Since its first edition in 2011, the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival has seen a promising change in its demographic.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger every year,” Eylem Sönmez tells the Georgia Straight. “In the beginning it was 65 percent Turkish and then the rest was mixed. Last year, our fifth year, it was half and half—which was amazing. That was huge for us.”
This growth in attention from outside the immigrant community is partly due to the festival’s visibility. More simply, Turkish cinema is hot. In the last two decades or so, Turkey has produced auteurs including Nuri Bilge Ceylan and cult hits like 2015’s wild Baskin. Meanwhile, a roaring domestic industry has cultivated an enormous audience at home.
“When I was growing up, we used to watch Latin-American TV shows, soap operas,” says Sönmez, who was born and raised in Istanbul before she moved to Vancouver in her early 20s to pursue a scholarship at the Vancouver Film School. “That was huge in Turkey. Now it’s the opposite. Turkish TV series are being sold to almost every single country in the world. I was in Vegas last year, I turned on the TV, and there was the biggest Turkish soap opera, The Magnificent Century, playing in Spanish. The industry is really big.”
The festival director remarks that “I guess we’ve got a lot of stories to tell,” while suggesting that enthusiasm for Turkish film parallels worldwide interest in the nation’s current historical moment. Turkey’s geopolitical significance right now is painfully hard to ignore, and following some sort of inverse law of nature—Iran also comes to mind—culture seems to boom, at least sometimes, under authoritarianism. An expanded industry has made the tools and expertise available for the production of subtly dissident arthouse product, which in turn becomes a desirable global export.
Fitting this bill is festival opener The Tale of Three Sisters, a rural drama about indentured foster children from director Emin Alper, whose political thriller Frenzy was a sweep at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
For Sönmez, the feature comes from a trusted filmmaker, but also speaks to VTFF’s theme this year of women in film. A panel discussion on Saturday (November 16) welcomes Saadet Işıl Aksoy, who stars in the fabulous drama Saf, along with director Binnur Karaevli and other guests, including Women in Film and Television executive director Carolyn Combs—whose Commercial Drive ensemble piece Bella Ciao! made waves last April.
Not to be overlooked is the year’s most populist item, Müslüm Baba, a solidly entertaining biopic about an arabesque singer who emerged from the ghetto and died a superstar folk hero. There’s also considerable appeal to Karaevli’s portrait of recently deceased Armenian-Turkish photographer Ara Guler, The Eye of Istanbul. But Sönmez and her partners at VTFF already know that Vancouver’s Turkish community is loyal to their program.
“Even though I want to call it all-inclusive, our festival is 80 percent arthouse and 20 percent mainstream,” she says. “I want Canadians to come see our films.”
The Vancouver Turkish Film Festival takes place at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Friday to Sunday (November 15 to 17). More information here.