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by Nil Palabiyik

The 27th Istanbul International Film Festival opened with the premiere of Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's Caramel, telling the intertwining stories of five women of different ages frequenting the same beauty parlor in Beirut. Speaking at the gala night, Labaki referred to hers as "a film about women torn between traditional eastern values and western modernism." Caramel, as its title suggests, elegantly hides the bitter undertone of this troublesome conflict under the cheerful ceremonies of waxing, pampering and gossiping. This results in a colorful and bright portrayal of Labaki's Beirut as opposed to the usual wartime setting. The Turkish audience expressed familiarity with the problematic issues reflected in the film, a comment that suggests Labaki's Beirut might as well be their Istanbul, revealing the close social and cultural ties between the two countries. Starting with the opening film, Middle Eastern feature films enthralled festival audiences, including The Summer of '62 by Mehdi Charef, portraying his childhood when Algeria gained independence, and a lonely janitor's story set in the Amman Airport, Captain Abu Raed by Amin Matalqa, which won the 2008 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award.

Documentaries were equally popular this year, paralleling the latest trends in worldwide film festivals. This appetite was sated by the festival's special section dedicated to documentaries. Highlights from a number of Middle Eastern documentaries included Ran Tal's Children of the Sun compromising recordings between 1930 and 1970 that shed light on the history of children brought up in kibbutzim (collective farms in Israel). The director, Ran Tal, who grew up in a kibbutz himself, said that his main aim in bringing up this issue was to reflect upon the eldest conflict of all: the conflict between children and parents. Claiming that the kibbutz movement is closer to Zionist ideology than that of European communists, he commented: "The main purpose of the kibbutz movement was to eliminate the neurotism of the bourgeois family. In addition to its success the new system came with its own problems, obviously." Last year a feature film was shown in the Istanbul Festival reflecting upon these problems: Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud revealed the dark side of the kibbutz as seen through the eyes of a child. The opportunity to watch these two films over two consecutive years gave festival-goers a chance to have a more complete understanding of this phenomenon. Another Middle Eastern documentary, Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love introduced the audience to a number of Muslim gays and their struggle for existence despite the harsh criticism they receive from their families and oppressive society.

A second theme in the documentary section was, inevitably, civil war and its ramifications. The visually captivating War/Dance by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine is set in a refugee camp in Uganda and follows the individual stories of three school children preparing for a national music and dance competition. War/Dance received the 2007 Sundance Documentary Directing and Woodstock Audience Awards. Estela Bravo's Who am I? about the children who were "disappeared" during Argentina's junta, and Santa Fe Street by Carmen Castillo set in the Santiago suburbs in Chile were the other highlights of this section.

The festival also featured three special sections devoted to directors Milos Forman, Alexander Petrov and Marc Caro, who also gave a master class in Istanbul. Other sections included "Mined Zone," introducing extraordinary films with groundbreaking techniques or challenging narratives, "Young Masters" featured debut or second films by directors who received international critical acclaim, "'68 and Its Heritage" commemorated revolutionary events and films that changed world history, and "American Independents" were those US films that stood in contrast to Hollywood and the mainstream.

The jury and audience award-winners of the 27th International Istanbul Film Festival were announced at the festival's closing Awards Ceremony. The films receiving the Golden Tulip and Special Jury Awards were selected by distinguished jury members Michael Ballhaus, Joan Dupont, Selim Eyübo'lu; Bent Hamer, Pawel Pawlikowski, and Kirsi Tykkilainen from films screening in the International Competition.

Yumurta – Egg by the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu, which made its world premiere at Cannes this year, was awarded the Golden Tulip Best International Film Award. Egg follows the homecoming of a melancholic poet on his journey from Istanbul to the small village he grew up in for his mother's funeral. Egg is the first part in a trilogy, which aspires to create a subtle and poetic narrative in portraying the rural life at its intrinsically serene pace. This film can be classified in the new school of Turkish cinema dealing with the estrangement of the individual in a sincere and unaffected way, pioneered by Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Uzak - Distant. The Jury Special Award for the Best International Film went to German Director Dennis Gansel's Die Welle - The Wave. French director Alain Corneau, presenting the trophy, expressed that The Wave received the Special Jury Prize "for the powerful and gripping way in which it shows how our need for purpose and community can be manipulated to disastrous effect."

The National Awards jury decided to give the Best Turkish Film Award to Seyfi Teoman's Tatil Kitabi – Summer Book, which portrayed the minor tensions developing over the summer holiday between the members of a provincial family from the south coast of Turkey. According to jury members, Teoman's debut film "conveys hope, tackling the theme of innocence with a cinematographic narrative and a humane approach." Summer Book was also featured at the forum section of Berlinale this year, receiving great critical acclaim.

This year's Best Turkish Director Award was given to Dervis Zaim for his minimalist feature Nokta - Dot. Dot recounts the tale of a calligraphy apprentice who is tormented by the guilt of stealing a rare 13th century copy of the Quran and accidentally getting involved in murder. The traditional Turkish art of exquisite writing determines both the cinematic language and the plot of the film, structured as a single, fluid shot.

Now in its second year, The European Council Film Award (FACE) was given to a film in the "Human Rights in Cinema" section of the festival. This year's FACE was awarded to Chinese director Li Yang's Blind Mountain "for its powerful message against all violence, no matter its form, against women all over the world."

This year's FIBRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics) award was given to Belgian Nic Balthazar's debut film Ben X inspired by a true story. Ben X tells of an autistic teenager bullied at school who takes refuge in an imaginary second life inside a computerized role playing game.

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