Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (12A)

Directed by Fatih Akin
Screening at FACT from 7th-9th April 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

To the east of the Bosphorus river is Asia, while Europe lies to the west. Because of this, the city now known as Istanbul has been a place of great strategic and political significance for centuries. This has led to an ethnically diverse population, each with their own traditions and – of course – music. This documentary by German-born director Fatih Akin (Head-On, 2004) brings a wide range of sounds to our ears, but sheds precious little light on the people who made them.

Our guide is Alexander Hacke of industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. Unlike two million people in Germany, he is not of Turkish descent, but his work on the Head-On soundtrack made him curious. So once he’s booked into a hotel in the Beyoglu district, he starts looking for musicians.

Given Hacke’s musical background, it’s not that surprising that he starts off with some good old western rock bands. Except they’re really not that good, and only prove that American culture is coming to Turkey. Worse still are the rap groups, who swear they’re not trying to be gangsta but come out with MTV-friendly lines like "one look at me and you're an invalid". At this point I was glad my ticket had been free.

But things get much more interesting as Hacke begins to delve deeper. The Romany music of Selim Sesler and Canadian-born Brenna MacCrimmon was a rich tapestry woven from clarinet and oud, street performers Siyasiyabend spoke a lot of sense and bucked the system while salon singer Müzeyyen Senar did things with a raki glass that you will scarcely believe. We also encounter Orhan Gencebay – the moustachioed ‘Elvis of Arabesque’ – and Sezen Aksu, who seems to have spellbound a generation of Turkish boys with her pop songs. But for me the film’s best moment – both musically and as a documentary – is Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan’s beautifully melancholic ‘Ehmedo’, which reverberates around a Turkish bath as the government’s brutal repression of Kurdish people is briefly described. Whereas most of the performers seem to have nothing to say, Dogan says everything with the awesome power of her singing voice.

Confucius apparently claimed that 'to understand a place, you must understand the music made there'. But Lao Tzu was better anyway, so I reckon it’s the other way round. After all, how can you genuinely understand music if you are do not understand the musicians and the place that shaped them? This film will teach you next to nothing about Istanbul, even if (like me) you knew next to nothing beforehand. We rarely get to see the city itself, and although different groups are labelled with many different names we aren’t really told what any of that means.

Musically though, ‘Crossing the Bridge’ provides a decent introduction. At no point is the bridge really crossed, because Akin’s selection doesn’t include much overlap between the different musical styles. Never mind though, the only people who want one world culture are big business types. ‘Variety is the spice of life’, as Confucius almost certainly didn’t say.

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