35th Istanbul Film Festival, 2016, part 2

Part 1 | Part 3

Book cover: Deer Hunting With Jesus

The Demons

Philippe Lesage. Canada. French. Fitaş, Monday, April 11, 2016, 16:00

Ayşe was teaching, but I was free to see a movie. The İstiklâl cinemas were twenty minutes by foot from our urban campus, or one subway stop, if you preferred. Our flat was one stop in the other direction. There was a festival cinema in Ortaköy, and another over on the Asian side; but without even considering these (which I have never visited), I had a Canadian, a Mexican, a Polish, and a Turkish film to choose from. I studied them on the festival website, though not too intently. You are not likely to go wrong with any festival film. Moreover, the catalogue synopses do not always provide an accurate sense. I chose the Canadian movie out of interest in this country as being both American and not. It is also where Ayşe and I met.

The director’s background was in documentaries. The Demons was technically fiction; but it had the feel of Fire at Sea, at least as far as its depiction of a boy was concerned. It was an autobiopic about the director’s childhood anxieties. The catalogue says of ten-year-old Félix,

After accidentally finding out about his father’s affair with his best friend’s mother, he decides to express his anger and fears with mercilessness and violence.

But you are misled if you conclude that Félix makes a big life change, which dominates the film. Wikipedia currently says,

As a series of child abductions begins to grip the town, however, his vague and needless fears begin to give way to something much more real.

I find this misleading too. I think the abductions are important for their lack of prominence. Their significance is in reminding us that what worries us and what should worry us are two different things. The film is about children getting on with their lives. They do this through play. Félix engages in sexual role playing with another boy and some female undergarments. He then learns about AIDS. He is sure he is going to die. At least, he thinks he deserves to die.

Concerning this point, I could ask the director whether he had such a sympathetic older sister as Félix does. The sister reassures him, draws him from the closet where he has gone to hide, and gets him to dance with her to Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata.” It seems too cloyingly sweet to be true, especially when the brother in the middle joins in.

In the question period, the director was asked how Canadian suburbs differed from the American suburbs, “which we all know from movies.” It was a funny question, since now the questioner knew a Canadian suburb from the movie that we had just seen. The director said that the suburb where he had grown up was quite American.

It is somehow still fascinating to me that people living in such American-style suburbs can be speaking French. I never actually visited Québec myself. Back in 1996, before our official first date at a protest demonstration, Ayşe organized a trip from Toronto to Montréal. Two male graduate students in our program went along, but I didn’t. Possibly I did not want to find out that Ayşe had something going on with one of those other students. If so, it was a baseless fear, like one of Félix’s.

In the question period, I wondered about connecting The Demons to life in Turkey today. Are we still children, as far as knowing what to worry about is concerned? Shall we act as if the president’s obsession with his ideological enemies, including some of ourselves, will cause no lasting damage? Or are we practically being stalked by a kidnapper, raper, and murderer of children?

I could also have asked the director whether, like the director of Fire at Sea, he had found the screening of his film too dark.

As it was, I figured I might be able to have a word with him as he left the cinema. I waited at my seat until he was about to pass. I told him I had enjoyed the film very much. Before I could say more, somebody else jumped in and said the same thing, then asked the man what his “sign” was.

I held my tongue from condemning such foolishness. I didn’t care what month the director was born, but I did wonder about the year. For some reason I thought it was 1969; but he told me 1973. “Ah, so the dramatic date of the film really is your own childhood,” I suggested. I had been confused during the movie. Near the beginning, Félix’s friend’s mother was proud to have found a Robert Johnson LP. I thought she was part of the trend of returning to the LP format. Then it appeared that CDs had not yet been invented. The cars did not look old to me; but AIDS was still a disease of gay people. The director said there had been no specific dramatic date. I pointed out that there had been no cellphones; he seemed to suggest that this was for dramatic reasons, as opposed to historical. It would be harder to abduct a child if he was carrying a mobile.

At the doors of the viewing hall, the director paused, as if to wait for somebody else. I said farewell.

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

Morgan Neville. USA. Spanish, Arabic, English, Farsi, Mandarin. Fitaş, Friday, April 15, 2016, 11:00

This film documented the realization of an ideal of international cooperation and understanding through music. It had me mopping the tears from my face. In the opening scene, musicians from all over the world gathered and played their exotic instruments to an enthusiastic gathering crowd. This was on the picturesque esplanade of Ortaköy here in Istanbul. Why could life not always be like this? Why must we have a scowling president whose modus operandi is to divide people?

A friend in the United States used to ask me to explain a paradox: Turks were the nicest people he had ever met, and yet back home they tortured prisoners. David was a good deal older than I, and he was probably alluding to the horrors of the 1980 military coup. But stories out of the Kurdish Southeast today are no less horrible. According to surveys, Turks are highly distrustful, both of foreigners and of one another. And yet I think such surveys are belied by the experience of white tourists. It is very rare for me to experience any antipathy because of my national origin. On the other hand, I don’t talk to that many people, and those that I do are usually cosmopolitan academics.

The Music of Strangers is about Yo-Yo Ma’s project of bringing together musicians from different traditions. The name of the resulting ensemble suggests that those traditions are from the countries along the old Silk Road; but one member featured in the documentary is a bagpipe player from Gallicia in Spain.

That bagpipe player seems rather nationalistic as a Gallician. There are indications in the movie that Yo-Yo Ma’s project has been derided and ridiculed. Certainly music does not always bring people together. The adolescent, such as I remember being, stakes out his identity by the music that he does not like, as well as what he likes. In discussing the Nigerien movie Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red Mixed in It, I mentioned one person’s disdain for rap music, and another’s for the late Prince (who has died since I wrote). Now I recall a dismaying passage from Joe Bageant’s fascinating report, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007; pages 125–33):

Something about the smell of black-powder and porto-john chemicals stirs patriotic feelings in the hearts of certain Americans, making them want to camp in the rain so they can spend days along a firing line and blasting away at clay flower pots and sailing skeet with shot and ball. Consequently, I am peering from under a poncho in the October drizzle watching some forty-five hundred mostly working-class Americans blazing away with rifles, muskets, cannons, and even Civil War mortars. Welcome to Fort Shenandoah, located on several hundred acres of woods and hills along Back Creek in Frederick County, Virginia …

When darkness fell on Fort Shenandoah, I found myself where I hoped I would be, with several other campers around a fire playing music. A lifelong player of the guitar and recently the banjo, I’m always looking for an opportunity to play music with other human beings rather than with recordings or alone—making unadulterated, unamplified human sounds, particularly blues, minstrel music, and early mountain stuff. Keeping the world safe for living-room music. The fire was crackling and the bottle was going round. These were not the family guys. This was the drinking crowd, the guys come to party. We played the minstrel tune “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel” and a number of other Civil War period songs, then settled into things a tad more modern, which here means circa 1900. Along the way I told them that I was writing a book and that one chapter of it would be about guns.

“So I got a joke for your book,’ proffered Donny, whom I happened to already know, a wiry little fellow recently retired from the U.S. Navy and a soulful guitar player. “This fella goes into a gun shop and asks for a rifle with a scope. The owner hands him one and says, ‘You can check it out by pointing it over that way towards my house. You should be able to see my wife.’ The customer replies, ‘All I see are a man and a woman running around the house naked.’ The owner takes the gun, looks through the scope, and hands it back to the customer along with two cartridges. ‘If you use these two bullets on them you can have the gun for free, along with a lifetime supply of ammo.’ The man looks through the scope, hands one of the bullets back to the owner, and says, ‘I think I can get them both with one shot.’ ”

One bottle of Jack Daniels later, just past midnight, we were into the music and solo stuff—the time when each person does a couple of his best songs. I picked Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” That nobody here had ever heard of the legendary Robert Johnson should have been a clue. I closed my eyes and leaned into the lyrics.

“Woke up this morning … uummm hummm … Felt around for my shoes … ummmmhum … Lord knows I got ’em … Got them mean old walking blues.”

When I was done, I opened my eyes to a ring of hardened faces in the firelight. Donny said with a menacing look made especially ominous by the flickering fire, “When you sang that, your lips peeled back just like a blue-gummed jigaboo.” The others seemed even less impressed than Donny. Needless to say, considering the company, I let that one go by. I had wandered into a clot of good-old-boy white Virginians of the type that is not supposed to exist anymore, according to the chamber of commerce and most Virginians.

But what I found far more interesting, chilling, really, than their racism was the gun talk. Most of these men were military-gun aficionados and “personal weapons collectors.” In other words, they bought and collected “antipersonnel firepower”—guns designed specifically to kill human beings …

On the subject of the Nigerien movie, I alluded to the varieties of Turkish. In fact my first printed guide to Turkey goes into the subject in detail, describing also how the Republican government has tried to control the population through music. Turkey: the Rough Guide (London: Rough Guides, third edition, March, 1997, pages 785–92) breaks down Turkish music into folk music, urban music, and Ottoman classical and religious music, with further subdivisions. I had remembered the description of harm described in the following passage, though not the specific context, and so I record it now:

Turkish classical music, which includes the music of the Mevlevi dervish order, is the product of Ottoman urban civilization. It is based on modal systems or makams, an analogue to the Western scale system formulated over five centuries ago. The traditional classical repertoire in Turkey is today selected almost entirely from noted sources preserving the works of such composers as Abdülkadir Meraği (died 1435), Prince Dimitri Candemir (seventeenth–eighteenth century), Sultan Selim III and Tanburi Cemil Bey (1873–1916).

The Mevlevi order of dervishes provided their own, related body of ritual music which contains many of the most highly regarded compositions from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The best known Mevlevi composers are Köçek Derviş Mustafa Dede (seventeenth century), Dede Efendi (eighteenth–nineteenth century), and Rauf Yekta (nineteenth–twentieth century).

Both sorts of music were attacked by Republican ideological purists with special zeal, even more than urban songs and Alevî ballads; Atatürk considered the Ottoman classical and devotional repertoire thoroughly decadent because of its reliance on Arabic, Byzantine and Persian forms, not to mention the importance of non-“Turkish” composers. The formal teaching and radio broadcasting of Turkish classical was forbidden between 1923 and 1976, with the dervish tekkes—which had served as informal conservatories for religious music—being similarly suppressed. Although the public ban on such music was relaxed at about the same time (not coincidentally) that arabesk made its first appearance, the damage had been done. Despite the existence of some superb archival tapes from the early 1960s, featuring such master practitioners as Niyazi Sayın and Akagündüz Kutbay on ney, Necdet Yaşar on tanbur, İhsan Özgen on kemençe and Hürşit Üngay on kudum, they were essentially “private reserve” material, not intended for broadcast to the masses, and the lineal tradition of discipleship on which this type of music depends had been broken. Even after 1976, many of the best players chose to emigrate to France (the Ergüner clan, Talip Özkan), Germany and the US (Necdet Yaşar).

Perhaps I should just note that music is powerful. It can be useful or dangerous, as Plato observed. Yo-Yo Ma puts it to good use.

Some of the singing in the documentary appeared to be Kurdish. This was because it was reminiscent of the singing of Aynur, whose CD Keçe Kurdan we had bought after learning of her from the Fatih Akın movie, Crossing the Bridge. The credits revealed that the singer really had been Aynur. When the lights went up in the movie hall, somebody came to us from behind and announced something about how the “Turkish” singer in the movie had really been Kurdish.

I nodded and said, “Aynur.” But I don’t think the woman understood. She repeated her announcement, apologized, and went away.


Philippe Le Guay. France. French. Fitaş, Friday, April 15, 2016, 13:30

Florida was in the Festival’s “Antidepressant” section. I can understand why, though I am not sure the film quite fits the description. I want to call it a run-of-the-mill movie, if I can say that without sounding pejorative. The film deals with a problem of life in am amusing and sympathetic way. What do you do when your aging parent starts losing his mind, but will not admit it, and can still look after himself, in his own house, most of the time? The old man keeps driving his housekeepers to quit, but his daughter is highly reluctant to put the man in a “home.” The film has flashbacks, apparently meant to explain some of the old man’s obsessions. However, I am not entirely sure that I fully understand the issue with his other daughter, who lived in Florida, but with whom the old man has not communicated in many years. He still insists on drinking Florida orange juice, rather than Spanish, and he talks of going to visit his daughter. In fact the woman is dead, but her father refuses to remember this, and I am not sure whether there is a specific reason why.

The old man is certainly charming. His performances in public places remind me of my grandmother, who did not mind letting her opinions be known. I was not present for the event, but the story was told of a restaurant meal at which she announced in a loud voice that she had tried marijuana did not think it was such a big deal. She must have got it from one of my older cousins, or possibly her son. She didn’t smoke though, so she tried to make tea with it. At least this is what my mother told me.

The movie grandfather’s public announcements did not concern drugs, but sex.

One Trackback

  1. By Istanbul Film Festival 2016, part 3 « Polytropy on April 25, 2016 at 11:12 am

    […] « 35th Istanbul Film Festival, 2016, part 2 […]

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