The first Australian film festival held in Turkey attracted an audience in excess of 5000 people over 6 days in October 1994. The following is an account of the festival's origins and how the directors, Bruce Jeffreys and Catherine Simpson, went about organising it.
Before attempting to do anything out of the ordinary in the magnificent city of Istanbul there's a small lesson you should learn: "Istanbul'da her sey olabilir" as the Istanbulians would say, or "anything's possible in Istanbul". By the Opening Night of the first Australian Film Festival in Turkey our two assistants were sitting at the police station after trying to buy some poster glue with a counterfeit 500 000 Turkish lira note which we'd unwittingly given them (and incidentally got from a bank!); the slide machine projecting the main sponsor's advertisement was electrocuting anybody who came near it and the Australian Ambassador, who was due to open the festival with a speech, hadn't brought along a translator so Bruce and I had to plead with Turkish friends to get up in front of 500 people to translate his speech. Meanwhile the Turkish (former) friend we had working for us had thrown in the towel the day before when she'd had to translate on the spot for the Australian Consulate-General at a press conference. To top it all off the promotional kangaroo costume which we'd been waiting weeks for finally arrived, minus the head! A Turkish journalist/friend, Burak, had agreed to don the kangaroo costume as a publicity stunt for the Opening Night provided his face and therefore his identity wouldn't be disclosed. Concealing Burak's identity proved difficult so in the end we bribed him with an appropriate amount of money and alcohol just to get him in the costume.
The idea of having an Australian film festival started after Bruce and I had been residing in Istanbul for over a year. The concept sprung from the recognition that too few Australian films were being exhibited in Turkey, and Istanbul seemed a perfect city to do so. The obvious political and some would argue cultural repression there, was juxtaposed by a sense of freedom from regulations. The festival was inspired by this freedom which could work against you or with you, but ultimately enabled us to accomplish a film festival there.
Living in Istanbul you could be inundated with English language media in its dominant British and American forms. On the film side, after a year Bruce and I were desperate to find something other than a Hollywood film to watch in this huge, bustling city of 15 million+ people. Finding a French film was difficult but could usually be accomplished if you visited one of the few independent cinemas but finding a Turkish film in Istanbul was becoming increasingly arduous. We realised we weren't alone in this when we saw the culturally hungry cinema-goers awaiting the first screenings of the Istanbul International Film Festival. Even at this festival in April 1994, for which Bruce had been working, out of 154 international films from 47 countries there was not one Australian entry. (The annual festival receives a regular attendance in excess of 110, 000 people in 2 weeks).
Teaching English in Turkey was more a learning experience for me than a teaching one. Not only learning about Turkish cultures and people but also their perceptions of Australia, which were almost as bizarre as Australians' ideas about Turkey. If you happened to read an article about Australia in the Turkish and even foreign (English language) press you could be sure it would feature kangaroos, crocodiles or sharks so I shouldn't have been surprised when my students said they were "too scared" to travel to Australia because of "all the dangerous animals". After discovering the lack of information available in the media I used my English classes as a forum to educate my Turkish students about Australia as an alternative to the dominant American and British examples of English-speaking countries and cultures. Australian cinema became an effective way to exemplify parts of Australia's distinctiveness and similarities to other cultures. One student's response seemed to reflect a more general sentiment: "But what's the difference between Australian films and Hollywood?", she said with a slight Australian inflexion - at least I'd managed to teach them something.
Soon after the Istanbul International Film Festival in April '94 one of Bruce's students- the co-owner of one of the few independent cinemas in Istanbul (the Alkazar European Cinema) asked how she could get hold of Strictly Ballroom as it was yet to be theatrically released in Turkey. After some investigation on our part it became obvious that Turkey was one market which had up until now been overlooked by Australian distributors. After talking to many Turkish distributors, we got the impression there seemed to be some ignorance on the part of the Australian distributors about the potentially huge market in Turkey for their films.  With this in mind we considered setting up a facility to distribute Australian films for cinema release in Turkey. At the time, it seemed an ideal work arrangement for us - having fallen in love with Turkey but simultaneously missing home. A festival promoting Australian films seemed an appropriate and achievable first step towards this goal. However we had only digested the positive side of the Istanbul spirit of "her sey olabilir". Our learning curves were soon to increase exponentially concerning the workings of both the Australian and Turkish government and commercial sectors. At times we wished we'd never entertained the idea of a film festival because its conceptualisation and realisation were miles apart. Nevertheless from the public's point of view the inaugural festival of Australian films in Turkey was extremely successful, and looked upon by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as a great (and cheap!) promotion of Australia. Our planning began with a trip to Ankara to see the Australian Ambassador. We decided to take the government owned luxury bus service - the choice of many professionals and business people travelling between Istanbul and Ankara - in case we bumped into someone influential. Sitting alone in the corner of the buffet on the bus was the 'Phillip Adams' of Turkey, Vecdi Sayar. (On the bottom floor of some double decker buses they have a cafe/buffet section where you can get light meals and drinks). We managed to corner Vecdi and reveal our plans for an Australian Film Festival. He seemed keen about the idea. Being "western" foreigners in Turkey had its advantages and I'm sure we never would have got much of the interest and attention we received had we been Turks attempting to organise a similar event.
In Ankara we were greeted with an enthusiastic response from the Australian Ambassador; a new apointee who was eager to lift the profile of Turkish-Australian relations. Two weeks after our meeting the grant for a small sum of money to get the project off the ground was approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Our next aim was to get the Australian Film Commission's funding and that of other government and/or commercial bodies - both Turkish and Australian. Winning over the AFC was crucial to get the project off the ground. Even though we could probably obtain the money from other sources, few Australian distributors would allow us to exhibit their films without the AFC's involvement.
The London branch of the AFC indicated our proposal to the AFC in Sydney was receiving favourable feedback so it came as a shock when it was initially rejected. However we didn't despair immediately as we were in the process of liaising with other government agencies like the Australia Council, the Tourism Commission, the Multicultural Foundation, Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Turkish Association in Sydney. In fact we were even precocious enough to ask Paul Keating to pen an introduction for the festival brochure - and he willingly obliged. We used these connections and much pleading to eventually win over the AFC.
With the involvement of the AFC, DFAT, and PM and Cabinet we were under the misapprehension that finding private sector sponsorship would be considerably easier. Working in the competitive area of business sponsorship can be difficult in your own country but we were attempting to do that in a foreign language (and country which had a slightly different ethical approach to business) so it proved to be the most fraught part of the festival. We narrowed the field down to about 80 potential companies- both Turkish and Australian. Initial responses from Turkish companies were positive however when it came to actually financially supporting the festival their interest rapidly deteriorated. The Australian companies on the other hand were fairly direct and up front about their lack of interest. When we contacted Qantas, a person working in personnel attempted a joke: "Where ya gonna have your next festival, Bangladesh?" By contrast Singapore Airlines were easier to deal with and quickly took up the offer of being a minor sponsor of the festival.
We managed to interest a company with an Australian connection operating in Turkey. TNT Express Worldwide eventually became the main sponsor for the festival after much bargaining and negotiation (ie. taking advantage of our desperation to get a main sponsor!). They had only been operating in Turkey for a couple of years and this was the first cultural event they had ever sponsored in Europe. It was vital for us to obtain the support of a courier company because of the horrific costs involved in freighting film prints, weighing around 25kgs, between Turkey and Australia.
Before the festival had even started we calculated that every session would need to be full in order to cover some of our costs without even having anything leftover to pay ourselves. Not only had we underestimated the budget, but we were also encountering unforeseen problems.
One Turkish distribution company who'd just bought the rights to the Adventures of Priscilla- Queen of the Desert unexpectedly told us a week prior to the festival that if we wished to exhibit Priscilla an extra $US 1500 would be required! By that stage all the press material was circulating, the festival brochure had been printed and Priscilla had been advertised as being part of the program. Priscilla turned out to be the most popular film of the festival and the company had the perfect opportunity to test-run the film at our festival on a Turkish audience and they could be sure it would receive good returns. Even though we'd made a contract with the company we were powerless to do anything about the situation. Eventually we bargained the price down a little lower but explained that it was impossible to pay until after the festival had finished (and hopefully been successful) because we hadn't predicted so many surprises. Their response was one we'd heard a thousand times before: "But Australia's a rich country and your festival's supported by the Australian government, isn't it?". That too was a question we began asking ourselves, complicated by the fact that we didn't occupy any official position at DFAT and we weren't part of the AFC or any other arm of the government. We found ourselves in an extremely vulnerable and awkward position and even though we sent urgent messages to PM and Cabinet, the Multicultural Foundation and others no one could really help us. Eventually DFAT gave us a small loan , which we literally had to beg for, in order to pay some of the accumulated debts.
We simply hadn't taken heed of the negative potential of "her sey olabilir"! We'd hired the Alkazar Cinema for the 6 day festival but had no knowledge of the cinema's perennial financial problems - something not uncommon for independent cinemas there. When we started setting things up at the cinema a week prior to the opening the manager appeared from nowhere then demanded to know who we were and what we were doing. Evidently he hadn't been informed about the festival. We later discovered he'd been sacked by the partners months before but had refused to leave. The partners no longer had any contact with him or the cinema but didn't want to forcefully remove him. Unwittingly we became part of a long running feud over control of the cinema. He demanded a personal payment of $US 5000 otherwise he would refuse to cooperate. He threatened to cancel the festival on at least twenty separate occasions a few days prior to the festival and even after it had started! We explained the situation to the partners and were told to ignore his antics. Meanwhile we were being warned by others that this guy was part of the 'Turkish cinema mafia' scene. It was only later we learned of the close relationship between the cinema manager and the distributors of Priscilla. One evening after a feature had finished the manager's offsider who spoke English overheard me use the word "gangsters" in conversation with Bruce. A little later we were summoned into a little room by this inebriated guy who concluded a slurred, hour-long monologue with : "We're not gangsters ....and if I ever hear anyone call us gangsters again"...there was a long pause...."I'll put a gun to their head!" and he motioned pulling the trigger of a gun with his finger.
While targeting potential Turkish companies we met an unusual Personnel Manager, Mehmet, from a company called ‚annakkale Seramik (one of the largest ceramic companies in Europe) who had a personal interest in Australian cinema. The company was based in the closest city to the Gallipoli peninsular, ‚annakkale. Mehmet suggested exhibiting the films in other parts of the country as well as Istanbul. Why not have a festival in the ‚annakkale Kale (Castle or Fortress), from where the greatest naval defeat of the British (1914) was orchestrated by the Turks? The profit received from the proposed ‚annakkale festival would go to the reforestation project on Gallipoli which had been reduced to ashes by raging bushfires a few months before. We thought we could pull it off but the idea was eventually abandoned because TNT didn't wish to extend their financial support to the ‚annakkale festival as well as Istanbul. They also prohibited us from having an extra festival sponsored by another company because they believed it would take the focus off TNT's advertising for the event in Istanbul.  Nevertheless we thought it would be an appropriate gesture if Peter Weir's Gallipoli had special lunchtime screenings with the proceeds going to the reforestation project. Gallipoli had been extremely popular in Turkey but as the film had already been shown on Turkish TV there was a risk it may be poorly attended.  Surprisingly most screenings were atleast half full even after the new 'Turkish cut' of Gallipoli. On the first day of the festival the reels for Gallipoli were screened in the wrong order! All the horrific stories about what goes on in Turkish projection rooms were confirmed making us paranoid about sustaining a good reputation with the Australian distributors. After the end of reel 1 with Archie and Frank lost in the desert heading to Perth suddenly reel 5 was screened with the scenes of the diggers on the beaches of Gallipoli. It then proceeded with reels 3, 2, 4 and 6. We were just thankful Archie didn't die half way through.
Selecting the films was the most rewarding part of the festival. Before contacting the AFC for advice we had decided on 6 films we were keen to exhibit. We had our apprehensions about screeningStrictly Ballroom after showing a video of it to a few Turkish friends but it turned out to be a perfect Opening Night Film and received a standing ovation.
While choosing the films we kept in mind the majority of the audience would be unfamiliar with Australian cinema so we attempted to exhibit a representative group of films showing the diversity and range of recent filmmaking projects. We were also keen to screen films which revealed the influence of directors from NES and indigenous backgrounds making films in Australia - but the slots had been limited to 12 features and 5 short films. After visiting the AFC in London we narrowed down 22 potential feature films out of which the following 12 were screened:Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Last Days of Chez Nous (Gillian Armstrong, 1992), Shame (Steve Joddrell, 1988), Bedevil (Tracey Moffat, 1993), The Good Woman of Bangkok (Dennis O'Rourke, 1991), Black River (Kevin Lucas, 1993), Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1993), No Worries (David Elfick,1993), Sweetie (Jane Campion,1989), Exile (Paul Cox, 1993), The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot,1993) and of course Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981). The shorts selected were: Just Desserts (Monica Pellizzari), Excursion to the Bridge of Friendship (Christina Andreef), Sunday (Peter Moyes), Terra Nullius (Anne Prattern) and Palace Cafe (Andrew Lancaster). Our selection was attempting to appeal to a diversified Turkish audience as well as many ex-patriots; mainly from English speaking countries.
Initially we were concerned about how the Turkish censors would react toRomper Stomper. But asReservoir Dogs did not even receive the equivalent of an "R" rating in Turkey it wasn't the censors we had to worry about! We received a phone call from the Ambassador's secretary saying the Ambassador didn't wish to be associated with the film. We asked if anyone from the Embassy had actually seen Romper Stomper and promptly faxed a review of the film which slammed David Stratton's high profile rejection of the film. We never heard another word from the Embassy! Because of the recent tension in Germany between the Neo-Nazis and the Turkish 'guest' workers /immigrants, I expected the Turkish press and audience to draw some kind of analogy and identify with the Vietnamese migrants represented in Romper Stomper. It was a popular film of the festival but the most common response from journalists was: "Is Australia really like that?"
We predicted the Turkish audience for this kind of festival would be quite European-art-film-focused, like that of the Istanbul Film Festival, so it was a safe bet that Jane Campion's first feature film, Sweetie, would be popular. Even though we would have preferred to exhibit a film produced more recently, it hadn't had a theatre release in Turkey and there was a chance it may get sold to a Turkish distributor. (It was also a personal favourite of mine). Even though we would not have personally benefitted if Sweetie got a sale, we desperately needed to draw a crowd.
Paul Cox was a well known and respected figure in Turkey as he had made an appearance at the Istanbul Film festival in 1992 when there was a Paul Cox retrospective. So it made sense to select his latest feature, Exile. The audience eagerly awaited the screening of Exile, Cox's latest feature, however there was a sense of disappointment after the screening from those we talked to about it.
We programmed Moffat's Bedevil on Tait Brady's recommendation - it had been screened at the opening of the Melbourne Film Festival in 1994. Bedevil had also been officially selected in the 'un certain regard ' section at Cannes in 1993. Although there was a natural interest in indigenous Australian films Bedevil , like the operatic film Black River, received a rather mixed response. Both films targeted rather specific audiences and we attempted to publicise them in that way through the media because both directors were unknown in Turkey. Even though the images in Black River were artistic and vividly provocative, the audience wasn't going to appreciate the film if they had an aversion to opera, so we promoted the film on its operatic merits and the fact that it had won the Oscar of Operas; the Grand Prix Opera Prize in Paris, 1993.
To appeal to a wide range of people we exhibited a so-called 'children's film' amongst the 12. The AFC informed us that David Elfick's No Worries had been voted Best Film by the children at the Berlin Film Festival in '93. No Worries turned out to be extremely popular with the Turkish audience and ex-patriots alike. I'm sure the native fauna and rural feel to the film contributed to its appeal.
The press were receptive to the festival. Fortunately quite a lot of interest had been generated by word-of-mouth and journalists soon began flooding our office. As I was under the impression that Australian film was pretty much an unknown entity in Turkey, I was delighted to find some journalists who put my knowledge to shame. Most of them had received exposure to Australian film through travel to Europe or the United States and there were others who had just taken an interest from the foreign press. We got extensive coverage through the four daily newspapers along with publicity on at least 3 popular radio stations and even some TV interviews.The editor of Turkish Harpers Bazaar was extremely interested and we received a double glossy spread of publicity and reviews. There was another unexpected bonus in the arts magazine area - a full time lawyer/part time journalist, Bulent, who wrote for a well-circulated magazine called Sanat. Bulent had a love of Australian films even though he'd never travelled abroad and was ecstatic when he found out about the festival. He was one of those people who displayed so much enthusiasm about the idea that he motivated us to continue when the situation seemed hopeless. After previewing the films he ended up writing an extensive 8 page article covering the festival.
And yet the newspaper we assumed would have been particularly interested, the Turkish Daily News (the only English language daily), proved the most difficult to interest. In fact it wasn't until we found an Australian textile engineer working on the paper, whose family was originally from Turkish Cyprus, that anything about the festival was covered. In light of the photographs she included in her article - of Terra Nullius (from Ann Pratten's short film), the punk women from Romper Stomper and the family from The Last Days of Chez Nous  - her following comment seemed slightly anachronistic: "[Australians] no longer need commercialism to promote their country. Now the image is more back to the classicism of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson..." ! At that point we were thankful to receive any publicity we could from that newspaper.
With the conclusion of the festival we felt a decade older and had come to learn the full potential of "Istanbul'da her sey olabilir". There were still some relatively small outstanding debts but the Embassy in Ankara was kind enough to "bail us out" because on the face of it the festival had been a great success. Even if the event had put Australian film on Istanbul's map we no longer had ambitions to extend it and be film distributors in Turkey!
Due to the conditions we were working under we didn't have the opportunity to extend our gratitude to the following organisations and people in Australia for their help in the realisation of this festival : the DFAT, the AFC, the Multicultural Foundation, PM and Cabinet, the AFTRS and the following distributors - Southern Star Film Sales, Beyond Films, Lucas Produkzions, and the following individuals - Christina Andreef, Helen Bowden, Monica Pellizzari and Peter Moyes.
1 I was told by a Turkish distributor that a prominent Australian company had appointed a representative for the whole of the Middle East which included Turkey. As Turkey is not part of the 'Middle East' many Turkish people would find it quite insulting and ignorant of other nations to classify them as so. (Even the RSL reclassified Turkey as part of Europe for an immigration policy in 1967 see V&H Basarin's The Turks in Australia, Hampton, Vic:Turquoise Publications,1993). I must add that we received very few rejections from the Australian distributors for the promotion of their films at the festival and generally they were extremely cooperative.
2 Gallipoli or Gelibolu is not only important to Australians but also sacred to Turkish people. The Turkish victory at Gallipoli, which stopped the planned Allied attack on Istanbul, was supposedly the brain-child of one man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Considering the mutual significance of the site of the proposed festival for both countries it would have attracted a lot of press attention.
3 Blonski, Creed and Freiberg write in their book Don't Shoot Darling (Richmond, Vic:Greenhouse. p.50) that Weir's film depicted 'crooked Turks'- they were in fact 'crooked' Egyptians. Doubtless if they had been 'crooked' Turks the film might have gained the notoriety of Midnight Express with Turkish audiences, had their nation been represented so critically.
4 Unfortunately the print for The Last Days of Chez Nous received from the AFC in London was slightly damaged and the sound was somewhat distorted. Many people didn't stay to see the end of the film which obviously made it difficult to judge its reception.
Copyright Catherine Simpson. All rights reserved. Redistribution for profit prohibited. Copies must include this notice.
New: 30 October, 1995 | Now: 28 April, 2015