It’s film festival time

Highlights of the 34th Istanbul Film Festival

By Victoria Khroundina | April 2, 2015

My favourite time of the year – Istanbul Film Festival time – is almost here! For two whole weeks, cinephiles can binge on more than 200 films from 62 countries, screened at nine cinemas, with the festival delivering yet another scintillating programme for its 34th year. Here’s a round-up of the films I’ll be watching.

Thirteen films compete in the International Golden Tulip Competition and although most hail – as usual – from Europe, there is greater diversity, countrywise, this year. One is even from Turkey and another is a Turkish/German production; the former is Murat Düzgünoğlu’s new film Why Cant I Be Tarkovsky and the latter is Ben Hopkins’s Yearning, set in Istanbul and a metaphor for the destruction of parts of the city. Also of interest are Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Phillip, about a neurotic writer in New York, and Star, from the Russian-Armenian director Anna Melikyan, dubbed a ‘classic Cinderella romance set in a big city’. B-movie fans will appreciate Quentin Dupieux’s surrealist comedy, Reality, while literature buffs have the new film by the renowned Hong Kong director Ann Hui to look forward to. In The Golden Era (below), Hui tells the story of the progressive novelist Xiao Hong against the backdrop of China’s turbulent 1930s.

Since 2007 the festival has been presenting the Film Award of the Council of Europe (FACE) to a film which raises awareness on human rights issues around the world. This year ten films compete in this category, with subject matter ranging from migrants in sub-Saharan Africa in Boris Lojkine’s Hope; to refugees in Oslo in Letter to the King; from female soloists in Iran in No Land’s Song; to a story of living honestly in a corrupt society in Yury Bykov’s third feature, The Fool. Also competing is the Turkish/German production Song of My Mother (below), which recently played at the New York Turkish Film Festival and has already garnered awards at numerous European festivals. It tells the story of a young teacher, Ali, living with his ageing mother, Nigar, in Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı district, home to many Kurdish immigrants since the 1990s. Nigar is convinced that her old neighbours have all moved back to their village in Eastern Turkey and every morning packs her belongings and sets out to do the same.
What’s really great about this festival is the number and diversity of Turkish films it screens: this year, there are over 40 releases – features, docos, shorts, classics – and the programme really highlights the richness and growth of the country’s cinema. Nine features compete in the National Competition, including Mehmet Eryılmaz’s The Visitor, a look into a mother-daughter relationship; Selim Evci’s Secret, about an ageing musician’s affair with his daughter’s friend; and Tolga Karaçelik’s Ivy, a story of hierarchical relationships set in the world of ship ports. Two films are set in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup d’état: Barış Atay’s Lack, and Faruk Hacıhafızoğlu’s Snow Pirates (below), although the setting seems to be the only similarity between them. There’s also a substantial list of documentaries, with migration and urban-versus-rural life the most popular topics. I’m looking forward to Trans* But, the latest film from Maria Binder, who won the FACE Special Mention last year with Trans X İstanbul, focusing on transgender rights in Turkey. Hey Neighbour! tackles urban transformation in the country in recent years and is sure to get the blood boiling. There will also be two special screenings of Idil Biret: The Portrait Of A Child Prodigy at Istanbul Modern on April 8 at 5pm and 7pm, with the participation of the renowned pianist.
The Akbank Galas category includes films being premiered in Turkey, most of them hailingl from the States and the UK. Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of the pulp novel Inherent Vice; Matthew Warchus’ heart-warming tale of the friendship that develops between miners and the LGBT community in 1984 England, Pride (below); and the French master director François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend should not be missed. A Most Violent Year is a decent crime drama set in 1980s New York.
One of my favourite categories is the Masters category, which, true to its name, incudes films by master directors. Highlights this year include the Dutch-Australian director Rolf De-Heer’s Charlie’s Country, about the treatment of Aboriginals by the Australian government (spoiler alert: it’s disgusting); the British director Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which tells the story of the director’s idol Sergei Eisenstein at the peak of his self-realisation and sexual awakening; The Postman's White Nights by one of Russia’s greats, Andrei Konchalovsky (the only director to rival Andrey Zvyagintsev, though Konchalovsky’s films are a little less depressing); and the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President (below), which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Murder in Pacot, telling the story of a wealthy couple’s life devastated by the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, is a surprising – and welcome – addition.
Another interesting category is ‘From the world of festivals’, which showcases highlights from recent international festivals, in turn reflecting current trends in world cinema. There are a whopping 24 films in this category and I’m especially looking forward to the Cuban director Ernesto Daranas Serrano’s coming-of-age tale, Behaviour (below), which will be screened at the opening gala tomorrow evening. Mario Martone’s Leopardi, a biographical tale of the 19th-century poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, earned its star, Elio Germano, the Best Yong Actor gong at Venice. Alberto Rodríguez’s film noir thriller Marshland, set in the Andalucian wetlands, swept awards at San Sebastian and Goya. And the South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s latest, Hill of Freedom, was a hit at Southeast Asian festivals.
Films in the documentary category cover themes as diverse as photography and cinema, politics, music, war, football, domestic violence, the energy industry and espionage. The big one is Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s compelling documentary about the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in February. Other highlights include the Palestinian director Ibtisam Mara’s Write Down, I’m an Arab, an intimate portrait of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Virunga looks at the fate of the Virunga National Park in Congo, threatened by armed rebel groups. And National Gallery (below) is a fly-on-the-wall look into London’s biggest museum and is sure to excite art lovers.
There’s also a number of smaller, thematic categories, including ‘Mined Zone’, which includes experimental and unusual films; ‘Antidepressant’, featuring comedy and humorous films; ‘Midnight Madness’, which will interest horror buffs; ‘Family Ties’, which includes films about family; and ‘New Visions’, which comprises films by young, critically-acclaimed directors. (In this category, I can recommend Melbourne (below), of which I received a preview copy, and in which I was interested largely because it is named after my hometown. The synopsis says it is about a young Iranian couple migrating to Melbourne, but if you’re expecting a light tale of migration this film is not for you. Tragedy strikes in the first 20 minutes, resulting in a heavy but well-made film). There’s also a programme concentrating on Balkan cinema, and as 2015 marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide, a special section, ‘Hundred years of pain’, will screen two films about Armenians in Turkey. Surprisingly, Fatih Akin’s The Cut didn’t make the cut (but then again, it has already has a release in Turkey). 
Tickets are now available from Biletix. I strongly advise booking in advance, especially for films in the International Competition, National Competition, Akbank Galas and Masters categories. Screenings at 11am, 1.30pm and 4pm don’t usually sell out (but you never know) and tickets for these are priced at just TL5. The IKSV website also has a list of cafés and restaurants that give a 10–15% discount if you present your ticket stubs. Oh and perhaps most importantly, all Turkish films have English subtitles and all international films have Turkish and English subtitles.
A note on the venues: conveniently, most are located near each other in Beyoğlu. Four are within a few minutes’ walk of Taksim: the French Cultural Centre at İstiklâl Caddesi 4, Akbank Sanat at No 8, the Beyoğlu Cinema in the Halep arcade at No 62, and the Atlas Cinema at No 131. At the Tünel end of İstiklâl are the auditorium of the Pera Museum on Meşrutiyet Caddesi (which runs parallel to İstiklal from the British Consulate past the Pera Palace Hotel) and Salon IKSV in Şişhane. Just below Beyoğlu, a ten-minute, steep downhill walk, is Istanbul Modern in Tophane. CityLife Cinema, inside the City’s complex on Teşvikiye Caddesi in Nişantaşı, is not on the venues list this year for some reason, and good riddance too. I’d much rather watch a film in a smaller independent cinema or at an art institution than step inside the lacquered surroundings of this monstrous shopping centre. Further afield there are screenings at the Feriye Cinema, just before you reach Ortaköy and the First Bosphorus Bridge on the European shore of the Bosphorus; and on the Anatolian shore, the Rexx Cinema in Kadıköy. Take the boat from Eminönü, Karaköy or Beşiktaş if you are based on the European shore, and make an evening of it;  we'd suggest combining it with fish and meze at Moda’s Koço meyhane – see Asia Fantasia, Cornucopia 52.

The festival starts on Saturday (April 4) and continues until Sunday, April 19. Click here to book hotels.

Main image shows a still from Quentin Dupieux Reality.

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