Turkey is a country that occupies a crucial junction between continents, and its social and economic conditions are as varied as its landscape. For these reasons and more, it is fair to say that Turkey receives a lot of attention in the international media. The number of issues is overwhelming: from violence against women to Syrian refugees, press freedom, the Kurdish conflict, minority rights, and workplace safety, the list goes on. Sometimes it is worth focusing on a single issue to really get an informed and balanced view – and one of the best ways to do this is by watching local documentary films. Aside from politics, there is also a wealth of cultural knowledge to be gained. Here is a selection of illuminating documentaries from the Istanbul Film Festival.
The eyes of the world turned to Turkey during the Soma disaster that killed 301 mine workers in 2014. The loss of life at this privately operated mine sparked outcry over the working conditions at mines across the country. The film Soluk (Sigh) by director Metin Kaya investigates the illegal mines hidden in the mountains of Zonguldak, on the Black Sea coast. Only two or three kilometers from Zonguldak city center are completely unregistered mines operated by people in their gardens or remote corners of the mountains. These mines have no technology or safety measures, using mules to drag the coal to the surface. Children are also involved in the trade, taking the illegal coal by mule to sell. Shot over two years, this film shows this dangerous work in all four seasons.
A second film on Turkey’s coal industry is Kara Atlas (Dark Atlas) by Umut Vedat. From the Aegean to the Black Sea, this documentary shows the struggle to stop coal-fired power plants from contaminating Turkey’s villages. Local residents, Greenpeace activists, olive farmers, and even security guards hired by the construction companies express their discontent about these power plants. This film shows that when they take determined action, communities can take control of their own lives.
On a lighter note, the documentary Holy Camel! A Love Story looks at the families who raise these animals for camel wrestling competitions in the Aegean region. This sport originated in Central Asia, where the Turkic nomads would come down from the mountains in winter and use the camels for entertainment. The wrestling competitions on the Aegean coast of Turkey draw tourists and camel enthusiasts. But director Sibel Mary Şamlı focuses on the people that raise these animals in their homes, treating the camels almost as members of the family.
The winner of this year’s Best Documentary Prize was Hazır Ol! (Attention!) by Onur Bakır and Panagiotis Charamis. This is the personal story of Onur, a 32-year-old PhD student who has not completed his compulsory military service. He is stuck between paying 18,000 lira to avoid the military or spending six months in the army. With only two months left to decide, Onur interviews his friends and family to ask their opinions on what he should do. Ultimately this film questions the political and ethical implications of military service from the perspective of a man who would never normally consider a job in the army.