The Toronto International Film Festival, taking place September 9–19, just announced its second-annual City to City program, and it’s a winner. “An exploration of the urban experience through film,” the program focuses on a different city every year. This time around the spotlight is on Istanbul.

This really caught my eye because it coincides with my newfound passion for Turkish cinema. Working at last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival (known then as the Middle East International Film Festival) I was amazed by the stellar quality of the films in the special Turkish program. It was curated by the editors of Altyazı, an independent film journal based in Istanbul, and they did a bang-up job. I saw seven of the films and pretty much loved all of them. I had never seen a Turkish film before, and suddenly I was a big fan.

I’m not sure if I can fully explain why. So many American indies can be pretentious or off-putting or just crap, and I had all but given up. But Turkish filmmakers suddenly manifested in my life, telling stories I was interested in, with fearless technique and creativity to burn. The way they were also revealing a foreign culture that fascinated me, and doing so with the depth and honesty of noncommercial film, was an added bonus. Something about it echoed those moments during my youth when a musical movement from a certain city (say Manchester or Detroit) inexplicably took over my life and I suddenly wanted to pledge allegiance to a place I’d never been.

Here are the features playing at City to City (with directors’ names in parentheses and notes from the official press release):

  • 10 to 11 (Pelin Esmer) An elderly man clashes with his neighbors as they try to remove him – and his elaborate collections of ephemera — from his apartment.
  • 40 (Emre Sahin) Capturing the dazzling intensity of Istanbul’s twelve million souls, Sahin’s groundbreaking feature crisscrosses the lives of a petty crook, an ambitious nurse, and an African migrant as they seek money, luck, or just a way out.
  • Block-C (Zeki Demirkubuz) Zeki Demirkubuz’s career-launching debut feature dissects the melancholy and repression inherent in bourgeois life in dreary apartment blocks.
  • Dark Cloud (Theron Patterson) A black comedy in the style of a lucid dream, Dark Cloud looks at a middle-aged man who can’t move on from the death of his wife, and the teenaged son who needs him to wake up.
  • Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) Distant maps Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s signature exploration of existential heartache onto the wintry shores of Istanbul.
  • Hair (Tayfun Pirselimoğlu) An ailing Istanbul wig-maker becomes obsessed with a woman who enters his shop one day.
  • The Majority (Seren Yüce) A young middle-class man rebels against his father’s brutish authority and seeks a rough romance with a woman of ethnic minority. Yüce’s moral tale draws from the example of today’s Turkish youth and the timeless shadow of fathers over sons.
  • My Only Sunshine (Reha Erdem) In this potent widescreen portrait of an Istanbul wild child, Hayat lives in a shack beside the Bosphorus with her criminal father and wheezing grandfather. Life is harsh, but Hayat watches and learns.
  • September 12 (Özlem Sulak) In this meditative and monumental examination of the legacy of Turkey’s 1980 military coup, individual narrations of the tumultuous event are juxtaposed with quotidian routines 30 years on.
  • Somersault in a Coffin (Derviş Zaim) A thief with bizarre compulsions – and possibly good reasons – tries to get by in this essential Istanbul film.

I’ve only seen two of these films — 10 to 11 and My Only Sunshine, both at last year’s ADFF. So this is more wish list than an actual recommendation. But I think you really can’t go wrong. Just glancing at these notes my pulse quickens a little.

In the program’s press release (headlined “Yaşasin!” — Turkish for “Thumbs up!”) TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey says, “Over the past five years, filmmakers from this vibrant metropolis have been winning awards at Cannes and Berlin. Now, some are making the leap to festivals outside of Europe. We’re so pleased to feature films from Istanbul this year: audiences will have access to strong emerging filmmakers, at the moment just before they’re sure to be discovered somewhere else.”

This may be press-release jazz, but I was pleased and mildly relieved to read it; the way he portrays Turkish cinema as something even TIFF’s crowd might have missed makes me feel not so late to the party.

I’m actually a little astonished that 10 to 11 is only just now making its North American premiere. I thought it was the best film of last year and I can’t believe North Americans haven’t been able to see it on the big screen. It’s a funny and touching narrative about director Pelin Esmer’s own uncle (who plays himself), an eccentric collector whose Istanbul apartment is literally sagging under the weight of his accumulated junk. With a muted but rich visual palette and a hypnotic soundtrack, it’s a quirky but quietly profound meditation on memory and materialism — and a great, textured portrait of the city. Please, see this movie.

My Only Sunshine is really something. It’s the dark study of a troubled adolescent girl, alternately neglected and abused by her loopy family. Its outlook on humanity is grim to say the least, but the production is outstanding: Reha Erdem frames the character’s pathetic stories against the grandeur of the Bosphorus, painting the seedy side of life on its banks in shocking primary colors. And the soundtrack is remarkable: young Hayat’s unravelling mindstate is illustrated by shifting layers of noise and dissonance fleshed out with blistering Arabesk tunes from the 70s.

Of the rest, they’re all new to me, except Somersault in a Coffin, Derviş Zaim’s 1996 debut that’s credited with kickstarting the Turkish indie scene. I haven’t seen it, but Zaim’s metaphysical thriller Dot was possibly my other favorite film of last year. (I saw so many great Turkish films one after the other it was hard to decide.)

If you’re going to be anywhere in the vicinity, and you want to dive into some hearteningly original indies with vivid glimpses of life in what is by all accounts an amazing place, get yourself to Toronto! I really wish I could be there to check it out. I’ll be buried with work on this year’s festival in Abu Dhabi so there’s not a chance. (I guess I’ll have to settle for visiting Istanbul in November after the festival ends.)

More about my Turkish cinema jones in my review of Semih Kaplanoğlu’s fabulous Honey, which won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year.