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Been a Long Time Gone, Constantinople

Fatih Akin has always been interested in cultural interstices. He also tends to like the murkier pools of human consciousness. When so many filmmakers respond to our contracting, globalized and crisis-ridden world by producing homogenous, white bread dreck, the likes of Akin should be treasured.

Akin’s Golden Bear-winning Head On told the story of two self-destructive, Turkish-born Germans who somehow found love in an unnatural marriage. It was all self-loathing and despair and reluctant love and intense jealousy and murder. When Harry Met Sally meets Dirty Pretty Things meets Sid and Nancy. Or something like that.

In the wake of Head On, Akin wanted something a little different. He wanted a smaller, more manageable project—one that wouldn’t be easily compared to its predecessor. He also wanted to do something that addressed Turkey’s pending entry into the European Union; something that examined his homeland’s position on the nominal boundary between east and west.

When Head On wrapped, Akin invited Einstürzende Neubauten guitarist Alexander Hacke to Istanbul to produce the film’s soundtrack. While in town, the industrial rocker fell in love with the city’s music. One night, Akin watched as his friend worked with Romani musicians, marveling at how, despite the barriers of language and culture, they managed to somehow understand and appreciate one another.

With that, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul was born. The film follows Hacke upon his return to city. He comes bearing sound equipment, determined to do what all sonic explorers are: to capture the sound of the city. Initially, the results are fairly predictable. We meet psychedelic jam band Baba Zula on a drug-addled cruise and sit-in as young Turkish rappers freestyle. While it’s hardly bad, the music in these early sections is actually not as interesting or arresting as you’d think. Nor are many of the interviews. The hip hop artists jabber on about avoiding the trappings of American gangsterism. They claim they rhyme about the “real” and “political” issues effecting their fellow Turks, and yet, unless the subtitles are missing the real meaty bits, the rapping we hear, though a mile-a-minute sonic delight, is all pretty vapid.

The majority of the musicians featured in the first half of Akin’s film are all fairly young. They are part of the new wave growing out of the once deteriorating Beyoglu district in the city’s east end. They all grew up dismissing the traditional Turkish music of their parents and gravitating to Pink Floyd and punk rock instead. The majority of these young musicians are now just re-discovering their musical heritage. Unfortunately, that means we get to listen to, say, Duman, as crappy a neo-grunge band as you’d hear at an off-night at the Horseshoe.

“Turkish Rock” didn’t exist 15 years ago. That’s what makes these bands interesting at all. But it’s only when the audience is given some context that we begin to understand. Erkin Koray is considered the father of the genre. When we hear about Koray’s journey from playing Elvis Presley to his own lyrically rich progressive rock, we begin to see Duman’s existence in its proper context.

Crossing the Bridge is at its best when it addresses the music that is unique to the city and its inhabitants. The most moving musical performances come from Romani clarinet wizard Selim Sesler, former cheesy movie idol Orhan Gencebay on the saz and Kurdish vocalist Aynur. Whether it is Sesler jamming in the Romani equivalent of a kitchen party or Gencebay making the saz bend to his will in an empty room, the film was most engrossing when the music the young ‘uns had turned their back on (and were just re-discovering) was played. Whether it’s Kurdish music banned after the 1980 coup or traditional Turkish music marginalized in the 1960s in favour of the “arabesque,” tales of enduring culture are always more engaging than those of emerging culture—if only because their practicioners have fought for the survival of their art.

It’s so rare to find a film that’s poorly executed and wholly enriching at the same time, and the major flaw in Akin’s film is in having Hacke at its centre. The brooding, stoic German remains a shadowy figure throughout, always opting to fiddle with his technical equipment in the background rather than step to the fore. In a way, this is wonderful, as the sound of Istanbul reaches us unfiltered. But I would have loved a guide. Of course, it’s impossible to sum up as rich a city as Istanbul in a phrase, but you feel as though, from the very beginning, Hacke wasn’t really going to be up to the job. Thank God enough of the music is so good.

Crossing the Bridge is currently playing at the Carlton, 20 Carlton St. Call 416-598-2309 for showtimes."

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