Seeing Turkey, in all its modern complexities

By Ethan Gilsdorf, Globe Correspondent

Boston Globe, March 26, 2006


For those who still think of Turkey as a nation of erotic belly dancers, pushy carpet salesmen, and submissive head-scarved women, enough with the typecasting.

The Fifth Boston Turkish Film Festival, at the Museum of Fine Arts March 30 to April 8, is a lesson in how complex and conflicted modern Turkey has become.

While this most liberal of Islamic nations edges toward European Union membership, religious tradition and village life battle with the middle-class global culture of cellphones, plasma screens, and PlayStations. Folk music fused with rock and rap has become the soundtrack of Turkey's collision course with Western-style problems: drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution, alcoholism, and family dysfunction. This 10-film program, a tribute to Istanbul, shows that the outcome defies stereotypes.

Nowhere are this shift and struggle more apparent than in the festival's most successful film, the frenetically paced and fluid ''2 Girls." A compelling story of teen angst that's equal parts ''Rebel Without a Cause," ''Breathless," and ''Trainspotting," Kutlug Ataman's film features an inspired performance by newcomer Feride Çetin as the fiery Behiye, who escapes her conservative suburban family for newfound friend Handan (Vildan Atasever). Behiye thinks cheerleader-chirpy Handan, with a shock of fluorescent red hair and snarling lips, and her glamorous single mother, Leman, offer the answer to her adolescent longing for love and acceptance. Handan and Behiye embark on the coming-of-age rituals of drinking, shoplifting, and cutting class. ''Maybe this is what I want," Behiye pleads, as if speaking for her entire generation. ''Nothing in common. Nothing that I know or can predict."

But in this topsy-turvy, looking-glass picture, the teenage Handan is more maternal than her irresponsible mom, who wants a friend, not a daughter, in Handan, and both are victims (if not occasionally complicit) in a grim man's world where no man sticks around, except for sex. Implicitly, Leman ''puts out" for money that will pay for Handan's entrance exams, but college seems as unreachable as Handan's dad, who split for Australia. Like other films in the festival, ''2 Girls" was shot on digital video, only adding to the manic, TV-news immediacy of the mercurial friendship, which finally stumbles to its heartbreaking but logical conclusion.

''2 Girls" is underpinned by music from Replikas, one of the bands featured in ''Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul," the program's sole documentary and director Fatih Akin's highly anticipated follow-up to his gut-wrenching drama ''Head-On." ''Crossing the Bridge" is set in Istanbul, that Bosporus-straddling city long at the crossroads of Orient and Occident. ''Music can tell you about a place" is the connective thread that takes the viewer to nightclubs, ferry boats, and tattoo parlors -- settings that don't evoke the quaint Constantinople of long-obsolete opium dreams.

Meandering and erratic, the documentary is a tour of Turkish music both present and past, from classical oud to Erkin Koray, father of big-hair rock. Along the way, we learn about ''fasil," Romany bar music that's ''all about getting drunk," and meet female rappers and street buskers. The film's emotional heart is Aynur, a mesmerizing female vocalist once banned because of her Kurdish ethnicity. Though the presence of German musician and occasional narrator Alexander Hacke is a distraction, Akin's film shows how Istanbul is, in the words of one singer, ''open to both sides."

Taking another swipe at Turkish tradition is director Ugur Yücel's ''Toss Up," which won big at the Antalya Film Festival (Turkey's counterpart to the Oscars). Low on production values but high on realism, the film recounts the re-acclimation to civilian life of two veterans from the Kurdish front. Director Yücel relies too heavily on cloying acoustic guitar and slow-motion flashback, but otherwise portrays convincing fates for both wounded men -- Ridvan, marooned in a wintry mountain village, and Cevher, perplexed by his new life in Istanbul. Drink, drugs, and violence are their new crutches. ''Do you love me?" becomes the most threatening phrase anyone can utter.

If one theme stands out through the chaos of this year's lineup, it would be the ravages of family failure -- namely, the ill effects of a missing parent. Even in the slick but derivative psycho-thriller ''All About Mustafa," paternal loss haunts the protagonist.

Fatherless or motherless Turkish men seem cut off from women, and rarely smile -- if they catch themselves grinning in the mirror, they quickly stop. At night, they swim through milky-white clouds of raki, a raisin-based alcohol poured into tall glasses. It seeps into the fabric of nearly every film.

Yavuz Turgul's ''Lovelorn," Turkey's 2005 Academy Award hopeful, strikes this dysfunctional chord, while also playing off the universal disparity between rural poverty and urban prosperity. Idealistic school teacher Nazm has returned to Istanbul after 15 years posted in a Kurdish village; pouring his love into his students, he has forgotten his own grown children, who have quietly come to resent him. But his new life as a taxi driver only entangles him in another drama with a single mother/club singer, Dunya, on the run with her young daughter from an abusive ex-husband.

''Lovelorn" may be the festival's most conventional drama, even endangered by sentimentality and an unnecessarily violent ending, but it proves old world values like family shame and women as property die hard, even in modern Istanbul. The Turks know about exquisite self-torture -- Dunya's lament that ''what we wantdoesn't happen" -- almost better than the French.

Told in five parts by five different directors, ''Istanbul Tales" is the most ambitious, and most uneven, entry of the lot. The episodes, woven around one another, borrow freely from Western fairy-tale motifs -- the Pied Piper, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Seven Dwarves. But the characters are adapted and interpreted for a new age. Wolfish pimps, transgender princesses, and gay fairy godfathers populate a nightmarish cityscape of heroin addicts, underworld killings, and ghost hauntings that's ''all one big fairy tale," as the piper blowing on his zurna cries to the city. ''You're sleeping. They've put you to sleep." (Director and screenwriter Umit Unal and actress Serra Yilmaz will be present for ''Istanbul Tales" on opening night, March 30.)

The festival ends on a musical note with an evening of jazz featuring the Fahir Atakoglu Trio, which includes Grammy winner Horacio ''El Negro" Hernandez, bassist Anthony Jackson, and the leader, Atakoglu, a Turk known for his award-winning symphonic works and film music.