BEIRUT: Performance films and music-driven documentaries shape a curious subset in cinematic history. Though they are better than musicals and drippy teenage melodramas that exist solely to support Top 40 soundtracks, longer and more engaging than even the most brilliant three- to four-minute music videos and altogether more fun than straightforward social documentaries, they rarely cross-over into mainstream movie theaters. What better way to screen them, then, than in a club that would be playing music anyway.
For the past month, Club Social, a subterranean nightlife joint on Mar Maroun Street in Gemmayzeh, has been presenting "Music Makes the World Go Round," the latest in the venue's ongoing Sunday night cine-club sessions. (Earlier cycles turned over the selection duties to filmmaker Ghassan Salhab and video artist Akram Zaatari.)
For the latest series, Ziad Nawfal, the DJ, radio host and longtime Beiruti music maven who organizes the cine-club, started off with D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," a 1967 documentary on Bob Dylan, and then touched down on the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols (with Ondi Timoner's "Dig"), "outsider" musician Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig's "The Devil and Daniel Johnston") and the quirky glam pop to power pop band the Sparks (with a video of the "Lil' Beethoven" set filmed live in Stockholm). Bringing things closer to home, the series is ending on Sunday with Fatih Akin's "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul."
Akin is a young Turkish-German filmmaker, not yet 35, who make a cannonball-sized splash on the international film festival circuit in 2004. His fourth feature, "Head-On," a grim and grungy story about a pair of star-crossed lovers, picked up the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, a Goya in Spain and the equivalent of an Oscar in Germany, among other accolades. Akin's fifth feature, "The Edge of Heaven," screened in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it picked up an award for Best Screenplay. If initial reviews are to be believed, it's his best and most assured work to date.
Both "Head-On" and "The Edge of Heaven" span the distance between Hamburg and Istanbul, and both, to a certain degree, delve into the conditions and expressions of hybridized identity. "Crossing the Bridge," made in the interim between the two features, focuses exclusively on Istanbul. It is a love letter to a mad metropolis and the music scene that tucks into its back alleys, bath houses, social taboos, political sensitivities and more. It is an ode to eccentricity and an intimate portrait of a richly complex place.
Alexander Hacke, a German musician and member of the avant-garde outfit Einstuerzende Neubauten, frames the film and provides its narrative thread. Hacke worked with Akin on the soundtrack for "Head-On," which brought him to Istanbul for the first time. In "Crossing the Bridge," he returns, checks into the same hotel - the stately Grand Hotel de Londres - that featured in the previous film and sets out to record the sounds of the city. He cuts a half-crazed figure - lanky limbs, a barreled chest and a shaggy beard swaggering through the neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Kadikoy and more - that gives the film curious charm.
Beautifully shot and driven by terrific, often jaw-dropping performances, "Crossing the Bridge" has less in common with Wim Wenders "Buena Vista Social Club" than it does with the German auteur's "Lisbon Story," about a sound engineer who embarks on an enigmatic quest for found sounds in the Portuguese capital. In Akin's film, the camera lingers on crowded streets, random faces, the waters of the Bosphorus and the bridges that span it. The colors are lush and the structure is minimal, giving the music room to breathe.
Hacke is meticulous in his method. He sets up careful recording sessions for the musicians he meets - arranging the Kurdish singer Aynur in a sweltering bath house that elicits haunting acoustics, or capturing the rough and tumble street buskers of Siyasiyabend on a rooftop, as the sun sets, for one of the film's most intense and powerful moments.
On the other side of the camera and crew, Akin marionettes the plot with elegant subtlety. "Crossing the Bridge" begins young, with Istanbul's DJs (Orient Expressions), electronic musicians (the wildly experimental Mercan Dede), indie rockers (Duman and Replikas) and hip-hoppers. The MC Ceza raps at such ludicrous speed that video and audio slip away from one another. In a graceful editing move, a recorded and mastered soundtrack suddenly stops. After a pause, the scene gives way to Ceza's original voice, raw scratches, gasps for breath and all.
Then "Crossing the Bridge" digs deep, excavating Turkish superstars such as Erkin Koray (quite a 1970s style icon in addition to being a seminal influence on Turkish rock) and Orhan Gencebay (a famous actor in a long line of cheesy action flicks and a musician who caught no shortage of grief for reviving the saz, deemed too Islamic or Arabic at the time). Akin and Hacke also pull in a pair of larger-than-life divas - the venerable Sezen Aksu, who provides the film's finale with a performance of the schmaltzy, circa 1980s song "Memories of Istanbul," and Muzeyyen Senar, 86 years old and still in a command of a booming voice, though her register has sunk considerably since she was a young ingenue. Senar is a scream to watch, especially in the stiff salon setting so at odds with the gruff scenes that precede it. And to see what she does with her drink after she finishes a song is quite a shocker.
As a feature filmmaker, Akin is drawn to freaks, to characters who are wounded and bruised, unpredictable and outrageous and in the end deeply vulnerable despite the hard realities that should have left them callous. Despite it being a documentary, "Crossing the Bridge" is no different. A digression to the outlying town of Kesan with Selim Sesler, a clarinet player of boundless talent, uncovers the Gypsy roots of Turkish music in a lively bar-room jam session. Sesler's oud player suddenly bursts into playing his instrument as if it were a Spanish guitar. The crowd goes wild, listeners grope the musicians' heads, plant sumptuous kisses on their pates, and all the while the barman pulls draughts in double-time. It's a scene straight out of Kusterica, save for a different sound, and Akin's softer, more sensitive touch.
Fatih Akin's "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul" is screening Sunday at 7 p.m. For more information, please call +961 1 562 424