Saturday, October 20, 2007

Spotlight on Turkey

pics from Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul

Turkey has always fascinated me ever since I first learned of the nation via history books -- Constantinople was always an interesting city given its geographical location as being a link city between Europe and Asia. And it is nice to see that present day Istanbul still occupies a measure of that charm. But Turkey is more than just Istanbul. Even though looking at Turkish soccer and cinema, one can be forgiven for not looking beyond Istanbul as the league soccer is dominated by the three teams from Turkey's largest city (Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe & Beşiktaş) and most movies shot in Turkey feature the required shots of the gorgeous Bosphorus river and the impressive Hagi Sophia. I can't any remember any features shot exclusively in Turkey's capital, Ankara.

In political terms, Istanbul may be responsible for all future decisions but it is events in the country-side and other Turkish cities that may force a change. Orhan Pamuk's engaging book, Snow, may be a work of fiction but recent political events have mimicked the novel's tale and show that what happens outside of Istanbul can't be discounted if Turkey is to move ahead.

In that regards, my idea to feature a spotlight on Turkey was to find topics/themes that looked at life both inside and outside of Istanbul.


One moves to a big city in the hopes of a better future. As it happens often, such a change is difficult to navigate -- the big city is not very welcoming and offers very little in terms of housing and jobs. A person can struggle to find their feet.

Such is the case of Yusuf in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's poetic 2002 film Distant. He comes to Istanbul in search of a job and stays with his cousin, Mahmut. But Yusuf struggles to find a job, although he is not very enthusiastic about trying to find work anyhow. The movie touches upon the topic of loneliness as that is what a big city can induce in a person.

Both Mahmut and Yusuf can't communicate their feelings. In fact, Mahmut goes to great lengths to hide his real interests and alienate Yusuf. There are some amazingly realistic scenes where Mahmut wants Yusuf to leave the room so that he can watch tv in peace.

And this gorgeous film features the only cinematic shots I have seen of Istanbul covered in snow.

In Yesim Ustaoglu's 1999 feature Journey to the Sun Mehmet also heads to the city in order to find work.

But over there, he is mistaken as a terrorist and put in jail. When he is released from jail, he finds himself a marked man and can't resume his normal life. He returns home to find a giant "X" on the door. His room-mates urge him to leave as they don't want to stay with such a person.

Even when Mehmet heads to a motel with his girlfriend, the symbol follows him.

***Spoiler notes:*** Tired of the big city, Mehmet heads out to the country-side to his only real friend's (Berzan) house. But Berzan is a kurd and political events lead to his death. In order to fulfill Berzan's last wishes, Mehmet takes Berzan's body back to his home village of Zorduc. But Mehmet is shocked to find the village flooded (aside: these images of a flooded village reminded me of Jia Zhang Ke's Still Life).

The political mark:

The topic of the Kurdish issue make this a relevant movie given current events in Turkey. The movie shows how Kurds are treated as second class citizens and have to live a marked life. One of the film's most striking sequence is when Mehmet is getting closer to the Kurdish region of Turkey. He comes across villages in ruins but his eyes can't miss the red "X" sign on the shattered walls. So it does not matter if it is a village or a city, the sign of the outsider can't let a person live in peace.


Hamams form a well known Turkish symbol and a thing to do during a visit. Ferzan Ozpetek's 1997 feature Hamam centers around the charm and exotic pull that a traditional Hamam holds for Francesco, an Italian man of Turkish origin. Francesco only returns back to Istanbul to sell his dead aunt's assets and properties, one of which was a shut down Hamam. But Francesco finds love & peace amid the Hamam and the Turkish air starts to breathe new life into him.


Music plays an important part of any culture's identity. Turkey has always had a rich musical background thanks to its location between Asia and Europe. Fatih Akin's well made documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul shows the modern sounds that echo throughout Istanbul from classical music to Turkish rap, hip-hop and fusion music. Even though the music in Istanbul is a central focus, the documentary reaches out to give a glimpse of the music that resonates throughout the nation. And the film also gives an insight into how the struggles that Kurdish culture had in trying to keep their music alive.

Everyday life:

Reha Erdem's calm and peaceful film Times and Winds showcases the everyday life in a small Turkish village. Life in the village is shown through the passage of the changing seasons and through the different time shifts in a day such as morning, afternoon and evening.

Old traditions:

As Turkey moves towards modernity, conflict will arise because of old traditions. Abdullah Oguz's emotional film Bliss showcases the struggle a military man has to go through to acknowledge his love for a village woman against tradition and his father's wishes. The movie also features the memorable lines "Every Turk is born a soldier" and shows the military side of Turkish life.

A magical romantic tale:

One can find the seeds of Edge of Heaven in Fatih Akin's 2000 film In July. Like Edge of Heaven, In July starts in Germany and ends in Turkey and features overlapping romantic tales. While Edge of Heaven had a serious tone to the film, In July is a magical romantic story. All the coincidences in the script can be forgiven if one buys into the film's portrayal of emotional victory of love winning over any rational explanations. The story feels a bit like Paulo Coelho's amazing journey tale The Alchemist. In July also features the romantic appeal that Turkey has to outsiders.

Overall ratings:

  • Distant (2002, Nuri Bilge Ceylan): Rating 9.5/10
  • Bliss (2007, Greece/Turkey, Abdullah Oguz): Rating 9.5/10
  • Times and Winds (2006, Reha Erdem): Rating 9/10
  • Journey to the Sun (1999, Yesim Ustaoglu): Rating 8.5/10
  • Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005, Fatih Akin): Rating 8.5/10
  • In July (2000, Fatih Akin): Rating 8/10
  • Hamam (1997, Ferzan Ozpetek): Rating 7.5/10
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