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In Pelin Esmer's 10 to 11, an elderly man (Mithat Esmer) clashes with his neighbours as they try to remove him — and his elaborate collections of ephemera — from his apartment. ((TIFF))

A burgeoning movie scene exploring urban experience, a "cinema-saturated culture" and thriving community of established filmmaking elders mentoring hungry and ambitious up-and-comers "sealed the deal" for Istanbul to be the focus of TIFF's City to City program for its second year.

The city, Turkey's largest as well as its cultural and economic heart, has been increasing its presence on the film community's radar for the past decade, with filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Three Monkeys) among those who have gained international renown and, at home, served as leaders of the current Istanbul cinema scene.

"There's been this growing sense of critical mass and an unofficial internal mentorship in the city, where the filmmakers have access to these pioneers that are really putting Turkey on the map internationally. The younger directors there are starting off very ambitious because suddenly their countrymen are winning awards at Cannes and Berlin," Kate Lawrie Van de Ven, who programmed City to City along with TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey, told CBC News.

A trip to Istanbul in April left Lawrie Van de Ven astonished by its robust community of cinema schools and production companies. Many TV companies produce 90-minute dramas on a weekly basis, she recalled, with many of the film school grads landing these production jobs.

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A middle class young man (Bartu Kucukcaglayan) rebels against his father's authority and seeks a romance with a woman of an ethnic minority in Seren Yuce's The Majority. ((TIFF))

"They're basically having a dry run at making a feature. They have access to borrow the equipment on the weekend and [can]

shoot something quick and dirty and have it be sophisticated and great," she said.

With the resulting new wave of films in the past few years, "we're really seeing an interesting engagement in films from Istanbul in the notions of urban life, urban culture, urban identity [and] urban challenges."

After deciding on Istanbul, she and Bailey then faced the daunting task of pulling together a tight program of 10 feature-length movies and seven shorts that would represent the vibrant, ancient-yet-modern city's current film scene — with the goal of offering a diverse mix of voices, the strongest stories as well as important retrospective titles.

A major test became "if one or the other could not stop talking about" a certain film, Lawrie Van de Ven revealed. Though she emphatically endorses every film in the program, the bubbly programmer eventually shared a few special picks:

  • 10 to 11: Feeling the effects of jet lag after a week in Istanbul, Lawrie Van de Ven popped a screening copy of Pelin Esmer's film into her laptop on the flight home to Toronto and was transfixed. "I fell so in love with this film that I wanted to turn around and just go back," she revealed about the past-versus-present drama that follows an octogenarian collector facing ouster by his disapproving neighbours. "[The screener felt] a bit like someone put a magical object in your hand."
  • My Only Sunshine: Comparing it to a modern-day, Cinderella -like tale, Reha Erdem's film tells the story of a poor teen who faces a harsh life living in a seaside shack. "The film has, I would say, the most breathtaking, startling, freeing conclusion out of any film I have seen this year," according to Lawrie Van de Ven. "The conclusion of this film has the best payoff of any film I've seen in a long time."
  • The Majority: Seren Yuce's coming-of-age tale is about how a young man's romantic feelings for a woman of an ethnic minority cause friction with his family. It ultimately offers a compelling look at "the tension and dialogue between secular Turkey and its majority Muslim population, its political relationship with the EU and with the rest of the Arab world," says Lawrie Van de Ven.

Unafraid of controversy

Though several City to City titles tackle potentially tricky topics — from relations with minorities to the plight of illegal migrants to a re-examination of a past military coup — the filmmakers the TIFF programmers met in Istanbul were open to dialogue about potentially sensitive subjects.

"The general level of discourse there was very open," Lawrie Van de Ven said. "They are very internally comfortable with the fact that people can be neighbours and have radically different political views."

'[We program] what we think audiences will want to see, what we think they need to see, and where there's really strong filmmaking coming out.'—Kate Lawrie Van de Ven

The controversy that plagued the inaugural edition of City to City — which showcased Tel Aviv — didn't affect the decisions made for this year's instalment, she said, adding that politics don't play a role in TIFF's selection of which metropolis to feature, nor what titles.

"[We] continue programming — as we do with all the festival — what we think audiences will want to see, what we think they need to see, and where there's really strong filmmaking coming out," she said.

"As much as there were some very challenging moments last year … people were very supportive of the program and really did try to take it on the grounds on which it was intended, as opposed to how some exterior people were trying to position it."

And TIFF won't shy away from shining the spotlight on potentially contentious urban areas in the years to come, Lawrie Van de Ven added.

"Cities or areas in flux sometimes produce some of the most compelling and interesting and urgent and worthwhile cinema out there. To shy away from areas that might be involved in issues that make them a little bit sensitive might do both the filmmakers there a disservice — and audiences as well."

In addition to its film screenings, City to City will also include a free-to-the-public panel discussion titled Istanbul — A Conversation, between urban studies theorist Richard Florida and several of the featured filmmakers, at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall on Sept. 16.  The 35th Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sept. 19.

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Reha Erdem's My Only Sunshine follows poor teen Hayat, who lives a harsh life in a shack beside the Bosphorus strait with her criminal father and wheezing grandfather. ((TIFF))