A film about Istanbul by Ben Hopkins

By Emma Harper | October 9, 2015

Considering the popularity of Filmekimi, it was nothing short of a miracle that I could secure a ticket to Yearning (Hasret in Turkish). Many of the festival’s film screenings are sold out within hours of tickets going on sale, to the point that extra screenings of the most popular films – Mustang, anyone? – are added in haste. I was especially surprised to find seats available for this particular film, a meta-documentary of sorts directed by Ben Hopkins that follows him in his efforts to shoot a television documentary about Istanbul. In the sea of foreign films at Filmekimi, those made by Turkish directors or on the subject of Turkey are a rare and precious few.

The city of Istanbul is a popular subject, and it's not difficult to see why. Time-lapse shots of Istiklal Caddesi and the Bosphorus, aerial footage of the Golden Horn, a lingering shot of the sun setting as the call to prayer echoes in the background – travel porn, for lack of a better word. It’s what sells. It’s also what brings the film crew in Yearning to the city: a small television station in Germany has hired Hopkins and his crew to make a touristic piece on Istanbul, or so we are told.

This is our entrance to the film – there are the requisite time-lapse videos of the crowds and the glittering Bosphorus – but it soon becomes clear that the interests of Hopkins, who is leading the film crew and is also our narrator, lie elsewhere: rubbish, cats, resistance, urban development, Alevis in the neighbourhoods of Küçük Armutlu and Gazi. These subjects, which often capture the interest and attention of the international and local media, are presented as tangents. Hopkins admits that he has only taken this job because he couldn’t find anything else after a long period of depression. While he can shoot Istanbul in the way the television station wants, he prefers to document a different side of the city.

At this point, as we begin to follow the director on these alternative paths, it’s not clear where the film is heading. Each new subject of interest is separated from the others with a title slide, giving the narrative a disjointed feeling. There are both serious inquiries and irreverent asides that elicit laughter from the audience, making it difficult to discern the tone. It seems like we’re at the mercy of our intrepid director; yet whatever the film lacks in focus and tone is more than made up by the clean and crisp camerawork that makes Istanbul, warts and all, shine without being overly stylised.

We are introduced to undocumented Afghan and Kurdish workers who are looking for construction work under the table, and there are hints that the film may focus on unregistered aliens in Istanbul, those people who manage to live under the radar but still in plain view. But then, in a clunky transition, we are introduced to out of work theatre workers, one of whom is Faruk Korkmaz, an artist, actor and self-proclaimed historian.

It's the eccentric Korkmaz, with his big halo of white hair framed by swirling pipe smoke, who becomes the lodestar for our slowly unravelling narrator. Korkmaz asks Hopkins what the film is about, and our narrator cuts to tell us that he’s asking himself the same thing. He tells Korkmaz that the film is about Istanbul, to which Korkmaz replies, ‘Istanbul is an infinite (sonsuz) subject.’ To really know Istanbul, according to Korkmaz, you must speak to its dead. He then hands an incredulous Hopkins a list of dead people and their telephone numbers.

Up to this point, I was, like Korkmaz, curious about the nature of the film. Is it a documentary? A compilation of one individual’s obsessions with the city? Would we hear Istanbullular telling their own stories about the city? Judging by the crew’s footage and Hopkins’s conversations up to that point, I was hoping it would go that way. The straight-on shots of these individuals were beautifully composed and gripping. Even the cats were filmed in a way that seemed to bypass the cliched.

But after the meeting with Korkmaz, the film begins to delve into the fictional. Hopkins sees a woman in some of the footage they shot at one of the new developments on the city’s edge, and no one can recall her being there; she’s a ghost. He begins filming at night, and seems especially drawn to the city’s ‘melancholy’. Our director’s behaviour begins to inspire a mutiny of sorts in his crew. On a trip to the Princes Islands – intended to placate the other cameramen and show them a good time – Hopkins leads them to an abandoned Greek orphanage. When they complain, he tells them to go down, eat fish, drink rakı and watch football, even though he plans on staying right there. Our narrator has become obsessed with the city’s dead, with its ghosts.

Hopkins has thoroughly unravelled and his crew decides to leave; the final surreal shot of these others shows Hopkins locking them in a shipping container on the almost-empty docks in the middle of the night to be shipped back to Germany. Our director is left alone. The small television station has disappeared, and the money has dried up. He only goes out at night, and refers more and more to the dark and melancholic aspects of the city. In the film’s denouement, Hopkins opens a passageway between the city’s living population and its dead. It’s here that he finds the ghostly girl who was in their footage, and she’s dancing at dawn on the Karaköy docks.

The film could be a larger statement about the ways in which cities and their structures are used to erase a history. On a personal level, it could be a story of an individual’s descent into his own darkness, an interpretation bolstered by the fact that the director mentions a dark, long depression from which he recently recovered. Yet the filmmaker’s obsession with melancholy, which he considers to be at the core of Istanbul, overshadows all else. Moreover, by combining documentary and fictional filmmaking, the move feels less like an honest exploration of Istanbul, and more like one person’s engagement with an imagined past.

I was speaking the other day to an artist about nostalgia, and how it’s often a rejection of the living. Hopkins does that literally – an actual rejection of the living in favour of the city’s dead, its ghosts, who form the source of what he believes to be the city’s melancholy, its true character. The city’s ghosts surely deserve remembrance, yet Hopkins does so at the expense of Istanbul as it is now, of the voices that fill boats and bars, cafes and streets, and the film is poorer for it. There’s no room for this remembrance to be a lived experience, except by our narrator.

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