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Doc, art house aesthetics meet in Anatolia

  • Led by Qasim Agha (Selim Bulut), centre, “three blind minstrels” play a pivotal role in Karabey’s film. (Photos courtesy of IKSV)

  • Berfe (Feride Gezer) and her granddaughter Jiyan (Melek Ulger) spend a moment beneath a Kurdish wishing tree.(Photos courtesy of IKSV)

ISTANBUL: The cinema screen brightens upon the vista of a gloomy mountain face. Wind howls across the weather-beaten landscape, tearing at what little vegetation there is in the frame. There’s no sign of human life.

Even if you’ve stumbled into the main hall of the Atlas Cinema by accident, you immediately know this is a Turkish film, Huseyin Karabey’s “Come to my Voice.”

The film relates the tale of three generations of one Anatolian family – the elderly Berfe (Feride Gezer), her son Temo (Tuncay Akdemir) and his young daughter Jiyan (Melek Ulger).

A Turkish army patrol passes through the village this evening in search of insurgents, or at least weapons. The troops turn the houses upside down but find nothing. The captain of the unit employs a snitch, however, who informs them that every house in the village has either an AK-47 or an automatic handgun hidden somewhere.

The captain duly arrests the male heads of all the households, including Jiyan’s dad, informing the mukhtar (a mayor-like village head) that they won’t be released until they bring him the arms they’ve been hiding. The draconian measure puts the villagers in a tight spot, since none of them actually have any arms to hand over.

After a day or two, Berfe decides to act, handing over the carcass of an antique shotgun her grandfather would have used during the Wild West days of the Ottoman Empire. The captain isn’t amused, and the balance of the film follows Berfe and Jiyan as they try to procure a firearm to get Temo released.

Karabey’s fourth feature, “Come to my Voice” is competing in the national competition of the Istanbul International Film Festival (IKSV).

A sprawling 15-day affair that’s dominated the city’s cultural agenda for the better part of April, IKSV has held back its national competition screenings until late in its schedule, luring squads of hacks to inspect what’s new in a scene that’s dominated by indie filmmakers. The competition is of particular interest to anyone invested in Middle Eastern cinema, since Turkey is one of the great powerhouses of the region’s cinema.

Huseyin Karabey began his career in documentary, and his fiction film work reflects that practice – both in his reliance on non-professional actors, and the socially engaged themes his films address. As he was born into Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the filmmaker has devoted the lion’s share of his creative energies to stories from the margins of the country’s experience.

Set among the country’s political prisoners, his “F Tipi Film” (2012) depicts nine stories of resistance to solitary confinement. “Gitmek: My Marlon and Brando” (2008) is a road movie following the efforts of a young actor to find her lover, another actor, who’s gone missing after relocating to Iraqi Kurdistan.

His approach has proven popular with audiences. Critics have also become intrigued by Karabey’s departure from norms of Turkey’s art house narrative. Well-known Turkish indies like Nuri Belge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu tend to go long on cinematography – sumptuous landscape photography of Anatolia and the Black Sea Coast that is the envy of aspiring filmmakers elsewhere in the region – but short on story – marked by minimalist plotting, terse dialogue and allusive characterization.

With “Come to my Voice,” Karabey comes as close as he has yet done to reconciling his documentary interests with the aesthetics of his art house colleagues. Central to this success is the lensing of cinematographer Anne Misselwitz, who also cut her teeth in documentary.

Intimate close-ups of Karabey’s cast dominate the language of this 105-minute feature, yet it returns to the rugged mountains that commence the film, and Misselwitz is as successful at casting the landscapes of the human face as she is that of Anatolia.

Karabey delights in setting his characters within the cultural practices that make them a distinct society. This is most apparent in the use of the Kurdish language – and the often-acrimonious stance the Turkish security forces have taken toward people using it.

A microbus driver moving along a mountain road keeps his passengers entertained with a cassette tape of Kurdish folk music. As he approaches an army checkpoint, he flips the tape to side B, where he’s recorded some Turkish tunes. The army captain recognizes the vocalist but notes he hasn’t heard this album before. So he confiscates the tape.

“Come to my Voice” leaves few pop cultural stones unturned.

After its evocation of Anatolia at the start, the film moves to the city to begin in earnest. A Kurdish father figure comes home to a traditional storytelling session – actually an evening of traditional song, featuring three blind minstrels and a host of musicians playing frame drums.

The story they tell is that of Berfe, her son Temo and his daughter Jiyan – the film’s principal narrative. As the film unfolds, the three performers, led by Qasim Agha (Selim Bulut) themselves enter the action, and play an integral role in its outcome.

The folk tale the three minstrels perform itself enfolds a folktale, which Berfe begins to recite to Jiyan one evening when she can’t sleep, and to which she returns over the course of the film. It’s the story of a fox that falls afoul of a wily grandmother when caught eating her cache of wheat – an allegorical reflection upon Berfe and Jiyan’s story.

There is even a moment when Berfe and her granddaughter are placed before a traditional Kurdish wishing tree. The grandmother encourages Jiyan to write a wish on a piece of paper and tie it to a tree branch, which by this point is weighed down with so many hopes that it resembles a Christmas tree.

Lest one accuse Karabey of being an Orientalist, for only calling upon antique folk traditions, he also reproduces a few of more recent vintage.

After his captain leaves the village mukhtar with his guns-for-detainees ultimatum, the sergeant of the garrison drops round to make a deal with the village headman.

“Look,” he says, “I know your people don’t really have any guns, so I’m going to help you out. I’ll supply you with some weapons to hand in. Just take a collection from among the villagers and I’ll take what you raise in exchange for arms.”

The mukhtar agrees eagerly.

The Istanbul International Film Festival continues through 20 April. For more information, see

http://film.iksv.org/en

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

The cinema screen brightens upon the vista of a gloomy mountain face.

The captain isn't amused, and the balance of the film follows Berfe and Jiyan as they try to procure a firearm to get Temo released.

Huseyin Karabey began his career in documentary, and his fiction film work reflects that practice – both in his reliance on non-professional actors, and the socially engaged themes his films address.

Central to this success is the lensing of cinematographer Anne Misselwitz, who also cut her teeth in documentary.

Intimate close-ups of Karabey's cast dominate the language of this 105-minute feature, yet it returns to the rugged mountains that commence the film, and Misselwitz is as successful at casting the landscapes of the human face as she is that of Anatolia.

The folk tale the three minstrels perform itself enfolds a folktale, which Berfe begins to recite to Jiyan one evening when she can't sleep, and to which she returns over the course of the film.


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