When you see a group of people, young and old, huddled outside a cinema in a February weeknight downpour in Istanbul, you can be pretty sure they are not waiting to pour in to watch the latest Marvel flick. Only one kind of Istanbulite is that loyal to cinema, and they are the festival-goers. The !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, running in Istanbul from 18 – 28 February before hitting the road to screen at Turkey’s two other major cities, Ankara and Izmir (3 – 6 March).
Although Istanbul already boasts an international film festival about to enter its 35th year and a fair few short, animation and niche subject film festivals, the !F is always a little special. With its socially-aware, experimental, playful and at times downright eccentric selection of features and shorts; a parallel-running programme packed with workshops, interviews and parties; and a competition section for first- and second-time directors, this year’s has hosted guests including Adam Curtis and Alexander Skarsgård, whilst providing many chances for new international directors to talk directly to their audience.
As ever, !F remained strong this year in its manifesto of cinema as a form of activism, connecting people, experiences and cultures across a number of real and constructed divides. The festival is curated according to thematic sections, some of which change every year to reflect contemporary debate. Celebrating directors “with critical eyes and soft hearts”, the festival makes it is easy to delve into serious debate off the back of watching any of the films on offer. And they practice what they preach, too: under the !F2 film distribution project, the festival will be taking selected films to more than 30 cities with limited access to independent cinema, including Ramallah, Yerevan and Diyarbakir. Always an enjoyable week on the film festival calendar, here are our 5 top picks from this year’s !F Istanbul Independent Film Festival.
Kaili Blues (Gan Bi, China, 2016)
To recount the plot of Chinese director Gan Bi’s first feature Kaili Blues seems almost a disservice to what is a striking arthouse debut, rich with a poetic atmosphere and an expressive camera. We follow Chen (Yongzhong Chen), an ex-con now running a decrepit health clinic with an elderly nurse, as he sets off for rural China. Chen has a longstanding quarrel with his double-dealing and lazy brother “Crazy Face” due to an old inheritance squabble, and it’s soon clear Chen also cares more for his nephew Weiwei than his father. When his brother sends Weiwei off to relatives in a remote village, Chen decides to follow and bring him back. In the meantime, he will also be fulfilling a favour to his co-worker, who wants Chen to deliver some mementos to the man she was separated from during the Cultural Revolution. This film gives us much more than a simple dysfunctional family quarrel; an ‘on-the-road’ film with the vast majesty of Chinese rural landscapes and its people as equally central to our story as is the simple plot, Kaili Blues makes for pensive, hypnotic and at times unexpectedly playful viewing.
The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay, 2015)
A satire which touches on heavy subjects (ones that are especially back in the conversation since Spotlight’s recent Best Picture Oscar win), Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s style is extremely easy to watch and appreciate, with a humorous touch that has just enough of the paranoid and rebellious to keep the viewer surprised. Our protagonist (and screenwriter) Gonzalo Tomayo (Alvaro Ogalla) is a scruffy philosophy student a little past the age where he should still be one, seeking to erase his baptismal records and apostate from the Catholic faith. What starts off as a rebellious little idea, driven in equal parts by boredom and by his sexual attraction to his cousin Pilar, increasingly becomes a task he feels he must fulfill in order to decide his own identity, take control of his life, escape the clutches of his tearful “but-what-will-the-family-say” mother, and give his anti-authoritarian streak satisfaction, all in one. With dream sequences that could fit right in with the Dadaists and an eclectically brilliant soundtrack, El Apostata is the more intelligent and creative kind of feel-good film
The Boy and The Beast (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan, 2015)
Mamoru Hosoda’s anime fantasy The Boy and the Beast is a two-hour tonic for the child’s imagination in us all. Accomplished Japanese director Hosoda’s animation really should not be treated as a niche product for native speakers, anime fans or younger audiences at all: it is a beautifully-realised film with both hand-drawn and CGI action elements in harmony, a balance of dark moments and happily-ever-afters, and a coming-of-age story that celebrates the non-biological family we choose for ourselves. Nine-year-old orphan and runaway Ren (Aoi Miyazaki) stumbles upon Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), a anthropomorphic bear-monster who has come into the human world temporarily, disgruntled because he has to find an apprentice to teach if he is to have a shot at becoming a master. Ren follows Kumatetsu through the back alleys of a grey and crowded Tokyo and stumbles right into Jutengai, a fantastic world ruled by anthropomorphized animals. The two develop a gruff, boyish, tough-love relationship that is part father-son, part apprentice-master. Kumatetsu channels Ren’s angst into fighting skills and Ren stands up to Kumatetsu’s impatient, short-tempered bullishness, making him all the better a master for it. As Ren grows into young adulthood and the plot expands to include the real world and Ren’s actual past, Hosoda’s film grows increasingly complex and satisfying for the adult viewer, while remaining a visual feast for the eyes.
Into The Forest (Patricia Rozeman, Canada, 2016)
With hair-raising performances from its two leading ladies, Into The Forest is a tense thriller with an ecocritical agenda. Adapted from Jean Hegland’s popular novel, the film imagines the post-apocalyptic world in a quieter, more believable tone that still has distressing consequences. An insular and fittingly claustrophobic story, we meet spunky Nell (Ellen Page) and ethereal Eva (Evan Rachel Wood), two sisters who live in a stylish but inexplicable remote home in the Canadian woods. The year is clearly a few decades on, as the appliances they use are familiar but a notch or so more futuristic; however all three, like today, are very much reliant on them. When, one night, the power fails both in their region and what looks to be most of the continent, their lives are transformed completely. Fending for themselves through what becomes a series of both distressing events and moments of rediscovering connection with nature, director Patricia Rozema’s film relies on its leading ladies heavily, but it is not disappointed. Staying true to the novel with its focus on the sisterly bond, Into The Woods makes for tense and memorable viewing – if Rozema had pushed its intriguing criticism of our increasingly exclusive reliance on technology further, it could have added a further depth to complement its strong performances.
Grandma (Paul Weitz, US, 2015)
In this inter-generational dramedy with a feminist attitude, Paul Weitz’s Grandma is everything you first liked about American indie: sarcastic, loveable, headstrong. It is also a remarkably close description of our main character Elle, brought to life in a scene-stealing performance from Lily Tomlin. A brutally frank misanthrope and once-famous poet, Elle is fresh out of a break-up with her young girlfriend (Judy Greer) when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep asking for help. The two have until sundown to find $600 for Sage’s abortion; Elle is broke for various reasons; and turning to Sage’s high-strung CEO mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) is something they both want to avoid. So Grandma and Sage set out in a 1955 Dodge Royal, trying to add up the cash in a handful of hours. Revisiting ghosts of her past, old friends who owe her money, taking a detour to grandma-punch the cocky teenage boy responsible for Sage’s pregnancy, and finally sheepishly ending up in front of her daughter Judy’s treadmill desk, the two make for a heartwarming but punkish duo, the Tomlin half of which shoulders the entire film with effortless cool and acerbic wit. Weitz gives weight to the emotional encounters Elle has along the way, but the film ultimately celebrates female camaraderie and know-how, as well as keeping a lightness of touch in approaching the transgressive.
1. Still from Paul Weitz’s Grandma, 2015, Sony Pictures Classics.