Pialat in Turkey

  1. Bosphore (1964)
  2. Byzance (1964)
  3. La Corne d’Or (1964)
  4. Istanbul (1964)
  5. Maitre Galip (1964)
  6. Pehlivan (1964)

On assignment Maurice Pialat and cameraman/cinematographer Willy Kurant go to Turkey, in disguise as the Lumiere brothers (less than a decade after Louis died), and send back a series of actualities, six in total. The opening trio work more in the tradition of the literary-documentaries of French short cinema at the time, and, while frequently beautiful (especially in the sole colour film Bosphore), they are probably the lesser for it; the texts Pialat collates for the narration are less interesting, less idiosyncratic, less subversive than Chris Marker’s, for all their educational worth.

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The last three films- Istanbul, Maitre Galip and Pehlivan- are, however, masterpieces of their form. Istanbul was shot spontaneously on the streets, and exhibits a city of immense population and crowds that move across the sun-bleached streets like enormous grey waves. Haunting these centres of activity are police and military men, the constant surveillance of the state, the threat of arrest for seemingly innocuous actions. And then the suburbs are crumbling, deprived, quiet apart from playing children and wild animals and unpoeticised by Pialat and Kurant; the interest is purely in the innocent capturing of a reality, so potent and pungent that one should be able to feel and smell all there is to feel and smell, to become a sort of flaneur but a distinctly (if temporarily) Turkish flaneur in the heightened awareness and familiarity with what passes before one’s senses. The producers warned Pialat and Kurant against focusing on ‘miserablism’ and ‘sordidness’, so as not to upset the proud and right-wing government of the country, but the portrait that emerges is not empty and light, rather it has the weight of fullness.

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Maitre Galip was Pialat’s favourite of the films, and the short most consistently discussed and praised. There is good reason for this attention and favouritism; the narration is Pialat reading a poem by Nazim Hikmet, and the words and the tone return to us Pialat’s award-winning short L’Amour Existe (1960), or more precisely the territory of the leftist side of Pialat (a man not averse to making right-wing statements to irritate liberal journalists and left-wing critics), a lyricism that is a true lyricism for it doesn’t cover-up difficult truths, doesn’t deny the alienation of man, but rather expounds upon it, makes its origin and meaning clear with full, piercing simplicity (the useful, defining kind of simplicity, not the negating). The atmosphere is one of mourning and despair, a society deconstructed so as to show the exploitation at its core. Now we look on the men and women Pialat captures in the alleyways of Istanbul as people of history, not of myth, the distorting power of exoticism devastated. The tourist film should not be able to morally or aesthetically recover from such assaults, but, as Hikmet may have it, what are three artists (Hikmet, Pialat, Kurant) against the force and cultural and social domination of the global leisure industry, a branch of the established order with its full powers of denial, contortion and displacement at hand?

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The final film, Pehlivan, explores the macho masculinity that is celebrated and promoted by the dominant powers of Turkey (see, for example, Erdogan today). We are taken to a three-day Grease Wrestling championship, and we see, in stunning flurries of extreme, almost-tactile close-ups or objective, dispassionate medium-shot, oiled and muscular male body parts grappling with each other, embracing each other, hands and arms being forced down the (modified-)trousers of the challenger by wrestlers trying to establish a hold. The homoeroticism is so obvious as to almost not need remarking upon. Then we are taken to a side-show, a well-attended gypsy dance/strip show held in a sweltering tent on the fringes of the championship, an escape route for the now all-male audience to return to safely heterosexual imagery and desires, to quash or exorcise the memory and possible implications of all that male flesh in close, suggestive contact. Pialat and Kurant film the audience as much as the dancers, and this exceedingly arch film on the implications and meanings of Turkish machismo and masculine celebration ends with a short tribute to the dignity of the ordinary Turkish women now left behind in the stands and forgotten by their male partners as they partake in the festival of male flesh, and it’s purging female chaser.

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