Need some background on Turkish film? The movie Snow Pirates—screening at this year’s Golden Horn Vancouver Turkish Film Festival—offers a gateway moment for viewers new to the contemporary cinema of this geopolitical hot spot. In the frozen and desolate northeastern province of Kars, against the backdrop of 1980’s military coup, three schoolboys pose for photographs in front of a medieval castle that’ll take on a sinister bearing as the movie (and the crackdown) proceeds. Two of the boys strike comic-book-hero poses. The third declares: “I want to look like Yılmaz Güney.”
For decades, Güney was the sole international face of Turkish cinema, a massively popular movie star turned leftist filmmaker who directed his masterpiece, 1982’s Yol, from prison. He escaped and edited the Palme d’Or winner while exiled in France, becoming a celebrated international figure in the process.
This sly reference to the Kurdish people’s hero is an elegant bridge for western viewers taking in the isolated and dangerous world evoked in Faruk Hacıhafızoğlu’s heartfelt debut feature, a world where the creative impulses of a nation were punitively curtailed by the regime. (In today’s Turkey, the General Cinema Directorate of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism is the festival’s principal funder this year.)
“After Turkish Star Wars, Yol was our biggest hit,” quips Hakan Burcuoğlu, the intense and energetic programmer behind the festival, which runs from Friday until Monday (December 4 to 7) at the Vancity Theatre. Turkish Star Wars, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is the most notorious of Turkey’s “remakes”. As we learn in the wild documentary Remake Remix Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema, also coming to VTFF, a febrile period of exploitation filmmaking followed the industry’s golden era of the ’60s. As budgets declined to almost nothing and directors hammered out entire movies in a week, some just took to editing Turkish actors into pirated American blockbusters.
Matters have improved considerably since then, with filmmakers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan bringing more than just the attention of copyright lawyers to a revived industry. An inclusive VTFF opens with a blockbuster “popcorn movie” gala, Not So Far Away—“Directed by the most recognizable actress from the golden age of Turkish Hollywood, Türkân Şoray. She’s royalty,” Burcuoğlu explains—while making room for edgier fare like the psychological thriller Frenzy (a jury-prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival), the big-budget fantasy 8 Seconds, and the Quebec-made There Where Atilla Passes…
But Burcuoğlu is most proud of another component to this year’s fest. “I’m a filmmaker as well, and it’s my responsibility to showcase the best [that] Turkish cinema has to offer,” he says. “And, lately, not so coincidentally, Turkish women have been creating some amazing, amazing work. I think it’s astonishing that 50 percent of any festival’s content would include films made by women in the key creative roles.”
You read that right. Fourteen of VTFF’s 29 films were directed by women, including the nine shorts screening under the title Girls Keep Swinging, curated by the film-department head at Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Art, Müge Turan. “A walking encyclopedia of film who would rival Tarantino with her knowledge” is Burcuoğlu’s estimation. “It’s great to have her onboard.”
Of the full-length features, among the most auspicious is the film headlining VTFF’s Women’s Showcase: Senem Tüzen’s astonishing debut, Motherland.
“We’re kind of psychotic, in the sense that Turkey is where Europe meets Asia, but our tragedy, our irony, is that we’re in the middle,” Burcuoğlu says. “We’re looking east, we’re looking west, who are we? This duality has always been at the core of everything, and, obviously, for artists it’s embedded into the Turkish psyche. We grew up with this shit, and we die with this stuff, and I think this movie is a pure manifestation of this. It’s old versus new, traditionalist versus modern, religious versus dynamic—whatever you want to call it. I think it’s a great script.”
Burcuoğlu ends by quoting a review of Motherland, which received a standing ovation at Venice in September. “In its most profound sense,” he says, “this film is Turkey.”
Well, half of it, anyway.