The power of tenacity

The Kurdish filmmaker Ali Kemal Cinar from Diyarbakir caused a small sensation when his zero-budget production "Vesarti (Hidden)" won him the 2016 Most Inspiring Director of the Year award at the !f Independent Film Festival in Istanbul. With his experimental, absurdly comic films, Cinar represents a new way of thinking in Kurdish filmmaking. By Sonja Galler

By Sonja Galler

Kurdish film has rarely been able to free itself from its political corset, says Kemal Yildizhan, organiser of a weekly Kurdish film series in the Ismail Besikci Foundation Diyarbakir. Kurdish stories have been told and perceived mainly within the "narrative of the ′Kurdish problem′". Characters speaking Kurdish in films are still seen by many as a political slogan, explains Yildizhan – and no wonder, considering that was barely possible up to the early 2000s.

"For too long, the voice of Kurdish society was kept silent in Turkey. Only when we have shouted everything out will Kurdish filmmakers be able to address all aspects of life," says Yildizhan, who sees great potential for movie material in the character of Kurdish society, marked as it is by geographical fractures and a multitude of linguistic and ethnic influences.

A cinephile from Diyarbakir

One filmmaker who has found his very own path is Ali Kemal Cinar, born in Diyarbakir in 1976. He is a passionate cinephile who discusses movies from all over the world with likeminded members of his film club. A transnational space in the middle of southeast Anatolia – that too is one of the many real-life details worth writing articles about, or indeed making into films.

Cinar has reinterpreted a Kurdish director′s limited economic possibilities into personal freedom. "I have the luxury of being able to film at any time. When we talk about professionalism we still mean a certain budget and a certain way of making movies. It took me a long time to leave that notion behind me. You can call my movies works in the film sector developed with stubbornness and defiance."

Cinar spent a year and a half working on his first film, using friends and family as actors and no fixed scenario. In "Kurte Fılm" (Short Movie), we meet the unsuccessful and impecunious short movie director Ali Kemal (played by Cinar himself), a man dealing not only with a family that doesn′t understand him, but also with painful haemorrhoids.

At a time when political battles are flaring up at every turn, is it legitimate to focus on the comparatively minor woes of a filmmaker from Diyarbakir? Cinar has faced questions like this for some time. "Kurds have not only made movies in critical times, but also written novels and love songs. But people seem to have different expectations of films. I see that as a handicap. Especially because a number of films on political subjects actually serve the system."

Focus on the individual

Yet Cinar′s films do contain tangible references to the world in which he lives, a world of contradictory simultaneity. The characters switch between Turkish and Kurdish without further comment. And the city of Diyarbakir, with its nocturnal concerto of fighter planes and chirping cicadas and its endless high-rise estates, is acoustically and visually very present.

"I was less concerned with creating a socially realistic world than with showing the loneliness of a person who has made an individual and existential decision and has to live with the consequences," says Cinar.

The loneliness of the individual in search of new ways of life and narrative forms is a topos that also plays a role in Cinar′s second film "Vesarti" (Hidden), which won him the Most Inspiring Director Award at this year′s !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival. This time, the focus is on the shopkeeper Ali Kemal (again played by the director). He has been engaged for five years to Berfin, who struggles to lose her virginity but cannot bring herself to do so. Until one day an unknown woman appears in Ali Kemal′s shop to tell him he will soon be changed into a woman.

Part of a "hidden society"

The man′s initial doubts are followed by a process during which his ordered world begins to unravel. The film uses the approaching sex change as a prism to think about gender roles, virginity and the relationship between the soul and the body. What would it mean for me as an individual, for us as a couple, our love, but also the family and society, if I were a woman/a man tomorrow? Both Berfin and Ali Kemal are familiar with fear of crossing boundaries, of belonging to a society regulated by ordinances of speech and silence, a hidden society.

This is the quality of Cinar′s films – applying searching questions as levers to virulent social phenomena, without wanting to explain and clarify them with the leaden weight of a thesis.

At the same time, "Vesarti" is an idiosyncratic experiment in style. We do not see the characters speaking, with the camera instead always focused on the face of their listener. "I was interested in finding out what happens when you direct the film more strongly towards the voice," says Cinar, citing Kurdish bards (in Kurdish: dengbej), who render an entire world using a single narrative voice, as one of his inspirations.

Distrust of the image also played a role in this stylistic decision, he says: "The supremacy of the image troubles me a great deal – as though without pictures, there would be no story, no credibility."

Sonja Galler

© 2016

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire