Film studies on location: Istanbul, Turkey

By Michael Robinson '17, Anthropology and Visual & Dramatic Arts

During Spring Break every year, Dr. Nia Georges and Ipek Martinez take a group of students from Houston and London to Istanbul for research as part of the Global Urban Lab Program. While the topics change each year, the focus of the program remains dedicated to allowing students to engage with various aspects of the city which further their own academic interests and allow them to understand international urban connections within a university setting. This year features topics ranging from cultural heritage to healthcare, with each student bringing their own perspective to their topic as a way to channel their own pursuits into a robust comparative research project. My own exploration concentrated on film as a way to fuse my two majors, Film and Anthropology, into a greater discussion on the artistic production side of cinema as well as the ways in which viewers interact with the medium.

My own research focused on the depiction of the urban and rural landscapes within film and how their relations are spatially constructed. Before going to Istanbul, I prepared by watching films by internationally famous Turkish directors and noting the use of environment of setting in the notion of rural and urban Turkish life. While I thought this type of research equipped me enough to delve into this field, I quickly realized the errors in my assumptions when talking to sources in Turkey.

The first research stop we made was at Istanbul Kultur University where I was able to meet with three film scholars. They were gracious enough to spend over an hour answering our questions and giving a theoretical framework for the works in which we were looking into as well as the historical background for the Turkish film industry. Their knowledge on the subjects allowed us to really engage our topics through a new lens and question the sorts of inquiries we were making. Personally, I was able to look at how the relation of urban and rural came from a more European side to cinema in the 60’s, seeing a large divide between the treatment of landscape in more intentional arthouse films and the more commercial movies that the general public consumes.

GUL16MRobinson Michael Robinson Image 2

In between visits to universities, we were able to tour various parts of the city, gaining a larger cultural context to our research as well as an opportunity to take in the vast historical preceding to the city that any major urban sphere in the United States lacks. We went to the Hagia Sofia as well as the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. The sheer size of these structures were incredible and something I had no perspective of coming into the trip.

Ipek was able to secure a visit from Tunc Sahin, a Turkish director an owner of a film distribution company. He was able to provide insight about how he approaches filming the cityscape within his own work as well as how films are viewed in certain spaces. Getting to talk to a film distributor allowed me the opportunity to explore the different sorts of space that film can be engaged with by a broader audience, seeing where exactly commercial and arthouse spaces can exist and what alternative spaces arise when the previous methods of engagement break down due to censors or the rise of commercial cinema.

Perhaps my favorite portion of the trip was the Museum of Innocence, constructed by the Nobel Prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk. The entire art space is contained within one small, four story building containing only 4 rooms. On the wall next to the entrance lies a “Museum Manifesto” written by the author himself, detailing the need for smaller museums that capture individual experiences rather than trying to tell a story grander than what a building can contain. The space is modeled after his own book, The Museum of Innocence, and tells the love story between two people between 1970 and 2000’s. While the account is fictional, the objects the author collected tell a much larger story, encapsulating a more modern history of the country through small trinkets and fragments of a time passed not that long ago. There are 83 boxes that line the wall, each corresponding to a chapter in the book and containing relevant artifacts, compiling a reality from Pamuk’s fictitious creation. Pamuk seemed to perfectly articulate the universal truths within his own fictional worlds, emphasizing the smaller parts of history that traditional museums tend to ignore.

We did so much during the nine-day trip, going to Taksim Square, exploring the Basilica Cistern, and much more. The entire week went by so quickly but I am so grateful to Ms. Martinez, Dr. Georges, Abbey Godley, the donors, and Rice University, for providing such an incredible opportunity to explore these fields in such a unique way and making this such an amazing Spring Break.

Click here to learn more about the Global Urban Lab Istanbul 2016 experience.