The healing touch of cinema: !f Istanbul Film Festival begins

TRT World talks to festival director Serra Ciliv about how confronting painful realities through cinema can help to heal wounded souls in an age rife with war, xenophobia and nations divided over politics.

Photo by: !f Istanbul/handout
Photo by: !f Istanbul/handout

The War Show follows the story of a close-knit group of friends while weaving the story of the Syrian civil war into the narrative.

Melis Alemdar Melis Alemdar is a staff writer for TRT World. @preciseabandon

ISTANBUL, Turkey They seem like any other group of friends: young, in love, giggling, laughing, joking, taking pictures, playing with their pet dog... But keep watching and you start noticing that much of the laughter is bitter, that the jokes are laced with gallows humour, and the pet dog they adopted is only theirs to care for because its owners fled the country.

This is the “cast” of The War Show. The word cast is a slight misnomer, as they are real people in a documentary. Yet as the filmmakers point out, the performance aspect of war is a reality that undeniably overcomes the country as the film progresses, just as it encroaches on the lives of these Syrian twentysomethings.

The film follows the story of this close-knit group while weaving the story of the Syrian civil war into the narrative, along with footage of demonstrations, rebel fighters, and one especially memorable trip to the beach when the gang spend one of their last wonderful days all together.

Many of the cast members' names have been changed for their protection. That won’t be the only disturbing discovery you will make.

Hurting in order to heal

The film is one of dozens that will be playing to Turkish audiences this month.

“We’re living through times when everyone on the street is very melancholy, very anxious, very vulnerable,” Serra Ciliv, director of the independent film festival that is bringing the film to Turkey, observes. “Everybody is very wounded, they don’t know what to do with themselves, if they’re in the creative business they don’t know how to do it, don’t know how to express truth.”

Serra Ciliv and the festival staff work out of a modest office made from a shipping container. (Melis Alemdar/TRT World)

The ever-growing !f Istanbul Film Festival, an international festival that opens on Thursday, has picked “Things that Heal” as its theme this year, an apt choice given the state of the world: the ongoing war in Syria now in its sixth year, the resulting refugee crisis, increasing xenophobia in Europe, the turmoil brought on by the Trump presidency in the US – all of these have a much wider impact on global society and consciousness.

The War Show is part of !f Istanbul Film Festival’s competition section called Love & Change

“This is a film that hurts before it heals,” Serra Ciliv tells TRT World.

“We know there’s great pain outside; we are all aware. But every once in awhile looking truthfully at each other’s pain is a way – a tough way – to heal,” she explains. “But it is a way.”

The War Show may be bitter medicine, but !f Istanbul has picked many films to demonstrate this year’s theme, “Things that Heal”. Some are gentler than others. Rather than offering an outlet for pure escapism, this year’s festival encourages audiences to confront the reality of the state of the world.

One of Turkey’s most prominent festivals, celebrating its 16th year, !f has grown from 20 thousand viewers in its first year to 85 thousand viewers in 2016. This year it’s an 11-day, six-screen event in Istanbul, featuring a total of 126 films.

There will be additional five-day mini-fests in the coastal town of Izmir and in the Turkish capital of Ankara. There’s also !f’s film distribution project !f2 that brings five films to 42 different locations across Turkey and neighbouring regions. Tickets to many films, including T2 Trainspotting, have sold out quicker than you can say “!f Galas”, and four of this year’s selections have been nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards (Oscars).

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight is nominated for eight Academy Awards. (Courtesy of !f Istanbul Film Festival)

One of the Oscar-nominated films — in eight categories — is Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Ciliv, who saw the film in the Toronto Film Festival, says it really blew her mind.

“It’s a coming-of-age film of a black American boy who turns into a strong black man, who does justice to being black, to being a man, to being human.”

“He goes through a very difficult, very lonely path. It’s hard to grow up to be a wonderful person from where he’s coming from,” she tells TRT World. “This is a film that could heal us all."

Ciliv herself came of age in the 1990s, and she says that thanks to the success of the underground parties she organised with her friends in her twenties, and the like-minded souls she met there, she is where she is today. The unpublicised, word-of-mouth “Orient Nation” parties in Istanbul started out relatively modest, bringing together 200 people from the creative industries; the last one was bursting at the seams with 1,500 attendees.

At the time, a theatre chain (AFM, now primarily owned by Mars) was interested in starting a film festival. So three women who didn’t know anything about putting together a film festival ended up putting together a film festival. Their success wasn’t just a stroke of luck, either.

Ciliv says she and her partners were initially criticised for attempting something they knew nothing about, but theirs is a tale of success that proved naysayers wrong.

“Starting from zero – and as they say in Turkey, ‘finding your way all the way to Baghdad simply by asking for directions on the way’ – by including people in the organisation, learning a lot from others, you can make great strides,” she says, smiling.

“The reason our first festival was such a success, I think,” she muses, “is because we didn’t know how to organise a festival as a business, because we asked everyone for help, because we were open to working with everyone and lacked a certain snobbiness.”

!f’s collaborative, open-minded approach means that films that haven’t yet established a release date can still reach an audience. Turkish director Reha Erdem’s Big Big World is one. “That’s why we scheduled it to be screened under !f2,” Ciliv says. “We think it should be seen everywhere.”

Reha Erdem's Big Big World tells the tale of two orphans trying to survive in an unforgiving world. (Courtesy of !f Istanbul Film Festival)

The film tells the tale of a pair of teenage orphans. The boy-girl duo escape the city, away from the clutches of Zuhal’s adoptive father – who has less-than-fatherly designs on her – but soon find it is hard to survive in an unforgiving world, with no safety net or social network.

The girl Zuhal hesitantly asks the boy Ali about the woods they end up in: “Are we scared of this place?” Full of macho posturing, he brushes it off: “No, why would we be!"

Mohamad Siam’s Whose Country? is a documentary that follows the lives of policemen in Egypt. (Courtesy of !f Istanbul Film Festival)

Then there are films that have made the rounds of international festivals. Mohamad Siam’s Whose Country? is a documentary that follows the lives of policemen as it takes a clear-eyed look at Egypt after Mubarak. The film observes the country begining with the heady days of the 2011 uprising, and the rise and fall of Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood that followed. It ends after Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s coup d’etat.

"I never thought I'd find myself filming a story about the police in my country,” Siam says in the film, “Or that I would get this close to one of them."

“An entire country can accept the fact that a person can love anyone," Ciliv says about The Queen of Ireland(Courtesy of !f Istanbul Film Festival)

Ciliv gives an example of an uplifting film featured in the Rainbow section called The Queen of Ireland, “a documentary of a character named Panti Bliss who stumbles into campaigning for gay marriage in Ireland.”

“Even in countries we know as very conservative, it’s possible to leave behind some problems related to love,” she points out. “An entire country can accept the fact that a person can love anyone – because it happens by referendum – that’s a very healing thing, especially in these times.”

Ciliv believes that the arts can help relieve people’s frustrations.

“This is what heals us,” she says. “Creativity, the belief in our cells that creativity, the creative parts in ourselves that believe we can be set free, by music, sound, visuals, poetry.”

“We don’t claim to have an answer,” she says, but the fact that she’s even looking, and many are looking along with her, suggests that the arts, specifically cinema, may be able to bring a healing touch to souls that need it the most.

Bringing that healing through truth can involve serious risk-taking for the filmmakers. One of the directors of The War Show says experiencing the Syrian conflict is even more dangerous for those who are trying to film it.

"We have to also understand that if taking part in a revolution was dangerous, taking a camera with you was extremely dangerous,” Andreas Dalsgaard said in an interview last September. “There were always snipers on the roofs, and the first ones they would take out were the ones with cameras."

Thanks to the ones with the cameras, the world is richer, and perhaps, despite all that is wrong with it, has a chance to find some healing, if even in a small way.