35th Istanbul Film Festival, 2016

After a preamble on freedom, this is an account of nine movies in three parts.

This part:

  • Thirst

  • Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It

  • Fire at Sea

Part 2:

  • The Demons

  • The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

  • Florida

Part 3:

  • Interruption

  • Under the Sun

  • News from Planet Mars

Photo of books referred to in this article

In the summer of 1994, I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and I had lived in the state since 1989. My roommate in a suburban apartment complex was finishing her own degree and moving away. I decided to move across the border into the city of Washington, where I had already become involved in some bicycle activism. I found a congenial vegetarian group house. I would bicycle the nine miles to the College Park campus. But moving to the city raised a moral question: should I really give up my political right to a meaningful vote?

Created as the seat of the federal government, the District of Columbia has no voting representation in the United States Congress. Perhaps even many Americans do not know this. The people of Washington have a delegate to the House of Representatives; but she cannot vote on legislation.

Though I grew up across the river in Virginia, I went to school in Washington. In an eighth-grade political geography class, our teacher read to us, from somewhere or other, that residents of Puerto Rico paid no federal income tax, because they had no voting representation in Congress. The teacher rolled his eyes. DC residents lacked this representation too, and yet they did pay tax.

A revolutionary slogan that we had learned in a fourth-grade American history class was, “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” And yet the government created by the American Revolution went on to rule tyrannically over the city of Washington. Nonetheless, as an adult, I chose to live in that city. Moreover, I was quite happy there.

As a resident of Washington, I still enjoyed the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. In 1996, I gave up those freedoms completely, by going to live in the country to the north.

I had already visited Canada by bicycle in 1994, before moving to DC. Canada had its own pleasures, and its own freedoms. While living there, I was amused to learn a characterization of Canadians as Americans who had chosen not to rebel against Britain.

In 2000, I came to live in a land of Greeks who had chosen to embrace Islam. Turkey was the homeland of Homer, whom I had read at school and in college. Thales and Heraclitus had lived here. In Turkey were the cities of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon: the sites of the seven General Councils, which I had studied in an eleventh-grade course called Christian Ideas. Those councils decided what was dogma and what was heresy. The same spirit lives in the Turkish state today, where people are held in prison, awaiting trial, for the heresy of preaching peace while the state wages war.

I am confronted by questions like those that I faced when moving to Washington, and then to Canada. Do I believe in freedom? One aspect of freedom is the rule of law. This is a certain predictability, or rather trust, coming from a tacit agreement to certain conventions. In Turkey today, the rule of law is in doubt. At least there seem to be many people whose support is not for the rule of law, but for the rule of one strong man, whose countenance is not benevolent.

Why then live here? I am paid by the Turkish state to teach and create mathematics: is it right to accept this payment? In fact I do not think I would improve the country by leaving. If the state should happen to decide otherwise, than I suppose I shall be forced to leave. Meanwhile, I am in fact doubtful that my own life would improve by leaving.

I do not remember the context; but at school once, a chaplain told us a story, which I came to know later as one of the “101 Zen Stories” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

I do not recall what the chaplain made of this parable. I think he remarked on the abrupt ending. In adolescence, I thought of the story when trying to seize pleasure from the general anxiety of life; but my psychiatrist gave me the impression that I was just avoiding my problems.

There may be some deeper message in the Buddha’s parable. For all I know, it is a warning against frivolous distractions. But I don’t think I could read the parable to my students and tell them, “This is why you should put your mobiles away!” Today I take the parable as simple recognition that it is indeed possible to enjoy life, even under the most perilous of circumstances.

In Turkey today, when asked, “How are you?” one is reluctant to say simply “Fine!” It’s more like, “Fine—well, you know …” or “Fine, considering …” But one may indeed be fine. One may savor the sweet strawberries of life. One of these strawberries is the Istanbul Film Festival.

When we still lived in Ankara, Ayşe and I sometimes travelled to Istanbul for the festival. According to my notes in the catalogue, in 2002 we saw eleven festival movies. By their names alone, or by their descriptions in the catalogue, I am reminded only of good experiences.

At the next year’s festival we saw 14 movies, and I wrote about them. Next year it was eleven films, and again I wrote about them. Now, twelve years later, when I actually live in Istanbul, I want to write about the films that I have seen in the 35th Istanbul Film Festival; but there are only nine!

From the catalogue, I give title, director, country or countries, and language or languages. All films had English and Turkish subtitles, as needed. I give also the cinema where I watched, and the day and time. I suppose that some listed countries are simply the sources of funding, if not the locations of filming or editing.

The festival was short this year, running only from Thursday, April 7, till Sunday, April 17. In earlier years, the festival had spanned three weekends. Last year, there was a problem, when a Kurdish-themed film was banned for not having proper authorization. Foreign films had a right not to be censored; but the Kurdish film was held to be domestic and thus subject to censorship. Other filmmakers withdrew their films in protest. I do not know whether this caused the shortness of this year’s festival. Perhaps it was felt that, through effective use of terrorism in Turkey since last year’s festival, fewer people would want to see movies at all.


Svetla Tsotsorkova. Bulgaria. Bulgarian. Atlas, Saturday, April 9, 2016, 11:00

At my first film, on the first Saturday of the festival, the director was present and took questions afterwards. When she was growing up in Bulgaria, her parents did laundry for hotels; but the work did not create such beautiful scenes as in the movie, where long ranks of sheets are seen on a hilltop, drying on lines under the sun. There are no clouds. There is no rain. There is a drought. No water reaches the hilltop when the local farmers are irrigating their crops. The woman who does laundry is bitter. Her husband reminds her that their property had been her father’s. Meanwhile, the man makes his son run up and down the dirt road, so that the boy will not have a heart attack like his father. The father waits in the shade of a tree, smoking a cigarette.

It is the boy whom we see first. He has beautiful long red hair, like one of my roommates in the group house in DC. The boy spies a man and a girl near the road. The girl rinses her panties with water from a bottle. The man is in a truck.

The man and his daughter dig wells. The washerwoman agrees to pay their fee, but only if they actually strike water. The girl uses dowsing rods to find the right spot for the well. That spot is in the woman’s garden. She must move her flowers.

The father and daughter set up camp. The drilling takes days. The woman reminds the pair of the deal: no water, no money. The girl insists that water will be found, three meters deeper.

At film festivals in both Ankara and Istanbul, it is often the case that the director of a film is present for questions. Normally there should be no questions. At least there should be no answers that were not already given by the film. Sometimes the director says this herself. And yet Thirst raises one question for me. Is the dowsing girl to be understood as a real witch?

In the novel Villette, a ghost is seen. Can ghosts be real, even in novels? I think it is important for Charlotte Brontë that her readers consider this question. I could have asked Svetla Tsotsorkova what she thought. Did she believe dowsing was possible?

I did not want to do my asking across the ranks of seats in the cinema. The director spoke English; but my question and her answer would have to be translated into Turkish. The desire to speak succinctly kept me from coming up with any words at all.

Sexual power is like magic. The girl in the movie has at least this. She may be too young to have recognized it fully. She is aloof. The two children fight like siblings at first. The girl is cruel, but only, I would say, in a way that the boy allows her to be.

Passions may be universal, but expressed in different ways. For me, Thirst was in part a sociological investigation. After a few minutes, I thought the director was failing to capture the interest of the audience. But I accepted the film as the statement that she wanted to make. At least it was her best attempt. Some Turks today are Muslim Bulgarians driven out of their country. When Ayşe and I meet Bulgarian and Greek mathematicians at conferences, commonalities of culture are often a topic of conversation. Bulgaria also has the Russian influence; and indeed, in the movie, though the girl says her mother was a Gypsy, her father says the mother was a Russian, and “you know how they are.”

The question period revealed that the violence of the end of the movie was in part an accident. Things had got out of control on the set.

In a crowded city like Istanbul, I can appreciate Thirst just for the feeling of space that comes from its rural location.

Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It

Christopher Kirkley. Niger and USA. Tuareg (Tamashek). Fitaş, Saturday, April 9, 2019, 16:00

There were festival screenings at 11:00, 13:30, 16:00, 19:00, and 21:30. On Fridays and Saturdays, there was one more, at midnight. The first three times were my main options. On the first Saturday, after Thirst, lunch, and work on some mathematics at the so-called Espresso Lab, I opted for a four-o’clock movie. There were now five to choose from. I chose the Nigerien movie, for the exotic location and the music.

An article from The Onion: Dispatches from the Tenth Circle (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001) is headed, “Woman Who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles of It.” I have not seen any of Africa, but I love African music. I cannot say that about Turkish music. Some I adore: at least I have found it desirable to go hear Sabahat Akkiraz in concert, twice, and I was awed by the Fatih Akın movie, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. Turkish “art music” I can pretty much take or leave; most Turkish pop, I can do without.

In DC I always liked tuning into WPFW for the “African Rhythms and Extensions” program. Twenty years later, it is apparently still on the air, with the same host, Kofi Kissi Dompere. His theme song was a haunting tune, whose sonic mood belied the simple message of the refrain: “Welcome Home.” In Ankara, a friend once played some recorded music for us, and that theme song came up. It turned out to be by Osibisa, a band formed in London of African and West Indian immigrants. The band had been to me only a name and a vision: a vision of elephants taking flight with the wings of dragonflies, in a psychedelic image by Roger Dean from The Album Cover Album (edited by Storm Thorgerson [Hipgnosis] and Roger Dean; Limpsfield, Surrey, UK: Dragon’s World, 1977). Like the mute title character in John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, who buys an LP for the lovely face on the cover, but throws away the disc inside, I know a lot of music only by the pictures in The Album Cover Album.

Perhaps I knew by sound some specifically Tuareg music. Now I guess I know it by sight as well, from Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It. Apparently that title is how you say “Purple Rain” in Tuareg, and the film is supposed to be an homage to Prince’s film of that name. I know nothing of the Prince film. I did have an office-mate in graduate school who was embarrassed to be from the same American city as Prince. (The first husband a cousin of mine used to declare an aversion for rap music whenever he heard it. I think he was being racist. He defended the LA police beating of Rodney King. My office-mate Errol may have had more complicated reasons for disavowing any admiration for Prince: they both were black.)

In the Nigerien movie, the guitarist Mdou Moctar rode a purple motorcycle. If there was a story, it was not always coherent, at least for me. Mdou has a band, and many people have his song on their mobiles. One’s impression from the movie is that Niger has no paved roads or two-storey buildings; but some Nigeriens have electric guitars and amplifiers, and all Nigeriens have mobiles for recording sounds and images. Mdou is going to play in a song competition at the Alliance Française. However, his guitar is cast in a fire by his puritanical father, who gave to his son a name derived from that of the Prophet Mohammad.

Having failed to recruit Mdou as one of his own band members, a competing musician steals Mdou’s best song, through stealthy use of a mobile. But Mdou discovers an old poem, written by his father in what must be the Tifinagh script. It is about the changes of life. Mdou sets it to music. His father is proud to receive praise for the accomplishment of his son, who of course wins the song competition.

In Niger, international travel may mean visiting Libya or Chad. For a picnic, one rides out into the desert. There are still a few trees for shade. Mdou’s love interest says she loves the desert.

Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi. Italy, France. Italian and English. Fitaş 4, Sunday, April 10, 2016, 16:00

Ayşe was back from Ankara. We decided together to see the film shot in and around Lampedusa, the Italian island that was the intended destination of refugees setting sail from the African coast. Fire at Sea is called a documentary, but there ought to be another designation for this sort of movie. It has no narration. The director went to the island and got to know a family, and after three months (I think he said) he started filming them. He also joined the vessels of the coast guard as they tried to save refugees from their own sinking boats.

In the question period, somebody complained about the lack of explanation of what we had seen in the film. The director recalled the scene where a Nigerian refugee recited the travails of crossing the desert without water. What could be added to this?

The movie often follows a Lampedusan boy who is not keen to be a fisher like his father. The boy is prone to seasickness, and he cannot row straight. On land though, he has good aim with his slingshot. We have seen him make the slingshot after expertly selecting a good forked tree-branch. But an ophthalmological examination reveals that he has a lazy eye. The good eye must be covered, so that the lazy eye can be made to work. But then the boy has poor aim with his lazy eye.

In the question period, it was asked why the film showed no interactions between the refugees and the local population. The answer was that little interaction was possible. The refugees were kept separate. In this way, Europeans were developing a lazy eye.

Somebody asked why the film was so dark. This darkness had been at the edge of my own consciousness as a vague unpleasantness. The director blamed the cinema’s projector. He said he had wanted to stop the screening when he saw how dark it was. He did not like bright light himself: he preferred to film in the morning or evening. But then the projection of the film should be bright enough to show the dim light.

Unfortunately several more films that I chose to see turned out to be screened in the same cinema. Sometimes I felt the dimness; sometimes I didn’t.

In his stream-of-consciousness autobiography Waging Heavy Peace (London: Penguin, 2012), Neil Young thinks the music industry could be revitalized, if only the quality of digital reproduction were improved. I suppose the “films” that we watch now are not actually acetate film, but electronic digits. One no longer sees a film’s scratches on screen; but perhaps crispness of image is lost. It is a shame that a director should spend months or years to make a movie like Fire at Sea, only to find that viewers do not get to see it with the technical quality that he intended.

On the other hand, a good director ought to be able to reach his audience, regardless of any technical imperfections in the medium. A good song should be enjoyable, even at the lowest of fidelities. The sensory input is only a guide, which the listener uses to create a new song within herself.

The new song may be a memory of an old one. In fact I rarely listen to recorded music; but if I should listen to a CD of, say, Kenny Garrett, a lot of the enjoyment comes from remembering his concert here in Istanbul. We had bought the tickets, thinking they were for Keith Jarrett, since this was the name that a newspaper story had used. I did know Kenny Garrett by name from WPFW. He and his band captivated a full house in Istanbul. In the foyer he saw me and asked, “You from the States?”

As usual with me and art, I want to quote Collingwood on the subject of recordings. This is from “The Artist and His Audience,” which is the ninth and last section of Chapter XIV, “The Artist and the Community,” which is the last chapter before the “Conclusion” of The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938).

The reason why gramophone music is so unsatisfactory to any one accustomed to real music is not because the mechanical repro­duction of the sounds is bad—that could be easily compensated by the hearer’s imagination—but because the performers and the audience are out of touch. The audience is not collaborating, it is only overhearing. The same thing happens in the cinema, where collaboration as between author and producer is intense, but as between this unit and the audience nonexistent.

I have just suggested that, on the contrary, only somebody who does have experience of real (live) music can find gramophone music satisfactory, because only the experienced person can use a recording to achieve an imaginative construction of the real musical experience. My head is filled with memories of popular tunes that I learned from the radio, or from recordings, without ever attending a concert; but I do not find this condition entirely satisfactory, even if I admit to enjoying the tunes.

However, it is entirely satisfactory to have grown up with free access to the great museums of Washington like the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn. Painting is not a collaboration between painter and viewer, and yet it can be art. In the second section, “Painting and Seeing,” of the same chapter as above, Collingwood imagines asking a painter, “Why are you painting that subject?” He elaborates the question:

‘Are you painting that subject in order to enable other people (including yourself on a future occasion) to enjoy an aesthetic experience which, independently of painting it, you get completely from just looking at the subject itself; or are you painting it because the experience itself only develops and defines itself in your mind as you paint?’

Any artist who understood the terms of our question would answer promptly and decidedly, ‘The second, of course’. He would probably continue, if he felt disposed to talk, by saying: ‘One paints anything in order to see it. People who don’t paint, naturally, won’t believe that; it would be too humiliating to themselves. They like to fancy that everybody, or at least everybody of refinement and taste like themselves, sees just as much as an artist sees, and that the artist only differs in having the technical accomplishment of painting what he sees. But that is nonsense. You see something in your subject, of course, before you begin to paint it (though how much, even of that, you would see if you weren’t already a painter is a difficult question); and that, no doubt, is what induces you to begin painting; but only a person with experience of painting, and of painting well, can realize how little that is, compared with what you come to see in it as your painting progresses …’

One paints in order to see. But then perhaps one might just as well photograph, or film, or video, in order to see.

I got into this discussion because of the director’s complaint that Fire at Sea had been projected too darkly on the screen. Obviously he has a right to complain. I think he will be complaining as a craftsperson though, and not as an artist. As a craftsperson, he wants to satisfy his audience with his best product. As artist, either his work is finished after the film is made, so that he no longer cares about it; or else his work continues in his personal interactions with audiences like us. In the latter case, he is obliged to work with what he has.

For his Köln Concert in 1975, apparently Keith Jarrett was given an inferior piano by mistake; but the concert was a smash success. The best of the Sunday afternoon concerts that I used to hear in the Music Room of the Phillips Collection in Washington was by an ensemble who had had to fill in for another at the last minute. As a teacher, I have to collaborate with my students. I can (and do) complain when they don’t study and don’t even seem to care; but still my job is to work with them as they are. This is why the set theory course that I teach now is completely different from the one that I first set out to teach ten years ago.

I wonder if Collingwood distrusts the gramophone and the cinema, precisely because they give people just what they want. Most people do not go to a concert or a play for the understanding of their emotions, which is what art is all about; they go for the arousal of pleasurable feelings. This is what they go for, but what they get is more. They get the experience of collaborating with the rest of the audience, and with the performers, in producing the total experience of the event. Listening to a recording may give a similar pleasure, but without the whole collaborative experience.

The Fitaş 4 viewing room is comfortable. There is enough leg room that people can pass you without your having to stand up. The seats recline slightly. And yet the backs are so tall that the heads of most people in front of you are hidden. The slope of the floor is minimal. You don’t know how many other people are watching the movie with you. I think this detracts from the total experience. At any rate, let me just end with the longer passage from which I selected the first quote of Collingwood.

The individualism of the artist, partly broken down by collaboration with his fellow artists and still further by collaboration with his performers, where he has them, is not yet wholly vanquished. There still remains the most difficult and important problem of all, namely, that of his relation to his audience …

If one wants to answer this question for oneself, the best way to proceed is to attend the dress rehearsal of a play. In the rehearsal of any given passage, scenery, lighting, and dresses may all be exactly as they are at a public performance; the actors may move and speak exactly as they will ‘on the night’; there may be few interruptions for criticism by the producer; and yet the spectator will realize that everything is different. The company are going through the motions of acting a play, and yet no play is being acted. This is not because there have been interruptions, breaking the thread of the performance. A work of art is very tolerant of interruption. The intervals between acts at a play do not break the thread, they rest the audience. Nobody ever read the Iliad or the Commedia at a sitting, but many people know what they are like. What happens at the dress rehearsal is something quite different from interruption. It can be described by saying that every line, every gesture, falls dead in the empty house. The company is not acting a play at all; it is performing certain actions which will become a play when there is an audience present to act as a sounding-board. It becomes clear, then, that the aesthetic activity which is the play is not an activity on the part of the author and the company together, which this unit can perform in the audience’s absence. It is an activity in which the audience is a partner.

Any one, probably, can learn this by watching a dress rehearsal; but the principle does not apply to the theatre alone. It applies to rehearsals by a choir or orchestra, or to a skilled and successful public speaker rehearsing a speech. A careful study of such things will convince any one who is open to conviction that the position of the audience is very far from being that of a licensed eavesdropper, overhearing something that would be complete without him. Performers know it already. They know that their audience is not passively receptive of what they give it, but is determining by its reception of them how their performance is to be carried on. A person accustomed to extempore speaking, for example, knows that if once he can make contact with his audience it will somehow tell him what he is to say, so that he finds himself saying things he had never thought of before. These are the things which, on that particular subject, he and nobody else ought to be saying to that audience and no other. People to whom this is not a familiar experience are, of course, common; but they have no business to speak in public.

It is a weakness of printed literature that this reciprocity between writer and reader is difficult to maintain. The printing-press separates the writer from his audience and fosters cross-purposes between them. The organization of the literary profession and the ‘technique’ of good writing, as that is understood among ourselves, consist to a great extent of methods for mitigating this evil; but the evil is only mitigated and not removed. It is intensified by every new mechanization of art. The reason why gramophone music is so unsatisfactory to any one accustomed to real music is not because the mechanical reproduction of the sounds is bad—that could be easily compensated by the hearer’s imagination—but because the performers and the audience are out of touch. The audience is not collaborating, it is only overhearing. The same thing happens in the cinema, where collaboration as between author and producer is intense, but as between this unit and the audience nonexistent. Performances on the wireless have the same defect. The consequence is that the gramophone, the cinema, and the wireless are perfectly serviceable as vehicles of amusement or of propaganda, for here the audience’s function is merely receptive and not concreative; but as vehicles of art they are subject to all the defects of the printing-press in an aggravated form. ‘Why’, one hears it asked, ‘should not the modern popular entertainment of the cinema, like the Renaissance popular entertainment of the theatre, produce a new form of great art?’ The answer is simple. In the Renaissance theatre collaboration between author and actors on the one hand, and audience on the other, was a lively reality. In the cinema it is impossible.

I suppose Collingwood was alluding at the end to opera. Opera is an art; has film indeed not become so? I shall only note that Wikipedia currently calls opera an art form from the beginning, whereas a film is “a series of still images which, when shown on a screen, creates the illusion of moving images due to the phi phenomenon.” Such a series of images can be put to various uses:

The contemporary definition of cinema is the art of simulating experiences to communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty or atmosphere by the means of recorded or programmed moving images along with other sensory stimulations.

Here “art” is used in the sense of craft, which Collingwood was at pains to distinguish from art proper, though of course there is overlap between the concepts of art and craft.

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