After its Turkish premiere at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival last year, director Ben Hopkins’ fictionalized Istanbul documentary Hasret (Yearning) is coming to the country’s cinemas this month. The film begins with the journey of a budget filmmaker – played by Hopkins himself – and his crew to Istanbul on a container ship. While supposed to be filming a regular documentary, the filmmaker is drawn progressively into the city’s hidden depths towards a metaphysical afterlife of dreams and memory. Along the way, the film presents characteristics of the city that would be omitted from a standard travel film: waste pickers, the secret meanings of graffiti, and marginalized Alevi neighborhoods.
Having lived in Istanbul from 2008 to 2012, Hopkins is no stranger to the city’s peculiarities. He is also a regular visitor, telling The Guide Istanbul, “I don’t think there’s been a year of my life in the last 10 or 15 years when I haven’t been to Istanbul at least twice.” Hopkins’ personal relationship to the city extends from his own stay through to his Turkish wife, Ceylan Ünal Hopkins, who is a co-writer of the film.
“I wanted to make a portrait of the city. Of course a city exists physically, in terms of facts that you can summon up or research, but a city also exists in people’s memories, imaginations, and dreams. Cities also exist in the traditions of literature, poetry, and music,” said Hopkins. “So I wanted to somehow encompass all of these manifestations of Istanbul, not just as it physically exists today but also how it echoes back into the past, and indeed how it echoes out into the universe and the next world. This metaphysical preoccupation eventually takes over from the realistic preoccupation. It’s as if I was painting the city on canvas, starting with a photographic image and slowly degrading that into a much more abstract painting.”
Despite describing himself as a rationalist, Hopkins was captured by the otherworldly atmosphere of Istanbul that has been inspiration to centuries of writers and artists. “I lived in Çukurcuma – walking back home at night through the narrow streets you can’t help but feel a rather melancholy, shadowy, dark, numinous kind of atmosphere. There’s nothing like that in Berlin,” he says, comparing Istanbul with his adopted home in Germany. “There are narrow streets in London, but they’re full of advertising or burglar alarms or parking signs. There’s the feeling of a municipal authority in every yard of London’s streets. But in Istanbul the backstreets still feel uncontrolled, and it feels more mysterious as a result.”
A changing city
One of the most divisive issues in Istanbul and Turkey at large is gentrification and urban development. Without setting out to document this phenomenon, Hopkins found himself unable to avoid it. “When I came to start looking seriously for the film locations, which was in 2013, I realized that quite a few of the places that I wanted to film were gone, particularly around Karaköy,” he explained. “Of course there is gentrification everywhere, but in London and Berlin it is fuelled by the simple factor of richer people moving into poorer neighborhoods. It’s free-market capitalism. In Turkey that is also happening, but then there’s a government program of gentrification which is far more aggressive and targeted at certain sections of the community such as gypsies and Alevis.” His observations and research led him to Fikirtepe, the site of Istanbul’s largest urban development project, and the neighborhoods of Gazi and Küçük Armutlu, whose Alevi communities feel threatened by the authorities.
Fikirtepe, a neighborhood in the Kadıköy district, became famous for one resident in the construction zone who refused to sell his property. This unforeseen resistance left a single house like an island in the middle of an excavated wasteland. Meanwhile, the Gazi and Küçük Armutlu neighborhoods express their frustration through unorthodox political displays. “There are portraits of anarchist and Communist leaders hanging over the main streets. It’s kind of like a fortress,” said Hopkins. “And the police stations are surrounded by barricades because they’re so afraid of the local population.”
Through episodes on Fikirtepe, the Alevi neighborhoods, the Gezi Park protests, and street cats, the filmmaker moves ever closer into the undead heart of the city. A particularly enigmatic man called Faruk Korkmaz gives the filmmaker a list of telephone numbers for dead people, and Hopkins invites disaster by calling the numbers in an abandoned house. This is one of the humorous moments that make the viewer question the film’s sincerity towards its material – taking the plot of the Western visitor being driven to madness by the East, Hopkins adds a dash of bathos to draw attention to the absurdity of it all.
A visual game
Clarifying the line between documentary and fiction, Hopkins says, “Of course we didn’t get there in a container ship. There’s quite a lot of nonsense that appears to be true. A few people are just themselves, but most people are playing versions of themselves – including myself. Even though it’s partially autobiographical, the Ben Hopkins in the film is an alter ego. If you look at the credits, Faruk Korkmaz is played by someone called İsa Çelik. He’s a photography professor at a Turkish university.”
A recurring note in the film is linked to its title, Hasret. The song of this name by singer Seyyan Hanım, who recorded the first Turkish tango, forms an ethereal emblem of mortality in Hopkins’ vision. “Towards the end of the film I’m beginning to frame Istanbul in historical time, as a city that will be ruins in 2,000 years just like Babylon is – that human life is short in comparison with the incredible age of the universe,” he says. Seyyan Hanım’s voice becomes a lament from the grave that awaits all of us, piercing through the crackling vinyl between the two worlds. Another musical influence on the film is the song “Bu akşam bütün meyhanelerini dolaştım İstanbul’un.” “The song says, “I’ve searched all the pubs of Istanbul and all the rakı glasses in the pubs for the traces of your lipstick.”
“That kills me every time I hear it,” Hopkins recalls. Anyone who has spent a night in an Istanbul meyhane, pondering the future through the haze of rakı, can identify with the exuberant melancholy of that line, and its realization in Hopkins’ memorable film.