Film's international face
By Sarah Tomlinson, Globe Correspondent | November 16, 2005
If cinema is truly a universal language, then Boston filmgoers have many opportunities in the coming days to converse with films from around the world.
Three festivals, celebrating cinema from Iran, Turkey, and Ireland — the 10th Boston Turkish Festival, the 12th Annual Boston Festival of Films From Iran, and the Seventh Annual Magners Irish Film Festival — are bringing films and filmmakers to local audiences, and the Iranian and Turkish events seem especially filled with the kinds of characters and images and ideas that most American moviegoers have rarely, if ever, experienced.
Festival organizers are enthusiastic about the confluence of these three events, as they are about their own individual programs, and they hope these alternative cinematic voices will draw the sizeable audiences they deserve — though they’re quick to acknowledge the realities of the moviegoing public.
‘‘My own hunch is that as times get tougher in some ways — and I’m particularly referring to war and devastation and struggle of various sorts — how much do people want to see films about Africa as a continent, or films that deal with difficult issues of unrest in general?’’ says Bo Smith, a film studies professor at Boston College and the head of film and video at the Museum of Fine Art, who organized the Iranian film festival. ‘‘I think there’s more and more that should be learned from [these kinds of international film festivals], but I’m not sure the appetite keeps growing.’’
It’s certainly not for lack of trying among presenters, or for their being uncannily in step with recent world events. Turkey is a crucial economic and strategic hub that straddles, as it has for centuries, the often competing ideologies of Europe and the Middle East; just last week, Turkey took a significant step in its slow and laborious process toward joining the EU. Iran will be a key player in shaping the future of the Middle East in years to come, and the tensions inside the country — the rhetoric of the hard-line Islamic clerics vs. dissenters who favor a more forward-looking, Western view of the world — promise to grow in step with Iran’s regional ambitions, which include the desire to develop nuclear weapons. And can Ireland keep up with the ravenous appetites of its tiger-like economy, or are the big cat’s ribs beginning to show through its stripes?
All of these questions can be localized in the lives of specific people, real or imagined, and it’s manna for filmmakers. Smith is right to be wary, but here’s our chance to show him we’re truly interested in the big picture.
From Turkey, with love
Until recently, only the most sophisticated of cineastes were likely to be versed in Turkish cinema. But that’s changed in recent years, as an upsurge in Turkish directors, working both in their homeland and in Europe, has given film fans an increasing number of releases exploring a variety of cultural issues and personal stories. To celebrate this abundance of talent and share it with a wider audience, the Boston Turkish Festival continues to expand its film offerings. It even created a separate film festival in 2001, which is held every April.
Several recent Turkish releases have achieved rave reviews and art house success. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ‘‘Distant,’’ about the relationship between two distant relatives thrown together in Istanbul, won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2003. And Fatih Akin’s 2004 picture, ‘‘Head-On,’’ a gritty, moving love story set amid Germany’s Turkish population, was universally lauded. Akin’s first feature film, ‘‘Short Sharp Shock,’’ which follows three old friends from a neighborhood gang in Hamburg who are increasingly divided in adulthood, screens at the Museum of Fine Arts in the festival’s Turkish Directors Abroad series. Like Akin, the director Seyhan Derin also calls Europe home; his ‘‘Between the Stars,’’ a charming story of tested love, wrestles with how issues of cultural identity, assimilation, and bias impact Turkish populations in Europe.
The festival also presents voices and perspectives from inside Turkey. Documentaries include Ali Akyuz’s 2003 film ‘‘The Legendary Girl of the Skies: Sabiha Gokcen,’’ about the world’s first female combat pilot. Director Nedim Hazar, who lives in Germany, will appear at the screenings of his 2001 film, ‘‘Asylum on the Bosphorus,’’ which examines the influence of German and Jewish academicians on Turkish life, and for ‘‘Kushtepe Blues,’’ his film from last year that celebrates a group of young music students.
Festival organizer Erkut Gomulu hopes to show viewers that the country’s cinematic output offers a variety of treasures. ‘‘There is a new generation of Turkish filmmakers that has received international attention in recent years,’’ Gomulu says. ‘‘They carry Turkish cinema to a new level.’’!
Direct from Tehran
Movies from Iran constitute another emerging force in international cinema and are being celebrated at the 12th Annual Boston Festival of Films From Iran. While most of the films featured are independent or art films and were made by directors working in Iran, they represent a wide array of perspectives and stories. Bo Smith, the event’s organizer, says that film in Iran is a ‘‘really valued means of expression’’ in the society. ‘‘That’s probably the overwhelming reason why over the past 15 years, Iranian cinema has been so celebrated at all of the major film festivals.’’
Smith says he’s seen more TV documentaries coming to the festival, work that favors more personal narratives — and is particularly valuable for Western audiences, he says. ‘‘Cinema allows us to see life in foreign lands like nothing else,’’ he says. ‘‘We’re going to rely on films more and more to learn not only what foreign societies are going through, but particularly what individuals are going through as they face new circumstances.’’
Smith says highlights include Mani Haghighi’s 2003 film, ‘‘Abadan,’’ which offers a rare view of life for middle-class Iranians, as well as a great introduction to the city of Tehran. Tahmineh Milani’s 2005 film, ‘‘The Unwanted Woman,’’ uses an unhappy marriage to explore the broader relationship between men and women. (Milani will receive an award prior to the screening.) Striking for its psychological nuance is Ali Mosaffa’s debut, ‘‘Portrait of a Lady Far Away,’’ about an aging architect and a young woman brought together to search for the woman’s suicidal girlfriend.
Smith says Iranian films often address society with much greater candor than he sees in American cinema or culture, particularly when it comes to women’s issues. ‘‘You have a very intelligent, outspoken women’s community in Iran, and they are very much leaders in the community,’’ says Smith. ‘‘And so, while they might to some degree be subjugated in terms of rights, they are very much questioning that at all times and are not in any way invisible. Their opinions are heard.’’
Already a well-established international favorite, Irish cinema has enjoyed wave after wave of popularity over the past two decades, fueled by 1980s gems like ‘‘Cal’’ and ‘‘My Left Foot’’ to 1990s offerings like ‘‘The Crying Game’’ to recent stellar examples like Paul Greengrass’s harrowing ‘‘Bloody Sunday,’’ from 2002.
Peter Flynn, who runs the Seventh Annual Magners Irish Film Festival, attributes the success to the upswing of independent cinema as well as to Ireland’s so-called ‘‘Celtic Tiger’’ economy of the 1990s, which among other things produced more resources for making films. ‘‘I think the energy from those [artistic surges of the 1980s and 1990s] has subsided just a tad, but not a whole lot,’’ says Flynn. ‘‘I think what that period did was set in place the infrastructure for the industry we have today.’’
Flynn says many Irish directors and actors who have achieved mainstream success in America take pride in their native cinema and continue to work on smaller, often independent projects in their homeland. Even the former 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan, maintains a production company in Ireland. Among the familiar faces popping up in less commercial, offbeat movies at this year’s festival are Aidan Quinn, who stars in 2003’s ‘‘Song for a Raggy Boy,’’ an emotionally charged drama about abuse at an Irish reform school in the late ’30s, and Stephen Rea, who stars in the short film ‘‘Fluent Dysphasia,’’ Daniel O’Hara’s 2004 story of an uncommunicative single father who wakes up one morning able to speak perfect Irish and with no memory of English. Also among Flynn’s favorites is ‘‘Adam & Paul,’’ a dark comedy that uses the story of two old friends to examine changes in contemporary Ireland.
While movies were traditionally used as a form of political protest in Ireland, Flynn says the country’s relative quiet in recent years has prompted filmmakers to look for new topics. ‘‘The vast majority of the films, in very different ways, deal with the transformation of Irish culture,’’ he says, ‘‘from what it was in the ’70s — a borderline third-world country with a domineering presence of the Catholic church and an oppressive government under Thatcher — to what we have today, which is a modern, outgoing, liberated, advanced culture.’’