Asli Özge, Men on the Bridge, 2009, color, sound, 83 minutes.


HARDY CINEPHILES love nothing more than to acknowledge a fresh trend or some heretofore unheralded new wave. But even the most devoted among them may have been slow to recognize the surge of activity represented by a startling series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. “Rebel Yell,” a weeklong program dedicated to work by a new generation of Turkish women filmmakers, constitutes “a modest showcase for a major phenomenon,” in the words of programmer Rasha Salti.

The series is a timely one. Whereas recent international retrospectives on directors such as Yilmaz Güney have alerted more viewers to the rich history of Turkish cinema, relatively little attention has been paid to the growing presence and importance of women in a film culture where they’d been virtually invisible. (By Salti’s count, female directors were responsible for only fifty-two of the approximately 4,400 movies made in the country from the 1950s through the ’80s.) None of the women to emerge since the New Turkish Cinema wave of independent filmmakers in the ’90s have attained the festival-mainstay status of peers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Fatih Akin, a tendency that Salti clearly seeks to correct.

Many of the directors represented in this showcase share an affinity for shifting between documentary and narrative modes. A native of Istanbul who studied under director Yavuz Ozkan, Pelin Esmer earned no shortage of praise last year for her second feature, the sensitively rendered drama Watchtower. The same commitment to care and craft distinguishes The Play (2005), her contribution to the Lightbox series, an affecting yet often exuberant documentary of a group of rural women whose hard lives are ignited by new passions when they attempt to stage a play in their mountain village in southern Turkey.

Asli Özge, another filmmaker from Istanbul now based in Berlin, shares Esmer’s roots in documentary practice. In fact, Men on the Bridge—which plays “Rebel Yell” on August 25—began as a nonfiction film about people who work on or around Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, the bustling meeting point for the city’s European and Asian communities. Özge instead opted for a fascinating doc-fiction hybrid in which nonprofessionals play characters based closely on themselves. (Since the Turkish police department wouldn’t allow one of Özge’s primary subjects to play himself on-screen, the role went to the officer’s brother.) The result is a bracing, perceptive look at modern Istanbul, one attuned to the city’s various cultural and economic tensions and still remarkably intimate.

With its understated naturalism and keen sensitivity to the impact of sociopolitical conditions on human relationships, Men on the Bridge evinces a kinship between Özge and her contemporaries in her adopted German home, filmmakers like Angela Schanelec, Maria Speth, and Maren Ade. Those directors’ best efforts also serve as useful reference points for Belmin Söylemez’s Present Tense, which screens August 22. A first feature that earned prizes at festivals in Istanbul and Adana in Turkey and in San Francisco, Söylemez’s measured character study benefits from a superb performance by Sanem Oge, here portraying Mina, a young woman who finds refuge from the collapse of her marriage through employment as a fortune teller. In the film’s most sardonic touch, this fraudulent seer is really only able to reflect on her own situation as she interprets the swirls and streaks in her clients’ overturned coffee cups. Less suspect than Mina’s iffy soothsaying is what the film itself has to say about the perils and pleasures of human connection as experienced by people who struggle to feel like they have a place in the world. At least “Rebel Yell” suggests that directors like Esmer, Özge, and Söylemez are finally finding a stronger foothold.

Jason Anderson

“Rebel Yell: A New Generation of Turkish Women Filmmakers” plays August 22 to 29 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.