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Istanbul Independent Film Festival #1: Here We Go Again!

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Istanbul Independent Film Festival #1: Here We Go Again!

Going to the movies in Istanbul is an exercise in frustration and dread. The whole thing is geared toward making one hate the very experience of seeing a film at the cinema. A few old style movie houses remain, but they’re in a sorry state of disrepair. And since the city lacks historic movie theatres like The Music Box in Chicago or The New Beverly in L.A., or more modern yet sui generis enterprises like the Alamo Drafthouse chain, the discerning moviegoer must subject themselves to the seventh circle of hell that is the modern multiplex. Allow me to tell you about a recent trip.

The Book of Eli and Edge of Darkness both opened here last weekend, and, since I don’t have a life, I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon with Messrs. Washington and Gibson. It was chilly and overcast, so I called my local multiplex in advance lest my favorite seat get taken (all cinemas here have assigned seating, which is both a boon and a curse—like being a Werewolf). The automated voice at the end of the line said I was the eighth person in the queue. Five minutes later, my position had not changed. Suspicious, I called the number again from my mobile (I am nothing if not petty), and, whaddayaknow, I was the fifth customer in the queue.

Eventually, the voice said I was next in line, then the clouds parted: There was an actual ringtone. Ring, ring. I waited. Ring, ring. I waited some more. Ring, ring; and, finally, there was a subtle clickity-click at the other end of the line. “Hello?” Silence. “HELLO?” Silence. Then, a dial tone.

I was livid! I called the box office again, and my call was not answered—again. After my fourth try, I connected with a nimrod on the opposite side of the line. He got a piece of my mind, and I got my tickets.

Like a good customer, I got there to claim my ticket fifteen minutes before showtime. When I arrived at the booking counter, the lady said: “I want your signature on these slips.” Naturally, I corrected her: “You do not want my signature (Ali Mind Trick). You are requesting my signature. So the correct question would be: ’May I have your signature, please?’” (All this was in Turkish, naturally, the language of love.) All the while, the lines kept ringing, and the two guys who were manning them were too busy talking about football to notice, let alone answer the phone. But my ordeal would only get worse.

When I went into the theater to see what hilarity Mel had cooked up this time, I saw that my seat had turned into a makeshift cloakroom, adorned as it was with a pile of coats. There was no one on either side, but the people sitting behind me had decided that the best place to keep their clothes was not on their laps, or the two empty seats next to them, but mine. The couple reclaimed their coats, but not without muttering, but the dude behind me would have the last revenge as he insisted on kicking the back of my seat throughout the entire film.

I told myself to calm down, “You’re in your temple Arikan, embrace the moment.”

The ambient muzak stopped, the lights dimmed, the projector started to roll, and, alas, the absolute worst part of seeing a film at a multiplex started: Adverts. Fucking adverts. It’s not just that they are all horrible (they are). They never stop. They go on and on and on. Some multiplexes in Istanbul show trailers before they show adverts—others eschew trailers altogether. Yet, if there is one constant, it is the infernal, enervating, invidious adverts. I counted twenty two, including adverts disguised as “The film’s about to start” and “We care about your well-being while you’re here.”

Finally, forty minutes after the advertised starting time, the film began. But, the ushers, such as they are, had left the door open, so not only was there light noise coming from outside, but almost half the screen was illuminated with light from the lobby. I got up (but, thankfully, did not miss the opening shot of Edge of Darkness, which is unintentionally hilarious), closed the door, but not before I yelled “Is it too hard to close the door when the film starts?”

And it wasn’t too long after it had started—about forty-five minutes, in fact—when we had the customary intermission. Yes, every single movie, regardless of its length, gets an intermission in Turkey. Sometimes it’s after the third reel, other times the fourth, and, not infrequently, the second. If you think that’s annoying, then you’re going to love this: When the intermission is over, the film doesn’t automatically start from where it left off. Instead, you are bombarded with, yes, adverts! And they go on for about five to seven minutes.

Anyway, the film finally started, but I noted that the couple behind me had yet to come back from what I assumed to be their cigarette break. They arrived five minutes later, stinking of cigarettes, and, Oh, Sweet Jebus, McDonald’s! As bad as their takeaway artery-clogger reeked, I couldn’t fault them, not really, since I also bring drinks from outside, mainly because the going rate at a Turkish cinema for a bottle of water is a kidney. But I did fault them their decision to call their mates on the phone to find out where they would be going later that night. The conversation lasted four separate phone calls, and about fifteen minutes overall. The final cherry on top was the way the projectionist decided to cut off the credits halfway, and turn the muzak back on.

That’s my ordeal every time I go to the cinema. And there is nothing to be done about it. A few columnists have written about the adverts, but nothing’s changed. Besides, an even worse problem exists with which the general cinema-going populace are all too comfortable. More and more frequently, the projectionists dial down the intensity of the projectors’ lights, frame the picture badly, or mess with the sound. The choice one is left with is to leave the theater, talk to someone who doesn’t know a projector from his elbow, and miss a good portion of the film (have fun trying to get a refund at a cinema); or sit back, and enjoy a mediocre presentation. Sophie was lucky!

Yet another problem is the time it takes for films to reach these shores. Most blockbusters open in Istanbul in the same or a few weeks after their US debut. It’s the films that count that take their time. A Serious Man, for example, Jim Emerson’s favorite film of 2009 (if Jim likes a movie, you better pay attention), doesn’t even have a date yet. Neither does Crazy Heart, or A Single Man, or quite a few awards contenders. And smaller, more intimate movies, are lucky to even have a cinematic release here—most end up, unceremoniously, on DVD shelves, legally or not.

So film festivals are crucial to see small movies on the big screen. Istanbul has two of them—the Istanbul International Film Festival and the Istanbul Independent Film Festival, which traditionally precedes the former by a few months, and kicked off yesterday.

The festival plays fast and loose with the word independent, having featured, in the past, such questionably “independent” fare as The Producers and Serenity; and it also has a predilection for going for pseudo-indies such as this year’s Away We Go and An Education. Like her big sister, !fIstanbul (fucking hipsters!) hardly ever premieres a genuine surprise. Coming at the end of the circuit, it mostly features festival darlings of yesteryear, or ones that fell by the wayside when they could not quite make it. But I don’t mind—films are meant to be seen on the big screen, regardless of their merit.

This year’s festival has a good mix, too. Indies, studio indies, queer cinema, shorts, documentaries, and a few Turkish films, all of which I will be giving a miss (I don’t have to be on the first wave if we ever emulate the Romanians). It’s also very popular—most screenings have sold out, and the fucker has more sponsors than an AA meeting in Hollywood.

Mary and Max

I couldn’t make it to a screening yesterday, but I managed to catch Mary and Max earlier tonight, and, boy, am I glad I did! It is magnificent!

Written and directed by Oscar winner Adam Elliot, Mary and Max is the whimsical story of a pen-pal friendship between a lonely Australian girl called Mary (Bethany Whitmore, and, later, Toni Collette) and a lonely American man called Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Ignored by her parents, and lacking any friends at school, the eight-year-old Mary rips a page out of an American phone book at her local post office one day, and writes to Max, to ask him about where babies come from. Max, later diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome (questionable—he acts more like a high-functioning autistic), suffers a panic attack when he first reads the letter, then responds, in his own unique way. They start writing back and forth, and, very soon, a wonderful friendship is born. It will last decades.

At times, the film reminded me of Sylvain Chomet’s Les triplettes de Belleville. Its humor is broad, it’s heavily reliant on whimsy, and even though the two films have a totally different animation style (I’ve always preferred Elliot’s claymation work to Aardman’s—there, I’ve said it), the sense is the same. But Elliot’s is a much better movie than Chomet’s—and I love that Les triplettes!

A lot has to do with Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries’s omnipresent narration. Humphries has an uncanny line in detached yet sympathetic, and in moments of sudden death (which are aplenty), it is this very quality that rescues the film from almost unavoidable sappiness. Hoffman, his voice almost unrecognizable, does an equally impressive job with Max, as he molds a three-dimensional mentally disabled character, which never resorts to a Rain Man or Forrest Gump clone.

Some might say this is a dark film (for what it is, the film’s spectacularly colorful—New York’s noir cityscape in total contrast with the nostalgic sepia of Australia), but Mary and Max’s central theme of the importance of human connection left me with an overriding sense of happiness. Even though I was bawling my eyes out at the end…

Tomorrow, I meet a camp Indian cowboy, two Aboriginal car thieves, a lonely girl impregnated by her own father, and a bunch of undead Nazis. And I’m also going to see a few more films at the festival. Boom, boom.

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication. Follow his updates on Twitter.