Turkey's film festivals: Kiss of life or kiss of death for filmmakers?

Winners of the national feature competition awards pose for photos during the closing ceremony of the 2011 Malatya International Film Festival, which is now one of Turkey’s top four festivals.(Photo: Today's Zaman)

November 19, 2013, Tuesday/ 16:03:00

Turkey currently has four high-profile film festivals with national and international competitions. The İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art's (İKSV) İstanbul International Film Festival, Antalya's Altın Portakal (Golden Orange), Adana's Altın Koza (Golden Boll) and finally the ongoing Malatya International Film Festival comprise the top four.

The Malatya festival is currently marking its fourth year. This is my second time at the festival, and despite the event being only in its fourth year and previous doubts regarding its livelihood, it seems that the festival committee has already started to build the event's reputation as a film hub of the Near East. With a strong international and national selection, almost all the screening films raise interest. Surely, there still remain some frustrating organizational and technical mishaps, but one should be content that the governor's office is fully supporting the event and that the organizers are ambitious to build the event's reputation.

Right now, all is calm in Malatya, and the festival is running on a positive vibe. Let's hope that this kind of atmosphere continues and the vibe moves on to İstanbul in April, when the İstanbul Film Festival kicks off and one's appetite for cinema increases ever more.

But now let's turn to the gist of the matter: In what sense do these festivals contribute to the film culture and film industry of Turkey? Let's face it, especially for independent local features, film festivals seem to be the most important outlet for prestige, audience interest and monetary gain.

The top four festivals' monetary awards for the national competition sections cannot be disregarded. Ranging from substantial sums like TL 350,000 to a more modest TL 75,000 for the winner of the best film award, and other monetary awards for other categories, these prizes remain the catch-22 of Turkish film festivals. But why?

Independent Turkish productions are already the most difficult “products” to finance, and if not for the financial support of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the chance of these films being made is minimal. (There are examples of films that succeeded without this support, but the exception doesn't change the rule.)

After a film producer receives funding from the ministry, the search for international finance begins. Some films receive international co-production financing and some don't, but whatever the situation, at the end of the day these films end up being partly financed with huge debts, deferrals or personal investments that are frustrating to creative producers, who suffer the dilemma of trying to finish a work of art that just has to be made and acting like an objective businessperson. Ultimately, cinema is also a business, and if as a producer you can't create a specific strategy for the film's screen life, basically you're dead.

One of the most common and risky strategies for independent directors and producers in debt is to focus on these four festivals' national competition sections. Winning the top prize might just rescue their financial mess and bring that visibility they've been aching for. But really, what are the chances? A risk analysis would show that the possibility of winning would be around 20 percent -- which is quite low, but still…

And there's another matter: the culture of “competition.” The Turkish film industry is quite small and while festivals are intimate environments to network and create camaraderie with fellow filmmakers, the cash awards given out by those festivals can indeed put the nominees into a mode of rivalry, bitterness and disillusioned comparison. That usual sentence, “But my film was so much better,” opens the door to a vortex of negative energy, gossip and self-destruction.

OK, let's face it, this is life and we all have to deal with it, but could there be another way?

In a world where independent features could be fully financed with support mechanisms other than the ministry's, and with reduced festival cash prizes, perhaps the industry would evolve with more stability and a keener sense of fair competition.

I can already hear some producers grunting at this idea. But, in the short run, the existence of these substantial cash prizes will remain as the kiss of life or the kiss of death for independent filmmakers.

All of the above make up only one component of film festivals, for their contribution to film viewing culture, promoting the careers of directors and especially aiding the industry are undeniable.

Take the İstanbul Film Festival's “Meetings on the Bridge” industry section. Since 2008 this industry sidebar has been bringing international producers, distributors and sales agents together with Turkish filmmakers in order to follow up on their projects-in-development for the possibility of international collaboration. The sidebar has already spurted out countless projects that found international support, gained visibility and later premiered at prestigious international festivals and received distribution outside of Turkey.

The Turkish Association of Film Producers (SEYAP) has just released a report on the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, urging the organizers to develop a similar project market. My honest wish is that the suggestion is realized, for it is in the early stages of a film's life that pushes filmmakers to start refining their art and for producers to project a realistic financing plan.

This much industry talk should now give way to artistic aspirations and the notion of cinema as a beacon of free thought and breaking free from the clutches of hegemony.

Film festivals are the main outlet for exhibiting daring and subversive films regarding politics and social issues, i.e., films that will not play well with the prevalent authorities.

All was well and dandy until the General Directorate of Cinema of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism started to specifically demand from Turkish film festivals a certificate called a Product Licensing Document for each Turkish film shown in those festivals.

This permit legally verifies the right to commercially use a film, given by the ministry before the film is officially released in cinemas. A film cannot go into commercial distribution without this document, which is decided upon by a committee that also rates the film. So if a film will not be deemed releasable by the committee, this document will not be given.

This will give way to censorship for film festivals that will not be allowed to exhibit their choice of films that do not have this document. The alarm bells are about to ring.

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