Instant Istanbul

A cultural moment in Turkey, captured

One of the best German films of the last decade was director Fatih Akin’s Head-On, a comedy about a drunken, sullen Turkish hanger-on at a bar in Hamburg’s notorious St. Pauli district.

Akin’s documentary follow up, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, playing for one night at SSU’s Sonoma Film Institute, is a musical exploration of Istanbul, that ancient city on its severed isthmus, caught between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Akin’s on-screen interviewer is Alexander Hacke, bassist from the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten; he’s a gregarious German eccentric introducing us to such acts as BaBa ZuLa, Orient Expressions and Sezen Aksu, as well as street performers. A contortionist breakdancer, spinning to Istanbul hip-hop, is followed by a sold-out auditorium where a tuft-haired, multipierced wind instrumentalist solos on Sufi music. The band’s dervish dancer, a young female American with cropped red hair, describes her process: “You achieve this kind of space that makes it easier to continue whirling than to stand still.”

This isn’t Third World music, but what Brian Eno called “fourth world.” There’s Gypsy music influenced by blues; at a corner jam session with cigarettes, close your eyes and it sounds like Richie Havens. We hear Eastern glissandos on the kind of icy zither usually reserved for spy films, and we attend to the virtuosity of Orhan Gencebay on the baglama, with its lathlike neck. (This skill is contrasted with an equally robust part of his career: clips of some of the sweaty, zoom-lens-maddened Turkish film melodramas he acted in when he was younger.)

City music scenes tend to evaporate fast. And as seen in the documentary No One Knows About Persian Cats, the hard-line Islamic world restricts the live performance of music to what Catholics used to call “a near occasion of sin.” Akim’s irresistible documentary may be one of the last great records of a time of overflowing musical richness.

‘Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul’ screens Friday, Feb. 1, at 7pm and Sunday, Feb. 3, at 4pm at the Sonoma Film Institute at SSU.