Ghosts and other tales: The year of women filmmakers

Turkey is no different than the West when it comes to diversity and representation in the awards circuit. Antalya Film Festival, the oldest film festival of the country and the closest thing to a Turkish Oscars, awarded only three best director awards to women since its inception in 1964. Istanbul Film Festival, the most internationally well-known of the bunch, has six best film winners directed by women in its 38 year history. This year though, seems like things are getting slightly better.

“Congratulations to those men.”
It was little more than a year ago when actor and producer Issa Rae uttered this sentence while announcing the nominees for the best director Oscar. The all-male nominees that is. Her expression was frustrated, but not shocked, as this is what happens. All the time. In its 92 year history, only five women have been nominated for a best director Oscar and only one has ever won: Kathryn Bigelow for the male centric Iraq War action-drama The Hurt Locker. The Hurt Locker is also the only Best Picture winner directed by a woman. 
 
Turkey is no different when it comes to diversity and representation in the awards circuit. Antalya Film Festival, the oldest film festival of the country and the closest thing to a Turkish Oscars, awarded only three best director awards to women since its inception in 1964. Even when the festival committee canceled the national competition section during a tumultuous period of censorship, and a group of progressive filmmakers organized an alternative National Competition for two consecutive years in 2017 and 2018, the best director award did not go to a women. Other festivals’ records are not any better. Adana Film Festival has four women best director winners in a total of 33 years. Istanbul Film Festival, the most internationally well-known of the bunch, has six best film winners directed by women in its 38 year history.
 
This year though, seems like things are getting slightly better. The Gotham Awards, one of the early Oscar precursors, was held on January 12 and all five of the best feature nominees were directed by women. The winner, Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, is destined to get a best picture Oscar nomination and might as well win. Turkey had a better year, too. Ghosts (Hayaletler), the feature debut from Azra Deniz Okyay, coming fresh from her Grand Prize at Venice Film Festival’s Critics Week, received Best Director as well as Best Film from Antalya, a first in the festival’s long and troubled history.
 
Ghosts tells the story of a single day in the lives of three women: dancer Didem (Dilayda Güneş), cleaner İffet (Nalan Kuruçim) and activist Ela (Beril Kaya), all trying to carve an existence for themselves in one of Istanbul’s toughest ghettos. As if that’s not hard enough, Okyay sets the story during a nationwide power shortage and lets us know that the city “has turned into a war zone”. The three women’s lives are under a de facto siege: Security forces, drug dealers, sexual predators and corrupt men lurk around every corner as what Okyay describes as the “Istanbul’s lost generation” tries to exist, like ghosts trying to live in a house that no longer belongs to them. Bigger and more dangerous ghosts haunt the city, too. Racism against immigrants, gentrification, urban growth and the exclusion of the poor, economic and social inequality are in every scene, breathing down our neck.
 
Nomadland has ghosts of its own. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction of the same name, the film tells the story of “vandwellers”, nomads who live in their vans and move around the country to wherever the job market welcomes them. In the center of the story is Fern (Frances McDormand) who has lost her job and home when the giant corporate mine she and her (now dead) husband worked for shut down. Fern travels from town to town sometimes with a sense of freedom and the self-assuredness of a person with a philosophy to abide by (no property no cry) and sometimes as a figure who fell victim to the ruthlessness of corporate capitalism with no real social or financial security. Similar to Okyay’s, Zao’s characters live in the margins of society and feel the threat of violence constantly present. Vast lands, skies and nature envelops the nomads in contrast to Okyay’s brutal concrete and expressways. Yet ghosts do not leave them alone either: the now lost American dream and middle class, the financial collapse of 2008, past lives, homes and families hover around, making some stories possible and others not.
 
Nomadland sits in the intersection of fiction and documentary, casting real people to play versions of themselves. Invisible to the Eye (Ah Gözel İstanbul), Zeynep Dadak’s latest, lives in the same spectrum, although much closer to the documentary side. The film who has received Special Mention in the 39th Istanbul Film Festival, follows the 17th century Armenian  intellectual Eremya Kömürciyan's city diaries and his itinerary in today’s Istanbul. Although not nostalgic or didactic in its tone, the stark discrepancy between what is described and what the city has become breaks one’s heart. As the camera flows fluidly  in  neighborhoods once home to Greeks, Armenians and other minorities, the ghosts of the departed and killed make themselves known. It is hard not to feel like  the ever present ghosts of violence, destruction and racism haunt the city and curse it’s residents with the ugliness that surrounds it now.
 
The voice-over in Invisible to the Eye is male, as Kömürciyan is. Towards the end of the movie, diaries of Asiye Hatun comes to light back from 1640 and a woman commentator remarks that it is very rare to “hear a woman’s voice who writes on a first person account”. At that moment the narrator becomes a woman, and remains so up until the end.
 
Awards are obsolete in the grand scheme of things. Describing an artist as a “women filmmaker” is, too. Yet awards  tell us which stories get to be told, financed, distributed, be in movie theaters and our screens. Awards builds a history of cinema. Chloé Zhao, Azra Deniz Okyay, Zeynep Dadak and their beautiful films are now part of that history. And not just them. Leyla Yılmaz’s Not Knowing (Bilmemek) which won the Best Picture and Best Director awards at the 27th Adana Film Festival, Nisan Dağ’s When I’m Done Dying which received the Best Director award from Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow,  Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Natalie Erika James’ Relic, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, they are all here to stay.
 
Congratulations to those women. 

November 06, 2020 The politics of miracles