During the Istanbul Film Festival last month, police used water cannon, tear gas and batons to disperse a crowd, Costa-Gavras among them, who were protesting against the imminent destruction of the Emek Theatre. Built in 1924 as the Melek Sineması in the former Club des Chasseurs de Constantinople, the cinema closed in 2010. It has been an object of contention ever since plans were announced that the state-owned building would be torn down and replaced with yet another shopping mall, as happened to the nearby Saray Sineması. The government and the construction firm they leased the building to, Kamer İnşaat, say that the Emek will be preserved and moved to the mall’s fourth floor. This seems unlikely, considering that it’s an 875-seat, single-screen theatre.
The loss of many of the wooden houses, or yalı, along the Bosphorus has been decried in the international press for years, but the snowballing demolition of public property in Istanbul, often preceded by a convenient fire and followed by the building of a mall or hotel, has received less attention. Many of the buildings destined for the wrecking ball or already gone were built during the late 19th-century flourishing of Armenian, Jewish and European bourgeois architecture in Beyoğlu. Several people I spoke to at the festival said the programme of demolition is part of the Erdoğan government’s long-term goal of eliminating Turkey’s multiethnic Ottoman identity.
Emek’s position on Yeşilçam Sokak, Turkey’s answer to Hollywood Boulevard, makes it a symbol of the industry, which the governing AKP would undoubtedly like to see neutered. But the nation’s filmmakers, including an encouragingly high number of women directors, are far from compliant. At this year’s festival there were movies about dysfunctional families (Lifelong/Hayatboyu, Nobody’s Home/Köksüz), Armenian identity (Saroyanland/Saroyan Ülkesi) and prostitution (Cold/Soğuk).
Aslı Özge’s Lifelong is stunningly shot, sometimes at the expense of the story of a couple’s disintegrating relationship. Onur Ünlü’s Thou Gild’st the Even/Sen Aydınlatırsın Geceyi, winner of the national section’s top prize, is an ambitious absurdist satire – perhaps too ambitious – full of melancholy whimsy and photographed in handsome black and white. Lusin Dink’s Saroyanland used a dramatised documentary format (not my favourite genre) to tell the story of William Saroyan’s journey late in life to his Armenian parents’ hometown of Bitlis. At 72 minutes it’s a little long, and Saroyan’s words are better read than listened to on a soundtrack, but the film offers intriguing insights into the writer’s intellectual evolution.