pack, a distinguished old man, professorial (his back-pack contains books, and the last Soviet apple!), with a voice that echoes the depths of the very earth he treads on doing his daily Tai Chi, or sits on to do his Yoga asanas (postures). Nasuhi has come to die in his ancestral village home drowned in olive groves, a country property Selim had almost forgotten he had inherited from his late parents.

Meanwhile a separate saga weaves its way creeping slowly close to Selim’s destiny. A most beautiful young Russian girl, Olga, tall as a super model, from the dregs of the defunct Soviet Union (beautifully played by a Polish actress Anna Bielska) waits everyday on the shores of Bosporus, in her hands – the photograph of her father – the captain (ex Red Army) of a mysterious Russian ship – hoping that someone would recognize him, and lead her to him, even to the ends of the world, as she hates her multiply-married mother back home. Olga finally finds out that her father has gone to Australia. She needs 200 dollars to purchase an airline ticket. Broken, devastated, desperate, hungry, homeless, resisting thoughts of prostitution (tries to sell her camera and handbag nobody wants to buy), Olga pleads in tears with the local Russian priest (played by an Armenian actor – I think actually also the cinematographer of the film) to lend her the money. All the Orthodox priest can do is to offer her… prayers. In a powerful dialogue, in a makeshift Church, Olga calls on the Priest to drag his God through the recently developed Russian market place in Istanbul, teeming with Russian prostitutes, to let God witness human misery first hand.

The same night, Olga dresses up in a mini-skirt, forcing herself to sell her body, but determined that it would be only and only for this once, for the 200 dollars she needs desperately.

And in a most remarkable slow-motion sequence (in time, bound to become a most famous sequence in world cinema), the camera picks up a long shot of Olga’s body thrown on the muddy ground – long legs in white stockings, high heeled brown boots covered in muck, tattered leather coat stuck like boiled skin on a stony wall, and an airplane taking flight. Obviously, a rapist has done his worst near the airport in Istanbul.

The heartbreak of the scene when Olga tries to get up and cannot is such that, one wishes with all the Lesbian feminists of the world that all the male rapists of the world be butchered and turned to dog meat and cat food!

Enter the magnificent Nasuhi, old but virile, gentle but powerful, helps the struggling Olga to get up and walk proud again. While Hollywood (and under its influence, Television in our countries of the West) is beginning to glorify Prostitution as some kind of great and profitable Californian fun for women (a most despicable and dangerous social development), the director Kaplanoglu thank god still promotes the old Marxist view of Prostitution as a most wretched evil of capitalism, an outrageous socio-economic exploitation worth no less than a socially cleansing Revolution.

Nasuhi is an old-style Leninist Communist – a loner, though not by choice. In a memorable sequence, when Nasuhi first reaches the village square of his childhood, at night time, the rain pelting down, in an aerial long shot, an old dog is shown slowly walking towards him, diagonally from the left corner of the screen. The dog stops screen-centre for a moment, in the deserted square signposted with blood red Turkish flags, stares at Nasuhi and walks on.

Dedicated to the most humane of political ideologies, the communist Nasuhi is really almost a perfect Christian/Muslim – totally compassionate, honest, totally truthful, totally forgiving. In a profoundly moving scene in a restaurant in Istanbul, Nasuhi forgives unconditionally, without the slightest recrimination, the friend (named Kemal – am sure referencing Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and incredibly also of the Turkish Communist Party for which he was rewarded by Lenin with a pot of pure Gold) who had betrayed him as a communist to the Turkish fascist authorities – Ataturk had then persecuted his former comrades – an inhuman act that had forced Nasuhi to escape to the Soviet Union, only alas to be sent further to the Stalinist Gulag.

Nasuhi’s dignity intact, now in his ancestral dilapidated home in Anatolia, he sets to work, like the untiring communist that he is, to rebuild the broken stone house from the roof down, re-cultivating the parched land. All of which make no sense to Selim, his young nephew, who secretly sells the lot to Istanbul property-developers, with the proceeds buys a bungalow in the city for his uncle, with a little back garden to let him raise some chicken! With the rest of the money he wants to pursue his American dream by immigrating into the USA.

Predictably, Nasuhi declines the offer, Olga absconds with the money, the developers bulldoze the just-repaired house, and Selim goes to rot in New York.

The film ends with Nasuhi, back-packed as when we first saw him arrive in Istanbul, with the strange gawky gait of an honest communist, leaving his land, disappearing into the groves and the sunset. Will he be back one day bringing his true communism back from the horizon? It is tragic that such totally perfect men (my own Armenian father was one) with no perceptible mundane evil attached to them, should have been eliminated from history so soon by the forces of capitalist evil.

I was certain that the actor of Nasuhi was a rare Russian actor in the best traditions of Stanislavsky’s art, with the miraculous skill of total focus and concentration of energies on the role he sculpts so life-likely. There is nothing like it in the history of the British theatre – strong, weighty, powerful realism, often more natural than Life’s reality itself. Even the best of British acting exemplified by the craft of greats like Olivier and Gielgud contains a lot of forgettable camp nonsense.

I was stunned to discover that this very great actor of Nasuhi was Turkish, Erol Keskin. He is worth the whole of the Hollywood film industry – a unique textbook display of true acting (whatever that may mean!) unsurpassed. I could see the film a dozen times for it.

There is only one other such actor in Russia still on stage, Armen Jikiarkhanian, the Armenian film star of many Soviet films. He could have been Keskin’s unique model. Keskin’s portrayal of Nasuhi constantly reminded me of Jikiarkhanian. Curiously, the Soviet cinema could never create (and god knows how many times it tried and failed) the character of the ideal visionary communist – idealistic, humanistic, dedicated honestly to the creation of the ideal society for the happiness of all mankind. It is quite an incredible feat, a miraculous coup de theatre that this achievement should occur in the Turkish cinema, in this film by Kaplanoglu, in the portrayal of Erol Keskin’s Nasuhi. It is a gem of a polished diamond, the sight of which produces a profound emotional experience – an abstract ideal (like Compassion) made perfectly real, felt in the blood veins, in the bones.

The pity of it is that the Director, Kaplanoglu has chosen an episodic style of editing which gives the film occasionally a stagy texture, and some slack in pace, in spite of its perfect cinematography by the Armenian Hayk Kirakossian.

However, Keskin’s monumental portrayal of the honest communist, although Stanislavskian but never stagy, makes you forget all technical faults. It is equally remarkable that it never overshadows the totally modernist style of acting by Bielska and Cevik – the most unlikely characters ever to come together by Chance, and in a film.

Guzel Bir Gun (“A fine Day” : Dir : Thomas Arslan, Germany 2000) is a wonderful example of a 3rd category in Turkish cinema – the films made in the Turkish Diaspora, meant primarily the 2 million Turks living and working in Germany.

The Armenian Diaspora spread throughout the world was created as a direct result of the genocide perpetrated on the Armenians in Turkey by the Young Turk government in 1915, the allies of Germany in the First World War, and under the German military command. The Turkish Diaspora in Germany on the other hand, was created by Turkish economic migrants, and Germany’s voracious need of industrial manpower decimated by the two World Wars, instigated by no less than their own (German) governments.

Arslan’s film is advertised as the final part of a Berlin trilogy. Although self-contained, it is strange that the other two parts were not also on show in the Festival.

Deniz (Florian Stetter) is an unusually tall Turkish female born in Germany. Imagine a Giacometti sculpture being alive. She walks lithely and endlessly all over Berlin, catching the different machines of the Berlin Public transport. I like the haunting metaphor of Deniz being on a life-journey (what made the French actor Jean Paul Belmondo famous in films directed by Jean Luc Goddard), pulled in and out of stations, with the directorial dolly-camera speeding out of long shots on train tracks.

Deniz is a feminist bit-actress, has no hesitation in breaking off with her long-time boy friend, a German university-student, and because she is bored and thinks that he is good for nothing. Deniz has no problems with chasing men on the tubes, of course discreetly.

Such a young man she eventually corners turns out to be… Portugese, and a music editor on the radio. They are undoubtedly attracted to one another. Incredibly, they happen to be also neighbours. She tells him she has just left her boy friend, this very day. He tells her that his long term girl-friend will be returning tomorrow from a year’s scholarship in America. Deniz of course is not a slut, presumably still inhibited by her Turkish background, does the honourable thing and restrains herself from sleeping with him, who in turn is honourable and would not dream of forcing himself on her. They both part amicably, for Deniz to target another handsome young man travelling on the tube some seats away from her. At least he is smiley, and one feels that he won’t leave all the hard work of getting together to Deniz alone.

The film ends with some implied hope of a good relationship for Deniz, whatever that may mean in her feminist dictionary. She had just met a German female in a café asking her for a cigarette and a light, and who turns out to be a feminist lecturer, lecturing her about how post-modernist understanding of Sex defines it as a social construct, lacking any special significance, and being no more than a socio-social survival need – like eating and pissing.

During the film, Deniz had also visited her Turkish born and bred mother, carrying her laundry there. In a highly original sequence of a tragic dialogue, the mother speaks in Turkish as the daughter answers in German (something most ‘foreigners’ in a culture recognize), we are given the old folks’ philosophy of Love back home, which of course contrasts dramatically with that of the German feminist lecturer. Deniz, as a modernist, is keen that her middle-aged mother finds herself a new sexual partner to console her loneliness caused by her father’s death. She cannot understand why her mother idealizes now her relationship with her father, as she remembers how (and makes sure that the mother remembers it too) they would have violent arguments, father even hitting the mother, whose explanation that Love grows, need not be all there from the start, falls on Deniz’s deaf ears, while her feminist sister, who Deniz had just met en passant in a train Station for a Chinese meal had told her she was pregnant, and although happy with her boyfriend, and certain he would welcome the news, was determined to abort it, because her pregnancy would interfere with her brilliant career…

The French flavour of art-cinema is everywhere in Arslan’s film. I liked the Frenchy humour of pre-pubescent sexuality (the ‘paedophiliac’ trademark of French art-cinema) in a scene where three underage Turkish boys in the neighbourhood give themselves airs of being the tough guardian angels of the neighbourhood (defending it presumably from the local neo-nazi racists). They are waiting on a public bench for Deniz, to accompany her home. One of them can no more contain the effect of his hormones and involuntarily blurts out, “hey, actress, I want to sleep with you”, only to win Deniz’s shocked scorn and a good hiding from his boss, the slightly older gang leader.

The Director is obviously enamoured of the French director Rohmer’s work (because of its sexual trademark?). Deniz in the film is dubbing Rohmer’s Conte D’ete into German. Bresson and Jean-Luc Goddard equally flood Arslan’s film, and unfortunately in the end drown it. I could no more bear the characters’ Bressonean style flat unemotional, unrelentingly boring, rendering of human speech, which in the context of the old French films spoken by the singing undulating tones of Comedie Francaise actors, was refreshing and revolutionary in the films of Bresson. It is a technique past its useful date, even in post nouvelle-vague French cinema.

The out of focus backgrounds in Arslan’s film also suggests out of date cameras and poor man’s budgets, which is strange coming from generous German subsidies. I shall be looking forward to the day when Arslan forgets all about French cinema and finds his own talented voice.

To conclude, Turkish cinema with its serious tackling of socio-economic issues and historical memory displays an extraordinary political courage, even greater than that of the bravehearts of the last days of the Soviet cinema – Paradjanov and his disciple Tarkosvky. May the Turkish cineastes survive longer for the greater glory of world- cinema!


At 9:58 AM, Blogger kris said...

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