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topkapi

Another film shown at the International Istanbul Film Festival that's worth mentioning is 'Topkapi', Jules Dassin's classic heist film set in Istanbul. Essentially a 60's version of his masterpiece 'Rififi' (reviewed here before), the film replaces film noir Paris with a dazzlingly exotic Istanbul, in a mix of screwball comedy and suspense, and with an equally 60's psychedelic title sequence.

The object of the heist is the famous Emerald Dagger in the Topkapi Palace (where it can be seen today, though slightly less accessibly displayed). Characteristically, there is a long run-up to the heist - assembling the gang of eccentric European specialists, crafting the audacious plan, along with some comic relief from Peter Ustinov as the lost Brit who gets entangled in the criminals' web.

This part of the film also contains some interesting documentary-style couleur locale sequences of Istanbul, showing the city as it was half a century ago, with many of the Ottoman wooden houses still standing and the city still contained within its walls. (In the 1960's the population of Istanbul, at less than two million, was a fraction of what it is today.)

But what makes the film a classic in the genre is the heist itself, a long, nailbitingly suspenseful scene, in almost complete silence, of the gang breaking into the Topkapi Palace to steal the dagger. No need to spoil the plot here, just see for yourself. It's almost as good as 'Rififi'!

Here's the trailer, a self-referential classic in itself.

son of babylon

A standout at the International Istanbul Film Festival - which otherwise seemed to be a rather tame affair - was the Iraqi film 'Son of Babylon', directed by Mohamed Al Daradji. A heartwrenching road movie through a country ravaged by dictatorship and war, it offers a welcomely different perspective from the current wave of American war dramas.

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Set in 2003, just after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the film follows the search of a Kurdish grandmother and her grandson for their son / father, who has been missing since the Gulf War. From the mountains of northern Iraq to Baghdad, they travel through the war-torn, wind-swept desert, past roadblocks, burning cities and desolate prisons where papers fly around as eerie reminders of the former dictatorial bureaucracy.

In this bleak post-apocalyptic landscape - all the more poignant with the knowledge that the entire film was shot on location - it seems as if the whole country is on the move looking for lost family members. The grim reality, however, is that most of the thousands, if not millions, of missing people have ended up in mass graves, of which new ones are discovered every day.

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The journey of the Kurdish pair thus gradually turns into a ritual of mourning, acceptance and, reluctantly, forgiveness. Reminiscent of 'Turtles Can Fly' (reviewed here before) in its compassionate depiction of ordinary people struggling to retain their diginity in the madness of war, 'Son of Babylon' shows great sensibility for the complex emotions of unifying grief and sundering hate that overwhelm the country.

And if, like 'Turtles Can Fly', the film ends on an ambiguous note with a boy on his own facing an uncertain future, it's perhaps the most hopeful ending possible. His dream, at least, is to become a musician and not a soldier.

See also this Sundance interview with Al Daradji on making the film in Iraq.

istanbul & the bosporus

To be travelling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea - that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosporus. Pushed by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveller begins to feel that in spite of everything, this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and find freedom. This waterway that passes through the centre of the city is not to be confused with the canals of Amsterdam or Venice or the rivers that divide Paris and Rome in two: strong currents run through the Bosporus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark.
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A defining feature of the city, the Bosporus splits Istanbul - and Turkey - into its European and Asian side. Who better to evoke its unique appeal than Orhan Pamuk, who in his 'Istanbul, Memories and the City' describes the city's tumultuous history with equal doses of melancholy and pride, eastern tradition and western modernity, and always the Bosporus in between, as both a border and an escape.

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If you have the current behind you, if you are following the itinerary of a city ferry, you will see apartment buildings and yalıs, old ladies watching you from balconies as they sip their tea, the pergolas of coffee houses perched on landing stations, children in their underwear entering the sea just where the sewers empty into it and sunning themselves on the concrete, people fishing from the shore, others lazing on their yachts, schoolchildren emptying out of school and walking along the shore, travellers gazing out to sea through bus windows while stuck in traffic, cats sitting on the wharves, waiting for fishermen, trees you hadn't realised were so tall, hidden villas and walled gardens you didn't even know existed, narrow alleyways rising up into the hills, tall apartment buildings looming in the background, and slowly, in the distance, Istanbul in all its confusion - its mosques, the poor quarters, the bridges, minarets, towers, gardens and ever-multiplying highrises. To travel along the Bosporus, be it in a ferry, a motor launch or a rowing boat, is to see the city house by house, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and also from afar, as a silhouette, an ever-mutating mirage.

(Technically, the first two images were shot from the Sea of Marmara, but they fit the city "as a silhouette", with minarets and "ever-multiplying highrises" competing on its skyline.)

the master and margarita 2

Another unlikely but rewarding graphic novel is the adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita' by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal. The novel, reviewed here before, is a classic of 20th century literature. As the graphic adaptation's introduction states "it is - among other things - a satirical swipe at the literary establishment, a meditation on the nature of good and evil, and a love story".

The graphic form suits the novel's anarchist satire perfectly, without sacrificing its more serious themes of religious debate and artistic expression under oppression. The book juxtaposes black and white ink drawings by Klimowski (whose stark and wordless nightmare 'The Depository' is also recommended) with color drawings by Schebjal to distinguish the different story levels.

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Beautifully executed throughout, its final double-page panel even manages to sum up the entire novel - the weary Master and Margarita surrounded by the characters he created, his angels and demons, from Christ to a naked witch.

Klimowski and Schebjal have also adapted 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'. Here's an audio interview with them from Panel Borders. For more images from 'The Master and Margarita' see this gallery.

logicomix

It's an ambitious idea, creating a graphic novel about mathematicians, logicians and philosophers arguing about absolute truth. But 'Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth', by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, pulls it off by finding the drama in this rather heady subject. With many of the story's protagonists plagued by insanity, it even has shades of tragedy.

In 'A Brief History of Time' Stephen Hawking recounts the anecdote ascribed to Bertrand Russell, who after a lecture on astronomy got a question from the audience:

...a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
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The turtles provide a nice metaphor for the elusive 'foundational quest' that Russell, along with other illustrious figures like Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Frege, Cantor and Gödel, embarked on in the early 20th century. Was it possible to find some absolute basis to mathematics - a way to prove Euclid's 2000 year old 'Elements' - and to construct a system of logic to underpin all human knowledge?

[As a side note: for some reason the Dutch translation adds an article to the title ('Een epische zoektocht naar de waarheid', 'An Epic Search For the Truth'), which seems to miss the point: the quest was not for a specific truth but for the concept of truth itself.]

The answer, as it turned out - and as Kant had already predicted with his a priori knowledge - was no. Ultimately, knowledge is a human construct, whether it's mathematical or philosophical, and only expressible in language, which is again a human construct. Thus any attempt at defining something absolutely ends up being circular, or as Russell put it, tautological.

Put differently, a system of knowledge can be internally coherent and produce 'true' statements, but there will never be a way of proving those statements against anything outside that system. There is no objective point of reference, unless you make that point of reference part of the system you began with - which leads to an infinite regress. In that sense it really is turtles all the way down...

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In retrospect the foundational quest was a thoroughly modernist undertaking, doomed to failure but with a tragic beauty. As Doxiadis says in this making of video:

Bertrand Russell soon became our tale's hero, and also its narrator. He was one of the quest's greatest stars, its most eloquent protagonist. Bertrand Russell is a quintessentially modern person, an atheist yearning for the absolute, a cynic masquerading as an idealist - or was it the other way around?