The 42nd edition of Istanbul Film Festival has wrapped up

And Nagihan Haliloğlu brings her insider's view into the long-running Turkish festival, complete with a sense of the atmosphere on the ground in a country that has suffered through deeply traumatic events, and yet still finds a way to go on loving cinema.
The 42nd edition of Istanbul Film Festival has wrapped up

Once again this year, the two holy periods in Istanbul of Ramadan and the Istanbul Film Festival coincided, with mixed results. The country is still trying to recover from the devastation of the earthquakes, so both these festive seasons have been somewhat muted this year. There were still several highlights, especially one pulled by the French Consulate: they brought in Annie Ernaux to speak of her film, The Super 8 Years.

The reintroduction of the French Consulate into the festival program has been very welcomed indeed. The consulate has an unassuming basement theatre, and you know you will be introduced to interesting characters and stories in the intimacy of this space. The venue hosts films from the francophone world and/or films that have benefited from French film funds, and you can imagine with this criteria they cast a very wide net.

Among films that were shown here was Fyzal Boulifa’s The Damned Don’t Cry, about the misadventures of a son and a mother who try to make a living by selling whatever they can find, including their bodies. The film teeters on becoming poverty porn, but the cinematography and the music is so atmospheric, and at times counterintuitive, that it manages to keep the audience’s attention throughout. Aicha Tebbae who plays the mother commands every scene she is in, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of her.

Another Francophone, malgre soi, film was Sofia Alaoui’s Animalia, which starts as a mirror image of The Damned Don’t Cry, scenes of wealth porn, shots of the interior of the villa of very wealthy Moroccans. The son of the family is about the clinch a deal with Europeans for a chicken farm and accordingly speaks in French with his beautiful young wife, who always answers with a Berber inflicted Arabic. We understand that she was not the first choice of her mother in law, and through an apocalyptic event she gets in touch with her roots -- not just Berber but further beyond. It’s a beautifully crafted film that seems to promise more than it delivers but it feels like a very good beginning for a new wave of Moroccan sci-fi features.

Interesting to note that both these Moroccan films had Turkish cultural artefacts as markers of hedonism: a Tarkan song and a Turkish TV drama.

The French Consulate pick that I enjoyed the most however was Ramzi Ben Sliman’s Neneh Superstar (pictured in the header above). The film follows the story of a talented French Black girl who, despite her parents’ reservations, applies to ballet school and gets in, despite the skepticism of some instructors on the committee. We see her bring her own zest to the formalized rules and methods of ballet. When it comes to the selection for Snow White for an end of the year show, things come to a head with her white peers and the one ice-cold instructor whose blatant racism is later revealed to come from a very dark place indeed.

The main venue for the festival is the Atlas theatre, where several screenings were followed with Q&As with the directors and/or actors. This included a Q&A with the cast of Juraj Lerotic’s Safe Place (winner of the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2022) and for which I did not stay because the film, following the continued disappearances and graphic suicide attempts of a young man whose brother and mother desperately try to save him, had put me in a very dark place for its 2 hours length already.

A Q&A I did stay for was  with Teona Strugar Mitevska, the director of The Happiest Man in the World. I am glad I went into this film not knowing much, having only seen a still depicting a speed dating scene. One does, naturally, wonder how and when the 90s war will appear into the story in any film set in Sarajevo, but not quite what a jittery man, played by Adnan Omerovic says to a hopeful woman (played by Jelena Kordic Kuret) in her 40s in The Happiest Man in the World. Omerovic is haunting as a war veteran, and in the Q&A, Mitevska explained how she knew she had the right actor when she saw his face. The audience, somewhat understandably, asked questions about the truth and reconciliation processes in Bosnia rather than the filming process itself. Underlining that she was the ‘only’ one involved in the film who had not experienced the Bosnian conflict at first hand, she said as a Macedonian she knew well the fall out of such conflict.

While the winner of the national competition was Ayşe Polat’s German-Turkish production Im Toten Winkel, which was also in the Berlinale selection, the international jury special prize went to  Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir, about a Ukrainian family trying to make ends meet by smuggling contraband at the Romanian-Ukrainian border. It’s a film that almost passes the Bechdel test for Putin and takes its strength from depicting life in the mountain villages. It’s the second film I’ve seen this year that makes Eastern-European frightening mask wearing folk festivals a set piece, and I must say I am partial to Cristian Mungiu’s depiction in R.M.N.

It could be argued that streaming services that show European and independent films have affected the numbers of cinema goers who will make time to brave Istanbul traffic to go downtown to watch films at the theatre. However, it is always a pleasure to recognize faces that have been coming to the festival year after year in the several foyers, as well as students for whom cheap tickets have been made available. That secret brother and sister-hood of cinephiles who will continue the tradition of the pilgrimage, despite the difficulties of our troubled times will throw at them.

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