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Interview with Istanbul Festival Director Azize Tan

On April 5th, the 27th iteration of the International Istanbul Film Festival runs kicks off its 15-day run, screening 200 feature films in 20 categories. Festival-goers seeking alternatives to the flickering dark will find a robust program of seminars, workshops, concerts, exhibitions and parties. The Festival culminates on April 20th with the coveted Golden Tulip Award for the International Competition, juried by an elite force of cinema professionals led by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Festival director Azize Tan confesses her darkest anxieties and brightest hopes for the Festival and the Turkish film industry as both advance the country’s fitful love story with cinema.

Q: As you enter your second year as Festival director, what’s the first thought that comes to mind?

A: We are a lucky festival--we have the great support of our spectators. Last year we broke a record, 170,00 people.

Q: And the second thought?

AT: Is it good enough? What could I have done better? Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s the feeling of being late for something. When the festival is so close it’s the feeling haunting my soul.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

AT: Everything! Sometimes you have cancellations at the last minute, to get the prints on time, to get the organization to work clockwise, but since we are having our 27th edition this year we know all the problems and we try to avoid them before they occur.

Q: How many people are on your staff?

AT: Our festival is organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts…there are five people handing a big international festival. We also have music and theater festivals and a very important Istanbul Biennial for contemporary art.

Q: The IIFF began life with modest ambitions, but has since put Turkey on the world festival map. How does it differ from the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival?

AT: Our focuses are different. Antalya was founded as a national festival, 45 or 46 years ago, and it became international only very recently. Antalya is creating a force for Turkish cinema in Turkey, and its prize, the Golden Orange, is seen as the Turkish Oscars. We are also making a national competition, but our main aim is to create a platform for the promotion of Turkish cinema on the international level. That is why we invite a lot of outside journalists and festival directors, so they will invite Turkish films to their festivals. Plus we have the International Competition.

Q: Of the 12 films competing in this section, I see Turkey is represented by Semih Kaplanoğlu's film, Egg, which premiered at Cannes, and Hüseyin Karabey's My Marlon and Brando, which premiered at Rotterdam. Talk about the challenge of snagging premieres, and why you don’t seem to share the world’s obsession with them.

AT: With the increase of festivals around the world, it’s now harder to get films. The “A Category” festivals are fighting with one another for premieres. We are a thematic festival, and our policy is to reflect a festival of festivals. We are trying to reflect the best of the previous year’s festival, 2007-2008. We feature the best of Rotterdam and Berlin.

Q: One of your four competitions is co-presented with the Council of Europe, and your Meetings on the Bridge workshop series encourages joint Turkish and European project development. Is the IIFF’s tie with continental Europe a “continuation of politics by other means”?

AT: We have a competition on Human Rights in Cinema, since last year. It was a proposition from the Council of Europe to us. They chose Istanbul since they already had a section in our program, to emphasize our relationship and the importance of Turkey for Europe. I think in upcoming years it’s going to be an important award for human rights, and we are expecting to raise awareness on this topic.

Q: How intrusive is the Turkish government in filmmaking? Is censorship a problem?

AT: Censorship is not a problem like it used to be in Turkey, but the festival played an interesting role in the history of film censorship in Turkey. One year, maybe 1985, Elia Kazan was a guest of the festival, and we were screening his films. And five of the films in the fest were censored. A group of cineastes, together with Elia, opposed this. Afterwards the festival was not a part of the censorship. It was also a change in the understanding of the censorship. There was now a system of rating for the age of the viewer; this is the system they are trying to apply in the past couple of years, and they are trying to be consistent in it. Since it is a new application, there are problems, and in the next years I think it will work. A department within the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, they have a board, they see the films and they do the ratings.
Q: Has it become easier for Turkish filmmakers to address politically sensitive themes?

AT: There have always been political films in Turkey, but now there is more courage. And I think it’s a kind of readiness. For example, last year there were a lot of films dealing with the coup d’etat. This was very important since it showed that we are able to start talking about our history and our past and future problems. When you have a coup d’etat in 1980, you shouldn’t wait 27 years. There may have been some films dealing with the topic, but all of a sudden in one year if you have four films it means you have some sort of change in society. Before that it was a courageous attempt by a courageous director, but now it shows that we are in need of facing our problems and are ready to discuss them.

Q: Are Kurdish Turkish filmmakers free to express their views?

AT: There are Kurdish filmmakers making films, and their films are being shown around the world. This is a process and it’s going to get better and better. We have films in our competition and they are working very much, not only for Kurdish filmmaking. This is a period where we are struggling to have a better environment to express our thoughts and feelings instead of arguing with each other and killing each other all the time. Art is a perfect way to do it. This is not only on one topic or for the Kurdish, this is exactly the same for the Turkish directors.

Q: Violence toward women is a theme that crops up in several of this year’s Turkish selections. Comment on this phenomenon.

AT: Two films on honor killings are Havar, the first feature film from a well-known documentary filmmaker, Mehmet Güleryüz, and Hidden Faces, made by a woman director, Handan İpekçi.

Q: Was there a turning point in loosening the atmosphere for filmmakers?

AT: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won (the 2003 Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor Award) at Cannes (for his film Distant)--I think he opened a door for many Turkish films, the more personal, calm films with very beautiful cinematography and minimalist stories.

Q: Is there support for homegrown filmmaking—do Turks turn out for Turkish movies?

AT: Commercial cinema has been breaking records, with over two million for Omer Vargi’s dramatic thriller For Love and Honor—which is in the Festival program out of competition and which had a script from Yavuz Turgul, very successful--and four million for the comedy Recep Ivedek, whose leading role belongs to a guy who is very popular in his standup show on TV. These movies are going side by side (with arthouse fare), but I think this is a good thing for Turkish cinema. It is money in the industry, and it’s good for the whole business--for the filmmakers, for the distributers, for the whole industry. We’re expecting to have two or three (hits) each year. It kind of accelerates the whole industry. Still, we cannot really talk about a real industry in Turkey.

Q: What would it take to revive the golden age of Turkish cinema?

AT: In the 60s Turkish filmmaking was like Bollywood, a huge industry. Every year about 300 movies were produced. But after the 1980 coup d’etat, it stopped everything, and cinema as well. In the 90s it was kind of a rebirth--eight to ten films were being made--but now with the 2000s we have 40 to 60 films a year. We are trying to learn to become an industry again, and we are collaborating with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and are trying to pass new laws. A Cinema Law has passed very recently. There are some problems with the new law they passed, for example, with the delivery dates and the way the State sees it as a bank loan or credit, but they are trying to improve it to encourage more films. And now the film industry is collaborating with the Ministry to make it easier to get support.

Q: For the first time the Festival is presenting a sidebar of restored older films through your Turkish Classics Revisited sidebar. Have such vintage films influenced younger Turkish filmmakers?

AT: Turkish film has a tradition. Now there is a limit of genres, but in that time there were even cowboy films. The Snow White film was made in Turkey; there were films with aliens, horror films--there was a huge variety. Now there are enough genres exploited in Turkish cinema, but with high interest of Turkish audience in Turkish films, in time there will be more variety. Of course younger directors are very interested in and influenced by Atif Yilmaz. And Omer Lutfi Akad, one of the most interesting veteran directors of Turkish cinema, of course influenced younger Turkish directors. Their movies have had a big impact on the younger generation of directors, who are able to see them thanks to the platform.

Q: Have Islamic themes been prominent in recent Turkish films?

AT: I think for the Islamic themes TV production is more prominent than cinema. Some are being made, but not that much. Maybe it’s a problem of finance. Maybe it’s that the Islamic section of society does not have the habit to go to the cinema.

AT: Television remains a powerful industry in Turkey. Talk about its affect on national filmmaking, and say a few words about the sidebar sponsored by Turkish news channel NTV.

AT: Most Turkish directors make their living in television, advertising or theatre, and their films are largely distributed by foreign companies. For example, the director of The Messenger is very successful in television. He made three TV series. Others are working on advertising campaigns. There are no other kinds of openings for the actors and actresses--40 annual films are not enough to let them survive as artists. In the future there this has to change. It’s not a healthy relationship. NTV is sponsoring our documentary section, and afterwards some of the films are shown on NTV. With the success of the cinema, television will have to start investing in films, like Arte in France, where they are producing well in advance. It’s kind of problematic in Turkey, but it has to improve.

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