Letter from Istanbul

If things had gone according to «Which Cyprus,» a convincing film on the island, everything would be just fine. Showing the April 23, 2003 opening of the border separating the Greek and the Turkish communities in Nicosia, the Brussels-educated Turkish director Rustem Batum remarked (his words were included in the film’s brochure), «If peace is provided to Cyprus and the two communities start to live together again, entering the EU as United Cyprus, this would be a new beacon of hope for many countries with similar problems.» Of course that was before Saturday’s referenda. Sadly, mischief is now afoot. The 110-minute documentary was shown last week at the 23rd International Istanbul Film Festival, which is one of the most interesting of its kind worldwide as it offers the opportunity to see films missed over the last years – or decades. It seemed to me that there were hundreds of screenings in cinemas all over Istanbul’s Pera district. It is the smart thing to say, after the predictable but – till the last moment – largely unpredicted non-failure in Cyprus, that Greece and Turkey are doomed to cooperate. Not only in producing films. They are doomed, if that is the word, to confront each other over the battlements of two radically different ideas about life, at least until some new power arises with a new idea that frightens them both. Until then, the most they can do is make arrangements that will prevent confrontation – in Cyprus? – turning into a conflict. Now, Greek and Turkish Cypriots seem to get on well in another documentary by Famagusta-born Ilias Dimitriou, 39. «Pyla – Living Together Separately» focuses on one village which resisted the division. Pyla/Pile is a village with two names. Yet the question, about whether the provisions of the Annan plan (the film was shot in 2003) would benefit residents of the island’s north or south, is not answered here either. More enduring Greek-Turkish coexistence was shown in another Greek film «Roads of Rebetiko,» by Timon Koulmasis and Iro Siaflaki. This pre-referenda week of the film festival has been one of the most motivating in Istanbul. Oddly for neighbors, we are truly very close. «I know you are bored with hearing about Cyprus and reading articles on Cyprus, but there is just one week left before the referenda on the island.» Doesn’t it sound like something one would listen to on this side of the Aegean? Nevertheless, this was the way in which Ismet Berkan started his «Cyprus Scenarios» article in Turkey’s daily Radikal last Monday. Also listen to this: «Turkey will stand by Turkish Cypriots no matter what the outcome of the forthcoming referenda will be.» These are the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Doesn’t his Greek counterpart use exactly the same language? More than halfway through the Istanbul film festival, another work of common interest has been screened. «Waiting for the Clouds» is a movie by woman director Yesim Ustaoglu which recounts the story of Ayse, the daughter of a deported Greek family of the Black Sea, whose real name is Eleni, and who is adopted by a Turkish family and stays on. All this happens after the tragic events of a period still known in Greece as the «Catastrophe» – the Asia Minor disaster of 1922-23 and the ensuing exchange of populations. It was the time when some 1,100,000 Greek refugees moved to the then-Greek kingdom, while some 380,000 ended up in Turkey. Aging and alone in her native village on the Black Sea coast, Ayse, who has spent her whole life as a Turk, decides to come to Greece to find her long-lost younger brother who lives in Thessaloniki. Contrary to expectations, this is not one of her best experiences in life. Be it known that whatever its message, the movie bubbles over with felicities. The actors, once they get over their syrupy overplaying, are quite OK. Turkish movies in general see this kind of emotionalism as a good thing. They often have the didacticism and sentimentality of the Greek movies of the 1960s. Follow your heart, not politics nor the rules, is a motto which is still going strong. Ruchan Haliskur, who was Ayse/Eleni in this film, got the Best Actress award of the festival. On the other hand, the unfortunate Greek Cypriots will get nothing after the referendum. That’s what Turkey’s star columnist Mehmet Ali Birand predicted on that same day the film had its world premiere in Istanbul. «Behaving as if they will regain the entire island if they vote against the plan… will not free them from Annan,» Birand wrote. And he concluded that «a few thousand people on a small island should not affect the stability in the Aegean Sea or the relations between Europe and a 70-million-strong Turkey.» No! A few hundred thousand Greek Cypriots most certainly cannot. But they are not the main obstacle. «The stumbling block to Turkey’s entry (into Europe) seems to be France,» Radikal columnist Ismet Berkan wrote in an April 22 article. Last week, the entire Turkish press fumed at France for its rebuff of Turkey’s EU bid. This was the reaction to something Alain Juppe, a former French prime minister – and an influential Chirac adviser – whispered just days ago: «Countries on the periphery of a growing EU have no business joining, otherwise the Union will be diluted.» Turkey was not explicitly mentioned, yet everyone understood which state was being referred to. There may be several European countries that remain skeptical about Turkey’s predominantly Muslim faith and population of more than 70 million people. Greeks and Greek-Cypriots are the least of Turkey’s problem, as they are clearly in favor of the country’s accession to Europe. In today’s popular culture, cinema is the world’s most popular form of entertainment. Setting standards around the globe, it has always promulgated national images and spread them throughout the world. Therefore, I’ll continue with Turkish cinematography. The Best Actress award went to Ruchan Haliskur for her performance in «Bulutlari Beklerken» (Waiting for the Clouds) for successfully and thoroughly sustaining the film. As for the big prize of the festival, which ended on Saturday, the Golden Tulip went to a Taiwanese production. «Goodbye, Dragon Inn,» by Tsai Ming-Liang, is an exquisite minimalist work of art with hardly any dialogue. A lament for the death of feelings as well as an epitaph to the very idea of going to the movies.

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