Sunday , September 23 2018

Syrian war documentary wins top Venice prizes

‘The Announcement’ focuses on Turkey’s past

VENICE, Sept 8, (Agencies): A film that follows two friends through four nightmarish years of the Syrian civil war has lifted some of the top prizes at the Venice Film Festival, which ends Saturday. “Still Recording”, a documentary by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed Al Batal, records what happened to two idealistic art students after they were swept up in the fervour of the Syrian revolution. It picked up two awards at Venice Critics’ Week. Friends Saeed and Milad leave Damascus and go to Douma in 2011, a suburb under rebel control, to set up a radio station and recording studio. There they struggle to keep a flicker of hope and creativity alive as they endure fighting, siege and famine.

Ayoub and Al Batal, who shot 500 hours of footage, told AFP that with so little reporting coming out of Syria it was important to bear witness. “We started doing this because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, an efficient working media in Syria because it’s not allowed to enter and if it is, it’s under the control of the regime,” said Al Batal. “Art is nothing if it is not resistance, even if there isn’t revolution… it is resistance against a huge amount of emotions you have got inside you. “Emotions need to come out and expressing them through art can do that,” he added.

The win comes as the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the northern province that is the last major stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups which have been trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for the past seven years. Al Batal said the situation in Syria “is more dangerous than ever now” because the Russian military are more ruthless than Assad’s badly trained soldiers. “They know where to hit, and how to hit hard,” said Al Batal, who said the “media army behind them” was the same. An hilarious black comedy about a botched coup in Turkey won a major prize at the Venice Film Festival Friday.

“The Announcement”, a deadpan satire based on a real-life military coup attempt in 1963, won the Best Mediterranean Film prize awarded annually by Italian critics. The Hollywood Reporter had called the tragicomedy by Mahmut Fazil Coskun a “near perfect coup”, praising its “unholy mix of bone-dry comedy and a deadly serious meditation on the transience of those in power”. Coskun, 45, admitted parallels will be drawn with the failed coup to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

But Variety said the film was more about what happens when “the general population become pawns” in dangerous power games. Eight people died in the failed 1963 coup led by Colonel Talat Aydemir, who was later hanged. The film – Coskun’s third – follows a group of violent but clueless plotters sent to Istanbul from the capital Ankara, but taking over the city’s radio station proves more complicated than they thought. Soldiers involved in the chaotic 2016 coup attempt also got more than they bargained for when they attempted to shut down media outlets.

Erdogan blamed the abortive putsch that claimed 249 lives on his former ally Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish preacher with thousands of followers across the country. The attempt led to the biggest purge of Turkey’s modern history, with Erdogan targeting not just alleged supporters of Gulen, but Kurdish activists, leftists, journalists and his liberal critics.

Some 80,000 people were arrested and around double that number sacked from their jobs in schools, the public service and the justice system. In the summer of 2016, Coskun was scouting locations for his latest film, a based-on-a-true-story satire about a coup attempt in 1963, when news broke of a failed plot against the government of Erdogan.

It was the sort of mordant coincidence that could have been pulled from “The Announcement”, Coskun’s third feature, which world premieres in Venice’s Horizons sidebar. Playing out over the course of a single night in Istanbul, pic follows a group of disgruntled soldiers who seize a radio station in order to announce that their co-conspirators have toppled the government – a putsch that by dawn has fizzled out across the country.

While the same plotline in the hands of another helmer could’ve played out as a tense thriller or high-octane actioner, Coskun decided to make a different statement by showing the conspirators as they bungled through their minor parts in the country’s larger drama. “What would happen if we don’t see any action?” he recalled asking himself. “I thought this could be a more interesting idea.” “The Announcement” was inspired by diaries Coskun began reading in 2014, describing the real-life events depicted in the movie. The attempt to seize the radio station was treated as little more than a footnote in his reading, but the director saw in that small-bore story a chance to show “the power of ordinary people” who, while ostensibly written into the margins of the history books, “are making the real history.”

In the wake of the failed coup of 2016 – which quickly led to a wide-ranging crackdown by Erdogan – Coskun was forced to put production on hold, realizing that the climate was too sensitive for a film that might have been perceived as a commentary on current events. Two years later, it is not an easy time for filmmakers in Turkey. The government’s broad clampdown has cast a shadow over artistic freedom, while the weakening lira has sent production costs soaring. After President Donald Trump announced the US was doubling tariffs against Turkey in mid-August, an already battered currency went into a tailspin.

As the standoff between the two countries intensifies, Coskun confessed that he didn’t understand how the dispute – ostensibly over Turkey’s imprisonment of an American pastor – had grown so heated. “My thought is, ‘Please don’t have this conflict, because it affects the Turkish lira too much,” he said. “Please stop fighting!”

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