When Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Best Director Award for Three Monkeys at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008, he ended his speech with a simple sentence: “I dedicate this film to my lonely and beautiful country, which I passionately love.” The speech itself had been more elegiac than jubilant, delivered with the director’s dulcet tone, a short melody of gratitude to a festival that had done more than any other for this Young Turk’s career. But it was that final dedication that will echo in the hearts of his fellow countrymen and women for a long time. With one brief line, he captured the very gist of modern Turkey: a solitary land of infectious passions, tragic beauty, and deep melancholy.
Naturally, what’s true of Turkey is even more true of Istanbul. The city’s allure is magical; its sense of isolation at the crossroads of the East and the West palpable; its passions explosive. It’s not at all surprising that this city of contrasts, which seems to defy the fabric of convention itself, has given rise to a particularly unique musical scene.
More on that in just a short while: first, a detour. It’s a shame that the cinema of Turkey is generally synonymous, in the dorm rooms of vexatious frat boys at least, with cheapo knock-offs of Hollywood blockbusters. It’s certainly true that those films are funny (even though the real point of the most infamous one of them all, Dünyay? Kurtaran Adam aka The Turkish Star Wars, has been lost in all the fanboy hype—it’s not just a spoof of Hollywood, it’s a spoof of spoofs and of knock-offs, too); but they represent the nadir of an industry that found itself unable to adapt to the parallel rise in both the popularity of television and the physical costs of film in the 1970s.
The twenty or so years from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s are infinitely more interesting, not just to cineastes, but also to more general lovers of film. Turkish cinema—or its metonym Yeşilçam, after the street in the sleazy Beyoğlu district of Istanbul where many of the local film companies had their studios (as in apartments, not back-lots)—lived through its halcyon years in that period, when Turkish output was about 300 films per year on average, the sixth biggest in the world. Remarkable for a country ravaged by wildly fluctuating economic and political instability.
Looking back at many of the films from the era, one’s overall appreciation is divided between a nostalgic longing for the old days, or—and this would be more true to non-Turkish viewers—a purely academic interest. Ironic detachment, that most annoying of qualities when appreciating a work of art, is almost impossible to forfeit for even the least cynical of viewers. The more popular fare of Yeşilçam’s heyday is at times naïve to the point of nausea—the comedies, musicals and the tragedies, the three most popular genres of the time are virtually interchangeable—based on one simple storyline with three different endings.
Aside: One could argue the same goes for the more arthouse output of the late ’70s with one obvious exception: Şerif Gören and Yılmaz Güney’s Cannes triumph Yol (The Way). You could say the same of the latter director’s many other films, which, even though they have more in common with turn-of-the-century Marxist village stories of Russia (understandable, given that particular auteur’s personal politics), are, nonetheless, universal triumphs (here’s a link to an excellent piece on Güney by Bilge Ebiri).
But what all these films, from the naïve to the highbrow, had in common was an impeccable sense of time and place. Snapshots of the tangible as well as the intangible, they were ornate sets of looking glasses into the life of a country.
And it was the obliteration of that sense that was the most terrible result of the decline of homegrown Turkish cinema in the late ’70s. As the country got richer, and interest in cinema started to rise again from its ashes (thanks, ironically, to television, and constant repeats of old Turkish films on various networks), a second golden age was heralded in the early nineties. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but the current output has been increasingly more interesting. After almost three decades running from itself, Turkish cinema has started to embrace that lonely, passionate, beautiful country.
Unlike its Romanian or Iranian counterparts, Turkish cinema has yet to make the leap from “curious esoterica” to “universal art.” It’s also still too early to speak of a Turkish New Wave. I would be the happiest little Turk alive (Turkling? Turklet?) if Yeşilçam were able to make that leap into genuine greatness, but it’s simply impossible to substantiate that claim as we near the end of the decade. Ceylan is this country’s only true bona-fide auteur. There are other exciting filmmakers like Zeki Demirkubuz or Yeşim Ustaoğlu (whose recent film Pandora’s Box is delightful), and I feel they have their best work still ahead of them.
But the one figure in Turkish cinema who speaks to me much more personally than any other is Fatih Akın (even though he’s actually German). Born in Hamburg to Turkish immigrant parents, Akın had a fairly successful career with “mid-brow” fare until his break-out neo-Yeşilçam saga Head-On won The Golden Bear in Berlin in 2004. His perspective as an outsider looking in to Turkish life and Turkish cinema, in the aforementioned festival darling or the far-more accomplished—and misunderstood—The Edge of Heaven (tell me that my soul’s forgiven), are closer to my own than any other Turkish filmmaker. Having lived more than half my life outside Turkey, my—fairly recent—return to Turkey was somewhat traumatic, and I find tiny glimpses of that in Akın’s vision. Identity is of key interest to him, and in Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), Akın explores how crucial music is to identity formation, and vice versa.
Unlike Head-On, which is a bona fide classic, and the best homage to Turkish cinematic melodrama, Crossing the Bridge is much less coherent, even wobbly at times, and unsure of itself. Though it crackles with wit and joy and zeal, it also struggles to live up to the director’s previous magnum opus (it’s also far less confident than The Edge of Heaven). The present that is Crossing The Bridge is unable to burst through the past that is Head-On, which is an unintentional meta commentary on Istanbul itself.
A documentary on the Istanbul music scene, the film begins with what sounds like an apocryphal quote from Confucius—that to understand a people, one need only listen to their music. A few seconds later, it is revealed that it comes from the lead singer of the popular (among the kids, at least) street-band Siyasiyabend, with eyes glazed so vividly from Turkish homegrown that they could be mistaken for a pair of Christmas hams. Later in the film, he will make the egregiously inaccurate statement that hard drugs only started to appear in Istanbul in the last few years. So those infamously subfusc Ottoman opium dens used to sell figs, I take it.
The film is chock full of these semi-profound soundbites, but the quote that opens the film is accurate in describing Istanbul: certainly the current music scene is much less a harmonious amalgamation of Eastern and Western forms, and more an amorphous, cacophonic chimera, and if one were inclined to stretch the metaphor, one could easily do so, and use it to describe the city itself, its architecture, its politics, its economy, but, most importantly, its people. The film captures that sense perfectly—what Yesilcam was most adept at doing. Most of the subjects might not be much to listen to (talking, singing, or playing), but the way they are presented is nothing short of beautiful.
Crossing The Bridge documents a musical journey, undertaken, ostensibly, by Alexander Hacke, the bassist for the German avant-garde powerhouse, Einstuerzende Neubauten (which, incidentally, is what I shall call my firstborn), as he tries to get a sense of the city’s musical panorama, having been fascinated by what he had seen of it when he came to the busy metropolis during the making of Head-On (he had worked on the score). Hacke, replete with his Euro-hipster swagger, and facial hair that borrows from, nay plagiarises, Fassbinder, saunters his sweaty stuff, somewhat annoyingly at first, through the hot and humid streets of Istanbul, all the while meeting a wide range of musicians—some of them great, others good, and not a fair few fucking terrible.
Siyasiyabend I’ve already mentioned. A few friends have heard of them, and they come recommended. “Why,” is the only word that comes to mind as the lead singer rolls a fatty and goes off on an acoustic meander overlooking the Golden Horn, the offshoot waterway into the heart of the European part of the city, renowned for its beauty. Gingerly, he croons to a pedestrian three-chord progression emanating from two acoustic guitars—one of which is most definitely out of tune. The scene is shot with such precision and such respect for the band, that one almost, ALMOST, overlooks the fact that the irony of bitching about shallowness while smoking a blunt is lost on this most over-earnest modern-day troubadour.
Sitting here in the middle class confines of an office cubicle, their world is as foreign to me as it must be for those living in NYC. This, though, is the reality of the city: hubs like Beyoğlu, the Mos Eisley of Istanbul, bring people together, and, most of the time, there is nothing in common but the music. A Canadian accompanies a Gypsy band during a traditional Thracian ballad; a Kurdish soprano makes use of the perfect acoustics of an archaic Ottoman bath; a Turkish pop star covers Madonna’s “Music.” Identities mesh, music prevails.
The cardinal sin of reviewing a film must be criticizing it for omissions it never cared about including in the first place. With a documentary such as this, I shall allow myself some leeway. The film does not document the city’s Greek, Armenian or Jewish music, which is a shame since all have had an indelible impression on what is now called the Turkish sound. And it’s also not because some of the inclusions are questionable not just for their musical talents, but also how representative they are of the scene itself. Take, for example, Ceza, the most famous of the recent Hip Hop singers from Istanbul. That his name means punishment in Turkish is apt since his music lacks both the subtle sophistication of latter-day American hip hop, and the poetry of mid-’90s rap, and as such sounds like someone having an episode, or speaking in tongues, or both. His entourage only make Ceza’s scenes all the more risible, as they bounce around Moda, a very affluent neighborhood on the Asian side, looking like the Hobbiton chapter of the Kris Kross Fan Club (Jump, yo!).
The Beyoğlu rock scene is not much to write home about, either. Try as they might, most of them can’t help but sound like 1983. Maybe I am being overly mean about this, but spend at least an hour in a Beyoğlu rock bar with a live band, and you’ll agree with me. Call me traditionalist, but I like my rock like I like my bed: Rocking! (You can also call me Al, but you’ve got to be my bodyguard first.)
Just like Turkish music itself, though, the film finds its niche as Akin and Hacke start to go ethnic. As they stray away from the confines of the city’s petit bourgeois youth toward more authentic sounds, the promise of the earlier scenes draws one back in, and never lets go. Their trip into the gypsy hinterland of Eastern Thrace is so full of joy, one can’t help but dance to the mesmerizing beats (especially if one has had a few bevvies, which, as the film also attests, is the best way to enjoy the music of the Turkish gypsies). It is from that moment on that the film transcends its raison d’etre; the musicians that follow—the sombre Orhan Gencebay, the vivacious Müzeyyen Senar (alas, not anymore since the 90-odd-year-old diva has recently had a stroke), and the legendary Sezen Aksu—form such an amazing trifecta that one forgets about the likes of Ceza, or Siyasiyabend, or any of the other rather bland, yet perfectly representative, acts. Crossing the Bridge is a bizarre film with parts that collapse like a house of cards. Yet when put together, one has a taste not just of the music of Istanbul, but of the city itself.