Sunday, Oct. 11: The Laura Center. Previous festivals featured a glossily produced program the size of an encyclopedia, giving a handy synopsis of every film. Year 2009's budget pamphlet listed only the film name, director and venue, which led to a frenzied Google-search for relevant reviews. “Tandoori Love,” telling of a love affair between an Indian chef, working on a Switzerland-set Bollywood film, and a local alpine-blonde beauty, was described as “the funniest film to have come out of Switzerland for years.” I should have known better (the Swiss are noted for efficiency, not humor), and it fell flat on its face, right between the two stools where its director had unwittingly placed it. Ang Lee's “Taking Woodstock” was a blessed relief, an affectionate, amusing tribute to the almost accidental way the greatest popular music festival in history came about.
Monday, Oct. 12: Antalya Culture Center (AKM). The foyer of the festival's premier venue was humming for the gala screening of Murat Saraçoğlu's “Deli Deli Olma” (Piano Girl), a comic drama set in a snowy village outside distant Kars. The village's last Molakan (a little-known ethnic group expelled from Russia by the tsar after the 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman war) befriends a local girl and encourages her latent musical talent, with the help of the Molakan's ancient piano. Entertaining if melodramatic, the rapt audience gave it a standing ovation.
Tuesday, Oct. 13: AKM. Justifiably “İki Dil Bir Bavul” (On the Way to School), a documentary by Özgür Doğan and Orhan Eskiköy, would go on to win the festival's best first film award. Newly qualified teacher Emre is sent from the prosperous western Turkish town of Denizli to a dirt poor, ethnically Kurdish village set on an unimaginably bleak, basalt-covered plateau outside Şanlıurfa. He doesn't speak Kurdish, the kids no Turkish. The camera catches the absurdities (Emre gelling his hair in the morning as if he's heading out for a night on the town) and realities (kids made to stand on one leg for speaking Kurdish in class) of the situation. The powerful, dialogue-free “Border” by Armenian director Harutyun Khachatryan mixes documentary and staged scenes to great effect. A water buffalo, filched by Armenian villagers from the Azerbaijani side of the frontier, is used, in the director's own words, “to show the reality and wish to get rid of borders -- emotional, moral, psychological.” The emblematic buffalo tries, repeatedly, to escape his “captors” but is prevented from returning “home” by the razor-wire border fence.
Thursday, Oct. 15: Laura Center. “Uzak İhtimal” (Wrong Rosary). This gentle, understated film was shot in the atmospheric backstreets of İstanbul's Galata district by Mahmut Fazıl Coşkun. An earnest muezzin, Musa, becomes infatuated with his pretty neighbor, Clara, a Christian. Bumping into her outside their apartment, Musa accidentally picks up her rosary beads instead of his own prayer beads. He only realizes his mistake whilst fingering the beads in his mosque and one of the congregation tactfully points out the crucifix attached to them. The scene drew gales of laughter from the audience, but at the end there was nearly a fight between an angry young man and some equally irate viewers who had been chiding him throughout the film for using his mobile phone.
Friday, Oct. 16: AKM. What started out as another sell-out finished with the plush auditorium half empty. “Aya Seyahat” (Journey to the Moon) by Kutluğ Ataman did for a remote 1950s Turkish village what “Spinal Tap” did for heavy metal -- that is, lovingly poked fun at it through the device of a mock documentary. A clever piece of filmmaking, it splices stunning black and white stills recounting the villagers' attempts to do their bit in the Cold War “space race” and fly to the moon in the minaret of the local mosque, with interviews with an ensemble of Turkish academics musing on their country cousins' antics. Did the viewers who walked out do so because they felt their intelligence or their nation was being insulted, or simply through incomprehension? Whatever the reason, it was insulting to both the director and the remaining audience -- who gave this intelligent and witty film the generous applause it deserved.
Saving the best for last, it was back to Migros for “Min Dit” (The Children of Diyarbakır), director Miraz Bezar's debut feature, backed by successful Turkish-German director Fatih Akın. Orphaned by the murder of their parents by Nuri, a JİTEM (a clandestine intelligence organization formed within the gendarmerie) assassin, 10-year-old Gülistan and her sibling Fırat (beautifully played by real-life street kids) end up on the mean streets of the impoverished southeastern city of Diyarbakır. Just back from one of several visits over the years to that city, I know how accurately the film depicts the street urchins' plight. A brave debut, and courageous of the festival organizers to screen a Kurdish language film where the villain of the piece is a member of the Turkish security forces.
Golden Orange No. 46 may have been more austere than we have become accustomed to, and the unusually overcast skies gave the festival a somber atmosphere. But the films I saw (with one exception) ranged between the good and the superb (and remember, “On the Way to School” apart, I didn't even catch the award-winning entries), with many screenings sold out. A great festival in keeping with 2009's pinched economy. Here's hoping for an even better 47th.