26 February, 2010

"Agrarian Utopia"

Thursday night, and another Europa League match - Galatasaray playing Atletico Madrid at home in Istanbul. But tonight i'm not watching the game. A screenwriting classmate - a kindred spirit who just returned from backpacking in Colombia - has told me about !f International Independent Film Festival, playing for the next four days at an Ankara multiplexes. Not only is "Food, Inc." leading off Thursday's lineup - another Thursday title is instantly riveting (though i might be the only person in the world who would call this a riveting title) - "Agrarian Utopia". A little online research and it looks like a must see.

For someone studying both sustainable agriculture and film, marriages of the two are a rare and delightful find. (A special nod to friend Bennett Konesni, who traveled the world in 2005-6 to produce "WorkSong", a thirty minute documentary of musical work traditions in Mongolia, Tanzania, and Ghana, and who will probably dig this film on all the levels i do.) Independent film and ecological farming are in some ways alike - both are labors of love, deeply tied to personal vision; both yield unpredictable harvests and at times the merest of extrinsic rewards. Yet the social and technological aspects of subsistence and cinema could not be more disparate.

Here the contrast is particularly ironic: most of the !f screenings take place at a cinema on the top floor of CEPA (pronounced JEPA), one of at least five four-plus-story mega-malls in Ankara. Thousands of white lights cascade from the ceilings; water cascades in thin sheets between glass, and cars and clothes stand loudly mute, preaching their gospel of conspicuous consumption. Waiting for the film to begin, one question nagged - the dialogue would be in Thai, but what language would the subtitles be in? Thankfully - subtitles were in parallel Thai and English, with Türkçe subtitles projected separately below the screen. A lot to take in!


Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad, now 30, spent his childhood in a rural village - and Raksasad carries a strong affinity for the now-disappearing cooperative, rural lifeways he remembers. He refers to the film as a documentary - and the nonprofessional actors' performances are so nuanced, the style of filmmaking so bare-bones that it seems immediate and real. Watching it (unaware of the setup) raises questions about the ethics of documentary film. Though the characters and plot are fictional, Raksasad's method is journalistic; in those scenes where the characters are filmed at actual political rallies, genre distinctions become nonexistent.

In surround-sound, the chorus of frogs, calls of birds, and night punctuated by crickets stirred something deep inside. I felt so much closer to Raksasad's characters than to the engineering and business students around me every day; i craved the feel of wind, rain on my back, the splash of mud. The film brought back long afternoons of work under the open sky - it put me in touch with dreams that i found, as the characters did, untenable in the industrialized world.

CAUTION: SPOILERS. What unfolded in 122 minutes was an austere story to say the least. Two families, forced by debt to leave their own land, begin to work as sharecroppers in a distant village. The yearly cycle of rice farming is depicted in exquisite detail, and the paddies' ecology is itself a character in the film; paddy birds become dinner, as do snakes, rats, ant eggs, and wild honey. Duen and Nuek train a water buffalo to pull the plow while their sons frolic in the paddy pools. Sparse dialogue drives home every source of tension that can be had - a child's materialism, a spouse's stubborn silence. The local landscape is more than setting; it provides an immediate sense of place anchored topographically and psychically by a Buddhist shrine. The shrine stands on a distant hillside throughout the film, at last becoming the center of a scene pitting sacred space against necessity, to emphasize Duen's desperation.

Time-lapse images - monsoon clouds; the whirling dome of stars inlaid with passing electrical storms - add a much-needed visual punch and contribute to the film's documentary style, and wisely, the strongest visuals occur near the end of the film, supporting the slow, deliberate narrative arc. After planting the second year's rice, the young men are informed that their landlord has defaulted on a car loan and has to sell, leaving them no choice but to find work in the city. Well, there is one choice - when eccentric old bachelor Prom offers to let them farm his ample lands - on the condition they use no chemicals. Prom is more than a subtle tip of the hat to eco-farming pioneer Masonobu Fukuoka, describing a "one-straw revolution" method of rice growing. But the young men decide that "...he is one kind of crazy fool - and we are another kind." To quote the film's tag line, how can we dream of utopia while our stomach is still grumbling?

By any standards a long film, the pace of "Agrarian Utopia" would be too slow for many viewers. But that pace follows directly from Raksasad's rural upbringing, and from his documentary style; it is the pace of nature, of handmade life. Never have i seen a film which so completely captured a sense of place. Click here for the trailer.


I left CEPA at midnight, only to find that campus buses don't stop there so late. Thankfully, here even the eight-lane freeway has sidewalks. A mile walk brought me to the Bilkent exit, a crumbling overpass past the new mosque with its scaffolding glinting moonlight. A pack of feral dogs crossed the road ahead of me; uneasy, i stopped to buy döner kebap in a dirt parking lot just off the highway. (The developing world is great. Where else can you find a street vendor open after midnight in a dirt pull-off a mile from three mega-malls?) One customer stood talking to the proprietor: "luckily", this guy was a Bilkent student with a car. But the most fitting fate of the night? This guy, an Iranian student who offers the one lira more i need to buy döner, and agrees to drive me home - is a violinist. Whose specialty is Iranian and Azerbaijani folk music. Are you on facebook? he asks.

22 February, 2010

Like protest for chocolate

Saturday again, and i am on a mission. Our screenwriting assignment for the weekend: visit a chocolate shop, or the chocolate aisle in a supermarket, and write character descriptions of the people we see, focusing on the visual aspects of their behavior, motivation, and whatever backstory inferences can be made from these. Thanks to friend Mehmet for the lead, i search the streets of Kızılay for Ali Uzun Şekerçilik, a traditional confectionery shop. But - i have forgotten my Ankara street map.

Just like last Saturday, Polis vans line the curb of Atatürk Boulevard, and guards stand beside them with automatic weapons. Shouts, coalescing into a chant, filter through the buildings, but from where i cannot tell. This weekend i am less on edge; the locals seem unperturbed, as though they hear and see these things every day. Near Olgunlar Sokkak, a group of police stand alert. In halting Türkçe i ask for directions to Selanik Caddesi (Selanik Street), and to my surprise one officer replies in English. "Speak slowly," he says - and points me in the direction of the chant.

In the heart of Kızılay, at Guvenpark, the broad thoroughfare of Ziya Gökalp Cad crosses Atatürk Boulevard. There is no traffic there, and as i round the corner i can see why. Beneath a pedestrian bridge, a line of armored polis vehicles closes the street, and a wall of officers stands in front of them. A few television cameramen stand atop the bridge, and on the other side, a chant rises. Selanik Cad is there, where the crowd has gathered. So i follow a thin thread of locals around the barricade.

And what a sight. Protesters stroll toward the bridge, carrying banners, bullhorns, drums. Hayır, hayır, they shout: work-worn old men, idealistic students, feminists. There are red and yellow flags, flags emblazoned "Sosyalist Demokrasi Partisi"; later i see blue, and black-and-white. Each party has its own colors, but they have come together to protest for workers' rights. A few streets away on Tuna Cad, the TEKEL strikers' tarpaulin-tents stand: it is the 34th day of the strike, by some sources, and by others the 47th. (I learned, while writing this post, that Saturday's march was organized by Turkiye's largest federation of labor unions in response to several recent instances of injustice related to privatization.)

I turn down Selanik Cad first in one direction, then another; the street is thronged with people. Building numbers are hard to find here, and after a long search, still no chocolate shop - but so much to see. Fresh red graffiti dries on a bus stop. In front of the Burger King on Ziya Gökalp i stop, and write for a while. The street is clear, and before traffic resumes, street sweepers in two-tone neon green jackets clean litter from the sidewalks. Nearby, a pair of simitçi work, one serving customers, the other making change (simitçi are street sellers of the local pastries). These two are older, wrinkled, mustached - but there are young men tending some of the simit carts, and on occasion you will see a simitçi balancing a tray, piled six layers of simit high, atop his head. A tray of the small, vase-like traditional bardak (tea glasses) hangs by three wires from a çay seller's hand; the simitçi buy from him. A mass of police still stand stiffly on steps down to Selanik Cad, though small groups walk by now and then, talking and laughing, as though they're glad this was a boring morning.

I ask a young man for directions - and much to my surprise he speaks excellent English. His name is İlkin, and he studies French at one of the universities downtown. He is friendly, a willing guide - though he doesn't know where the chocolate shop is, he offers to help me find it, and together we set off - into the crowd on Selanik Cad. At the broad cobblestone intersection with Sakarya Cad (a pedestrian street crowded with markets and restaurants) protesters coalesce; chants fade into conversation. Around a single drummer, a circle of people link arms in traditional folkdance. On a sloping roof above them, several men young and old stand. Two hold a banner; one catches a can of spray paint thrown up to him. A few words with one of the older men, and he stops shaking the can. Later, a bus is parked on the same cobblestones, blasting music from speakers on its roof. Banners hang from the buildings above us, and people stand on the balconies. Nikons and television cameras seem to be everywhere. The march has become a street party. It's a good day for a simitçi, weaving through the press of people, tray atop his head. The police presence, a massive show of force, limits itself to the edges where these streets meet Ataturk Boulevard open, confining the march to back streets on its way toward Sihiyye.

photo courtesy of İlkin

I never did find the chocolate shop - but i found a great new friend, and we walked the city for much of the afternoon.