As the Istanbul Film Festival (April 2-17) celebrates its 30th anniversary, Screen’s Edna Fainaru, a long-time consultant for the festival, suggests why the Turkish event is such a popular fixture on the international circuit

When asked about the event, anyone who has ever attended the Istanbul Film Festival (IFF) will start by enthusing about the city itself. And there is plenty to enthuse about: the Blue Mosque, the Aghia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, even the underground water cisterns.

“No way can you take the city out of the festival,” says Bent Hamer, the Norwegian film-maker who served on the jury in 2007. His favourite memory is of the cruise on the Bosphorus organised every year for the penultimate day of the festival.

“Don’t overdo it on the Turkish sweets,” advises Albert Wiederspiel, director of the Filmfest Hamburg and another Istanbul regular. “One runs the risk of gaining many pounds within one single edition of the festival.”

‘The festival has been a school for a generation of film-makers, critics and distributors’

Azize Tan, festival director

“One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Istanbul is the wonderful atmosphere,” says Dimitris Eipides, director of Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival. “But, as hard as it might be to attract viewers into screening venues in a city that presents so many wonderful distractions, the Istanbul Film Festival manages to do so with an eclectic, well-selected mix of films.”

Each year the festival screens about 200 films in 19 sections from all over the world, including a fast-growing home-grown contribution. It also hosts the Meetings on the Bridge co-production event and runs a Human Rights in Cinema competition.

“What I particularly like about Istanbul are the nice, friendly staff and the smooth organisation – they’re more German than the Germans,” says Wiederspiel, who should know a thing or two about that. “And the best thing, which will be appreciated by anyone who is familiar with festivals, is that all the theatres are so close to each other.”

Two competitions

The IFF started out as a film week in the summer of 1982, becoming a fully-fledged festival the next year under the aegis of Hulya Ucansu, who would be festival director for the next two decades. Under the auspices of the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and its president, Sakir Eczacibasi, the IFF has two intentions: to mount two competitions, one national, the other international. The international contest, in which 12 films compete for the Golden Tulip award, showcases films about art and artists, as well as literary adaptations.

This may explain the willingness to attend the festival of so many of the world’s great directors, including Krzysztof Kieslowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Nagisa Oshima, Alexander Sokurov, Istvan Szabo, Stephen Frears, Ettore Scola, Gus van Sant and Todd Solondz.

When Peter Greenaway was first approached to present The Pillow Book at the festival where he was to receive an honorary award in 1997, his response was tentative, asking: “Do they know anything about my films over there?” Many entreaties later, Greenaway stepped into an Istanbul art gallery to see it entirely repainted in grey to provide a better background for the drawings he was exhibiting there. It was packed with students who loved his films. Greenaway accepted his next invitation without hesitation.

Michelangelo Antonioni, almost 90 years old, paralysed for years and unable to speak, was in Istanbul in 1996 for the screening of Beyond The Clouds, and to receive a lifetime achievement prize. He was so excited he stepped out of his wheelchair and attempted to descend the escalator of the Etap Marmara Hotel on his own. Although he didn’t quite make it, Antonioni was inspired enough by Istanbul later, after dinner, to draw with his barely moving left hand sketches for a new project, which he thought he might shoot in Cappadocia in central Turkey.

Local launchpad

One of the main aims of the festival is to introduce the best of the world’s cinema to Turkish audiences via three main sections: the national competition, New Turkish Cinema and a documentaries section.

“It is our insurance against any type of state-originated political control,” says Azize Tan, who took over from Ucansu as festival director in 2006. “Ticket sales and sponsors cover a hefty 80% of the festival’s budget. We only recently started receiving a more significant contribution from the Ministry of Culture and Arts.”

Even though the film selection is sufficiently eclectic to be considered “difficult”, in 2010 the festival sold a record 170,000 tickets.

‘Each time I visit I’m always on the lookout for new, emerging talents that somehow elude notice from bigger events’

Dimitris Eipides, director, Thessaloniki International Film Festival

To encourage local distributors to support arthouse films, 50% of the festival’s main prize, worth nearly $28,000 (€20,000) now goes to the Turkish distributor of the winner of the international competition. Bir Film says the incentive definitely enhanced the package when it bought last year’s international Golden Tulip winner, the comedy drama The Misfortunates by Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen.

“We prefer to premiere our new films [at the festival],” says Ersan Congar, the head of Bir Film, which is screening Incendies, Even The Rain, Norwegian Wood and Pina 3D at this year’s event. “It is an ideal platform to get free publicity and word-of-mouth before the commercial release.”

The IFF has become an effective international launchpad for Turkish films, introducing directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu to the world. Next year it is giving a cash prize for the best Turkish debut film. In the spirit of Cannes’ Camera d’Or, it will be selected by a separate jury.

“Concentrate on the Turkish films section,” is Albert Wiederspiel’s advice to festival newcomers. “My recent favourite is Tales From Kars by seven young, very gifted film-makers.”

Dimitris Eipides agrees: “Each time I visit I’m always on the lookout for new, emerging talents that somehow elude notice from bigger events.”

Q&A - Azize Tan, festival director

Do you have a favourite film in the festival this year?

My favourites are two from Berlin: Nader And Simin: A Separation and Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse [both screening in the From the World of Festivals section]. Tarr will also be the guest of the festival. Another favourite is Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits, a first documentary in our national Golden Tulip competition from a young film director, Imre Azem. It offers an unusual view of Istanbul.

What makes the IFF unique?

Because of the circumstances in which the festival was founded [right after the military coup d’état in 1980, when all social life stopped in Turkey] it has been a school for a generation of film-makers, critics and distributors.

What is new for 2011?

For the 30th anniversary we have created two special sections. One is for the international arthouse films prominent Turkish film-makers first saw at the festival and which influenced their work. The other is for films discovered at the festival for the first time by our film critics. In industry terms, we have formed an alliance with Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein Film Fund to encourage collaboration between German and Turkish film-makers. Starting with an initial budget of $210,000 (€150,000), the fund will be open to co-productions in development or pre-production.