Turkey's art house film-makers hope for further success

Still from Belmin Soylemez's Present Tense
Image caption Films such as Present Tense tell intimate personal stories as Turkish society experiences rapid change

Turkey's cinema is in rude health, making more films than any other European country apart from France, as well as securing major international prizes. With critics singing their praises, can the country's art house directors create the next big thing in international cinema?

Turkish cinema has had a very good few years. Director Semih Kaplanoglu's Bal picked up the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear in 2010, while director Nuri Bilgi Ceylan was the joint winner of the Grand Prix for his Once Upon Time in Anatolia.

In recent years, Turkish cinema has been defined by directors such as Ceylan and Kaplanoglu, with their beautifully crafted films invariably capturing little-seen parts of Turkey's vast and varied landscape, telling intimate stories.

But in the wake of their success there is a new wave of directors now pushing Turkish film in a new direction.

"My aim is being different, we can say Nuri and Semih did poetic films, but I want to put a more political edge," says Orhan Eskikoy, the co-director of The Voice of My Father.

"I want to show more than the others, the reality of Turkey. We are seeing more directors looking more into the political problems. We are always told in Turkey we have enemies, but what is the enemy? Who is the enemy. Step by step, we will see other styles and other points of view in film."

'Power of cinema'

Eskikoy was speaking in Istanbul at the gala mainstream opening of his film, and fresh from picking up the country's most lucrative film festival prize, the Adana Film Festival's Golden Cocoon. My Father's Voice, which is already screening in Germany, deals with two of the most contentious issues in Turkish society - the country's treatment of its Kurdish minority and the predicament of the Alevis, an often persecuted religious minority in Turkey.

The film is loosely based on the family story of fellow Kurdish director Zeynel Dogan.

"What I wanted to tell with the film was a story that is close to me. What I went through, what I experienced," says Dogan. "I think that there is now a consensus, a relationship about the power of cinema to change things in Turkey."

Strong, intimate stories are the common factor in the latest crop of films coming from the country's emerging directors. "It's a look into the daily life today of ordinary people, that's why I called my film Present Tense," says director Belmin Soylemez. "It is a look through the eyes of ordinary people of the changing society in Istanbul and Turkey. We are questioning all the changes that are taking place."

Present Tense, which has won a string of awards at Turkish festivals and is now beginning to be shown abroad, tells the story of a young woman desperately trying to raise funds telling fortunes so she can live in the US.

"Many young people - especially the well-educated - are trying to go abroad, as they feel they don't have a place here anymore," Soylemez says.

'Getting stronger'

At a Q&A, an international film critic drew parallels with Present Tense, and Argentina's new-wave cinema, characterized by gritty portrayals of the country through ordinary lives. With Turkey going through an economic, political and cultural transformation, there are rich pickings for film-makers.

Image caption Belma Bas is one of the new wave of Turkish female directors

Soylemez is part of a growing movement of women directors making their presence felt in Turkey's new cinema. "Definitely they are braver," says female director Ilksen Basarir.

"Because maybe they think' 'We have just one chance.' That is why we want to tell the most powerful story we have. Because every time I say, 'OK, maybe I can't shoot another one.'" Basarir's film Merry Go Round deals with incest, still a taboo subject to discuss in Turkey.

"Women directors they are much involved in social problems and the political issues that they are experiencing," says Professor Tul Akbal Sualp of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "They are getting stronger, I guess."

Belma Bas's Zephyr won the best picture prize at the International Women's Film Festival in Germany earlier this year. The film is about the fraught relationship between a single mother and her child, which ends in tragedy. It was filmed in the stunningly beautiful and isolated Black Sea alpine region.

"I try to create strong female characters in my films, but that does not make them women's films. There is such an absence of strong women characters in films... something has to change".

But Bas, like her fellow new film-makers and even established independent directors like Ceylan and Kaplanoglu, struggles to get her films seen in Turkey. Such features not only compete in Turkey against Hollywood imports - but also more mainstream Turkish films.

A walk down Istanbul's famous Istiklal Avenue, with its numerous cinemas, clearly illustrates how mainstream Turkish films often produced by its huge TV soap industry dominate the screens.

"The distributors want only mainstream Turkish films," says Soylemez. "There is irony in that more people see our films abroad than in Turkey, which its very sad. We want audiences across Turkey, especially the young, to see our films, but the number of venues for independent films is getting smaller and smaller, with so many art house cinemas closing."

Overseas recognition

Istanbul is in the midst of a massive property boom that is driving up rents and forcing many independent cinemas out of business. Increasingly cinemas are the domain of the chains, driven by the bottom line.

Image caption Most of Turkey's cinemas show only mainstream films

Turkish film festivals, which are growing in number across the country, remain the main venue for screenings of independent films.

For now, Turkey's emerging new directors look overseas for recognition and the richest pickings. "It's very exciting for me," says Eskioglu. "Three or four years ago only two directors traveled to the festivals - Nuri and Semih - now there are younger directors going abroad, getting prizes.

"Also the foreign audience cares about them, are interested in films from Turkey. With this attention our responsibilities are higher so we try to do it better."