Turkish cinema is known for its moody, Tarkovsky-inspired films, where the landscape plays an important role. Two offerings at the 41st edition of the Istanbul Film Festival take a look at different, one might say even opposing elements of this landscape: a heritage of roaming on camels’ backs, and a heritage of a people that laid stone foundations 2000 years ago. This is Anatolia, where the descendants of the nomadic Turks that arrived some 1000 years ago still roam the Taurus mountains, and where, down towards sea level there are temples dedicated to Apollo and Zeus.
The Last Birds of Passage is a narrative feature film by first-time director İffet Eren Danışman Boz who welcomed the viewers to the screening by saying "Please do not be too harsh on the film!" This film about the last few remaining nomads in Anatolia is clearly a labour of love for her. The lives of the nomads have become a minor cause célèbre in recent years, with forestry departments banning their passage, and corresponding campaigns to let them roam freely. This feature film reprises the themes that have been taken up by previous documentaries on the subject, such as the major conflict which is between the nomads and forestry authorities who believe that the nomads’ livestock damage the new saplings in the forest. And then there is the conflict between the old and the new generations of nomads, the old one here being represented by the matriarch who wants to take the animals to their next place of camp on foot, while the son wishes to use a tractor. We also get to see what happens to nomads that take up the municipality’s offer to live settled lives.
While most of the film confirms our worries about what may be happening to this endangered life style, there are also moments of self-reflection on the part of the director. What does it mean for urbanites to romanticize a lifestyle they only have a fleeting understanding of? There is a scene in which the children of neighbouring tents get together in a communal tent to watch the popular series Resurrection, about the first nomadic Turks that came to Anatolia. It is an ironic scene indeed -- a lifestyle that is presented on national TV as one we should return to so as to be a powerful nation again, now being harassed by government officials. It also reveals the pitfalls of romanticism for films like her own The Last Birds of Passage. The nomads of today are not the valiant founders of a new empire like in Resurrection, nor are they gurus of ‘natural living’ like some characters in the film want to make them out to be. They are our contemporaries with contemporary needs, and we need to find a way to look at them in their own light.
In The Last Birds of Passage now and then the camera shows us teasing views of the Mediterranean as seen from these mountains where the nomads are trying to make a living. The sea grounds the viewer, as we remember the story is taking place up in the mountains from where we hope to spend our holidays.
Koudelka: Crossing the Same River brings us to that lower altitude, to ancient cities with clearer views of the sea. Koudelka is another labour of love, this time a documentary by Turkish filmmaker Coşkun Acar who is fascinated with Czech-French photographer photographer Josef Koudelka’s work. Acar travelled with Koudelka for six years during his trips for the ‘Ruins’ project on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. They travelled some 6000 miles together and visited around 60 ancient cities. The documentary charts parts of this journey, and we listen to Koudelka talk about the power of light -- and how we all live in its jurisdiction.
The film is a nice catalogue of ancient cities you can visit in Turkey. I could hear members of the audience trying to guess -- often wrongly -- which city they were seeing on the screen. The filmmaker does not caption the ruins we see, except on few occasions. This falls in line with what we can glean about Koudelka’s philosophy when he gives an account of what it is that he is trying to capture with his photographs. He places the emphasis on the stones, and says it does not matter which ancient ruin he’s photographing, that it is the play of stone and light that he is interested in. One can easily sense his attachment to the ruins, for instance when he greets the relief of a Roman soldier at an amphitheatre -- they have clearly met a couple of times before. This is where the name of documentary comes from - the idea that Koudelka keeps crossing the same river, twice, even three times. But of course, as the old adage goes, it’s never the ‘same’ river and those repeated visits to a place pay off when it comes to photography. There are several moments in Koudelka when the film fades into the black and white photos taken by the photographer, inviting the viewer to make a distinction of tone between the two mediums, photography and the seventh art. At one point, trying to explain the beauty of an angle to the director, Koudelka takes the film camera into his own hands, and lets the viewer know that the film camera cannot match his own camera.
Although Koudelka says his focus is on the building materials and not the specific city he might be visiting, he can’t resist wondering about the people who lived their lives in these spaces. For Turkish audiences there is, on top of that conundrum, the problem of how to call these ruins their own, how to forge a connection between these places that were settled thousands of years ago, and the nomads roaming the highlands up the mountains.