I’m couchsurfing in Zagreb with a mysterious Croatian who behaves a bit like a cop out of a Hollywood B-movie, and I get an email from the Little Angel Theatre about a Turkish film festival looking for an English puppeteer to join them on a two week adventure in south east Anatolia, near the Syrian border. The festival’s name, Sinemasal, is a conflation of the words for cinema and for fairy tale, and the idea is to bring open air screenings to communities in isolated villages, who’ve never been to a cinema before. In the daytime there’ll be workshops with children led by arts practitioners from all over Europe – a Spanish flamenco dancer, a German juggler/acrobat, an Italian singer and an English puppeteer. All expenses are paid, the festival events will be alternated with days of exploration in rivers, mountains, man-made caves and ancient citadels, and we’ll be working with a twenty-strong Turkish team from Istanbul.
For at least five minutes I’m googling puppetry crash courses in and around Zagreb, and then I send an email to the festival asking them to take me on as writer in residence. In Bosnia I get a message saying my CV’s been passed on to the festival manager, and in Romania I try to get hold of an answer, with no success. I arrive in Istanbul in mid-June as planned, and finally get a text asking me to turn up at a hotel near Taksim Square the next morning. The following day at 5am I’m in a bus with the rest of the international group on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Gaziantep, the closest in a series of six towns we’ll be visiting, at 800km from Istanbul and 50km from Syria (although the closest we’d come to the border would be more like 6km.)
Our first festival destination is Kharamanmaras, and it turns out to be the busiest. The fifty or so children who show up at the football field we’ve commandeered are almost all boys, small for the ages they tell us they are, but with something adult in their faces and the way they address us. They arrive on oversized and under-equipped bicycles and are mainly interested in the acrobatics workshop led by Max, a fiercely political vegan anarchist with dreadlocks and a nose ring, the likes of whom they have probably never seen in their lives and who, in the next village, would be rumoured a ‘fire-worshipper’. The primary interest for the boys is an undisguised display of physical strength, and eventually we begin to worry that the lifts and human pyramids we are teaching them are proving to be more a series of self-destruction methods than a performance discipline.
By the time the sun goes down and the film starts, hundreds of families are grouped on chairs and on the grass in front of the five metre high screen, and we are in a state of reduced consciousness, drinking Turkish tea in the back of our lorry and staring into the night. It would be the first of thirteen days of sleeplessness, diarrhea, endless kebabs and incredible hospitality, eye-opening encounters, magical evenings and hair-raising bus journeys.
The film we showed that night was Ice Age 3, and apart from the final screening, a film called Hükümet Kadixi, shot with extras from Dara, the village we were in, all the showings were of Pixar films. Coming from Istanbul at the height of the battle over Gezi Park, I was surprised that the festival had chosen commercial American movies dubbed into Turkish, rather than opting for some of the homegrown, socially engaged creativity shown by the Taksim occupiers, especially since I knew that some of the festival team had been involved in the protests.
Organiser Yasin Büyük explained that the team had expressly avoided any political themes, opting for comedy and family fun, in order to ‘unite, rather than separate people’. The region we were touring, Guneydogu, has been a pawn in struggles for resources for centuries, at first for its water and fertile land, and more recently for oil. Its proximity to the Arabic Middle East historically imported a variety of cultures, mirrored now in an influx of Syrian refugees, and the region’s large Kurdish population is in ongoing tensions with Turkish authorities. In Yardmici, the villagers spoke almost exclusively in Arabic, and in Dara, in the Mardin province, young boys scowled at our limited Turkish, aggressively miming a dusting of hands and telling us in broken English they only spoke Kurdish, a language forbidden in official documents and state employment.
As we journeyed east, the culture changed palpably. Our second village was only an hour or so outside Gaziantep city, but goats and donkeys wondered past our sound system and lighting equipment, and we were invited into the yards of houses, in which women baked flat bread on domed stoves and birds nested in the walls. Families were large, but younger generations of girls told us they wanted careers rather than marriages – to be an art teacher, said one. In our fourth destination Yardmici, a village supported by cotton farming, polygamy was common although unofficial, and I met Asmora, her husband’s seventh wife (though not simultaneously), who was pregnant with her fourth child.
Here, we were told to expect huge numbers of children – each family might easily have ten. As soon as we’d stepped out of the bus we’d been swamped by children pushing past each other to shake hands with us, a performance repeated in most of the smaller villages. Sometimes their curiosity lasted long enough to play improv games and make string puppets, but sometimes the excitement resulted in manic afternoons of high-pitched entertainment in 40° heat, and we hoped that the fun of the event would be remembered even if the skills we were sharing weren’t.
That evening in Yardmici, we watched the film from the rooftop of a clay house, the old fashioned 35mm projector whirring and its elderly projectionist calmly watching the flickering beam. With the villagers lit up by the screen below us, and the stars above, we smoked Camels until it was time to dismantle the festival – tents, flags, popcorn stands and festoons – and drove off in our crowded minibus bus at 2am, leaving a dusty village square and grinning children in smudged facepaint.
The lack of time we’d spent with the children during activities troubled me, and I wondered if they would treat us with less awe and fascination if we’d stayed longer and shared something more lasting. The purpose of the festival wasn’t to make an immediate change in their lives however, Yasin told me, but to provide a taste of a different world that might change something in their paths much further down the line. ‘We want to enter these children’s lives like a dream, and to have disappeared when they wake up in the morning.’ Next year, Sinemasal plans to tour a different region, sharing film-making skills and staying longer in each community. ‘If one child gains a vision of life that opens up a new profession for him, it would be a gift for us.’
Sinemasal ran from the 17th – 30th June in the provinces of Kharamanmaras, Gaziantep, Adiyaman, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir and Mardin.