A first take of the Turkish Competition at the 59th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival

A Woman Escapes in the Mirror

We are already halfway through at the 59th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. I have decided that I would focus mainly on the National Turkish competition this time around, and I have already discovered a couple of absolute gems in the very eclectic and stimulating lineup curated with the utmost care by Başak Emre. And there are still five films to go! But before we get into the meat of the matter, I have to say that it’s such a joy to see a (big!) room filled to capacity every afternoon for each screening, with a lot of young audience in attendance and not just critics and industry people for a change. After sitting in the National Debut Feature jury in Istanbul last April, seeing young Turkish cinephiles responding again with such unbridled enthusiasm to the offerings of their highly engaging national cinema is a thing of pure beauty after those couple of bumpy COVID years, proving that contrary to popular belief audience communion in front of the big silver screen is not doomed – or a thing of the past – when festivals put their back into it and the right infrastructures are on offer, which is more than the case in this splendid Turkish seaside resort! So big kudos to everyone involved at the Antalya Golden Orange Festival in these difficult times.

Offering a (competitive) lineup of ten titles is not an easy task, and I know what I’m talking about, for I’ve been doing this myself as a programmer for the past five years at Giornate degli Autori in Venice. You have to take into account so many complex and at times conflicting parameters to succeed in pleasing the highbrows, the industry and most importantly the audience! With the first five feature films screened, we already get a pretty clear idea of Başak Emre’s programming touch and I am loving it! She has successfully managed to make quality crowd-pleasers cohabit with more adventurous and even radical cinematic propositions/offerings and there is not a single film here that really demerits, even though I do have my coups de cœur.

Speaking of which, let’s start with Mirror Mirror, Belmin Söylemez’s sophomore feature shot in present-day Istanbul. Her debut feature, Present Tense, won the New Directors Prize at the San Francisco FF and the Yılmaz Güney Special Jury Award at the Golden Boll FF. With Mirror Mirror she dives into the city’s contemporary stage/theatre world, interweaving three female narratives in a choral modern drama with an exquisitely elegant mise-en-scène that flows delicately despite a relatively long duration (the film stops right before the two-hour mark). I was truly wowed by Söylemez’s sophisticated and yet simple direction, her attention to infinitesimal details, be it in the art direction or the superb cinematography by Vedat Özdemir. Istanbul has never been as poetically and sensually shot on film in my book. Remember this name guys, Belmin Söylemez! I wouldn’t be surprised to see her land a slot in Berlin, Cannes or Venice with her next project.

Another absolute tour de force was A Woman Escapes, co-directed by Burak Çevik, Sofia Bohdanowicz, and Blake Williams, which world-premiered at FID Marseille a few months ago. This video-epistolary visual poem evoked in me the hazardous encounter between Straub-Huillet and Bi Gan, with occasional Akerman touches here and there. The late Belgian director’s documentary work comes to mind in some of the Parisian scenes where Audrey (a luminous and very touching Deragh Campbell) tends to the home of her recently deceased friend, Juliane. But this profusion of auteurist references or possible interpretation paths, far from starching the musing narrative, elevates the film to a quasi-transfixing film body experiment. The singular and challenging use of 3D in very specific film interludes or rather segments (a practice already explored by Blake Williams with great success in his previous films shown at TIFF, Locarno, Berlinale and MoMA – NYC, and that he masterfully applies to a three-hander feature this time round) offered some cathartic and immersive moments of pure cinematic bliss. But I have decided I will devote a full review to this one as soon as possible, so stay tuned! It will most certainly feature in my top ten favourite films of the year. We‘re in the slow-burn masterpiece territory here!

Hollow is the new film by Onur Ünlü, a very famous director locally for his numerous and extremely popular TV series but also for his feature films rewarded in the recent past, either here or at the Istanbul Film Festival. He won the Best Director award in Antalya for Let’s Sin back in 2014 and the Best Screenplay award in 2009 for Beş Şehir so he can be considered as a habitué of the Anatolian festival. Starring an iconoclastic and borderline riotous duo of A-list local actors with Serkan Keskin and Settar Tanrıöğen, this noirish thriller taking place in Cyprus during a company-paid luxury vacation that will go… bonkers (trust me!) was received rapturously by the afternoon crowd. Its Coen Brothers tone worked wonders beyond the language and cultural barrier (some scenes are truly over-the-top) and this is the very type of dark comedy Hollywood steals and turns into an oft-polished American remake, so get prepared for the US version of Hollow in the upcoming years. Serkan Keskin already won the Best Actor award here in Antalya with the same director back in 2014, but he nonetheless is the frontrunner to get the same laurel again at this stage of the competition.

A Hope by Ümit Köreken is probably the weakest link for me so far, mainly because of too many editing flaws and a narrative that felt too cryptic and almost detached from its characters to follow at times, but I would nonetheless like to praise the impeccable acting all around and the sharp lensing. I just wish I could have understood the storyline with more discernment.

Hara by Atalay Taşdiken was your typical crowd-pleaser that basically tells the story of a young girl and her horse on a ranch. It has a gigantic heart (and there is nothing wrong with that, is there?) once again elevated by top-notch acting, but also chiselled dialogue and a genuine, humanistic approach to storytelling. This one will not revolutionize the medium but not every single film has to, and as I said in my preamble, we do also need super audience-friendly films in any given competition provided that said crowd-pleaser offers the strict minimum in terms of artistic merit beyond a generic TV film, and that was totally the case with Hara.

I will be back with a second extensive wrap-up of the National Turkish competition once the last five films have been screened.