Istanbul, Europe's biggest city and the former capital of two European empires (The Byzantine and the Ottoman) is today the best place to grasp the contrasts, contradictions and promises of modern Turkey at the beginning of the 21st century.
It is a city with a rich and fascinating history, which nonetheless struggles to come to terms with its past. Istanbul's story is the story of a massive movement of people, as the city grew in a few decades from 1 to almost 12 million people, of the confrontation between new and old elites, and of a deep popular distrust towards a statist establishment. It is also a story of strong women breaking down taboos and reshaping a society still shaped by patriarchal values. In short, it is a story of boundless optimism and of despair in a city that truly never sleeps.
Our film explores the tensions which lie just underneath the surface of this glittering town. How to deal with a complicated multiethnic past? How to overcome the bitter power struggle – in Istanbul and across Turkey as a whole – between new and old elites? How to define a place for religion in general, and Islam in particular, in a country that seeks to join the European Union?
From Rumeli Hisari – a 500-year-old village at risk of seeing its old Armenian population completely disappear – to Kadikoy, a modern district setting new standards for women's emancipation movements in Turkey, the film explores many aspects of life on both shores of the Bosporus. We visit horse-riding champions and major industrialists, migrants from Anatolia, and women seeking refuge from domestic violence in the country's first public shelter. We meet intrepid thinkers and journalists who've learned the price for speaking truth to power, as well as lawyers fighting the dark and shadowy forces of Turkey's so-called "deep state".
If you would like to watch the complete film please go to www.standard.at/balkanexpress (due to copyright restrictions this will not work outside of Europe)
A French translation of the film text is also available.
Strong women are at the centre of this Istanbul story: people such as Inci Bespinar, the first and only female deputy mayor in an Istanbul district; Yasemin Congar, a key player in the country's most courageous and dynamic daily, Taraf; best-selling writer and political columnist Perihan Magden, whose novel about a lesbian love affair proved as effective in challenging the conservative establishment as her public criticism of the military; and Fethiye Cetin, lawyer of the family of the murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, pitted against the spectre of a vast ultra-nationalist conspiracy.
The film ends with an account of the dramatic political events of the last two years: the murder of Hrant Dink; the anti-nationalist demonstrations in the streets of Istanbul; the arrests of members of a presumed nationalist terror network; and the increasingly bitter struggle over the headscarf. The biggest challenge facing Turkey today is to come to terms with its inherited and once again increasing diversity – and to begin to perceive such diversity as a chance, not as a threat. Whether Turkey can succeed is this film's central question.