Istanbul and Constantinople

Washington City Paper | June 30, 2006
If there were as many films set in Turkey’s biggest metropolis as there are in the United States’, the aerial shots that introduce Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul might look hackneyed, too. But Istanbul is relatively unexplored territory—not only for the American filmgoer but also for this documentary’s director and onscreen narrator. Fatih Akin is of Turkish descent, but he was born in Germany, so his exploration of Istanbul parallels that of the Turko-German central characters in his fierce 2004 art-house hit, Head On. As for Alexander Hacke, the Einstürzende Neubauten veteran who guides the musical tour, he made his first trip to Turkey when he was working on Head On’s score.

Armed with digital-recording gear, the easygoing and ever-curious Hacke explains that he’s there to document a range of Turkish music. He checks into the same hotel featured in Head On, the Grand London. It’s in the rather Parisian neighborhood of Beyoglu, once Istanbul’s “French Quarter,” where the streets teem late into the night and women pay little heed to Islamic notions of modesty. Hacke quickly finds himself filling in on bass with Baba Zula, a psychedelic-rock band grooving gently on a Bosporous barge, and then meeting various rockers, rappers, and trip-hoppers.

Duman, whose lead singer spent time in grunge-era Seattle, plays protest punk that recalls Dead Kennedys. In the one song we get to hear, the band rails against its hometown. Most of the interviewees, however, are proud of their heritage—and respectful of their musical elders. The members of art-punk band Replikas pay homage to Turkish rock pioneer Erkin Koray, whose guitar solos owe much to Hendrix but whose songs are not far removed from traditional folk numbers. The film then introduces Koray, who proudly declares himself “still too extreme” for Turkey. It’s a device Crossing the Bridge uses repeatedly: The accolades of young musicians lead to their precursors, including veteran singer-songwriter and action-flick star Orhan Gencebay, vocalist and one-time movie goddess Sezen Akzu, and 86-year-old orch-pop singer Müzeyyen Senar. These glimpses of older styles are bolstered by clips from vintage movies. In Turkey, as in India, apparently, songs and cinema are closely linked.

Akin’s fluid segues and Hacke’s enthusiasm drive the film, which is lively and meticulously constructed. Sometimes, though, the locomotion comes at the cost of explanation. We meet whirling dervishes without any introduction to the Sufi traditions that underlie their dance—or even the briefest account of why one of the whirlers is a young woman with an American accent. Kurdish singer Aynur tells of being attacked for singing in her native language, yet the politics of Kurdish identity in Turkey are barely addressed. Canadian singer Brenna MacCrimmon briefly discusses her love for traditional Turkish songs, but she doesn’t tell how she came to be a respected singer of such tunes in their native land.

Crossing the Bridge is, in short, a rather rough guide to Turkish music. The performance snippets are sometimes too fleeting to provide much feel for the artists, and it’s impossible to say whether the younger musicians are representative or just people Akin and Hacke happened to encounter. Of course, a sense of serendipity is part of the film’s appeal. The director and his guide could have attempted a more definitive study, but a more academic report wouldn’t have benefited from this movie’s amiable twists and asides—or ended with its own Madonna song, a Turkish version of “Music.”

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