The Films of Cities

Ben Hopkins: Encompassing All Aspects of a City in Film

I was introduced to filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist Ben Hopkins, who is currently based in Berlin, by the author Dimitris Lyacos writing "you should get in touch".

After this kind introduction, I watched the 2015 documentary Ben Hopkins directed and played on Istanbul Hasret (Yearning)and regretted not watching it until now. The documentary tells the transformation of Istanbul, pointing right problems and talking to interesting people. On the other hand, Hasret (Yearning)is wandering in the limits of non fiction and fiction. With this aspect, it may be getting closer to what Werner Herzog calls "ecstatic truth" of the cinema, which is a deeper strata of truth in cinema, mysterious and elusive.

At the same time, something profound or something not easily expressible using only image and sound, as Pamela Cohn was describing during our conversation is being described in this movie. We can hear the original voice.

The film is about: A director is commissioned to make a documentary about Istanbul. He starts to film its everyday life... but soon becomes drawn to the darker, more mysterious side of the city... its past, its secrets, its ghosts. Gradually he succumbs to obsession and this beautiful Turkish tango is still in my ears.

As the TV station commissioned Istanbul documentary did not have much money, the crew comes to Istanbul in a container, Yearning.

I was curious to read the selection of a director that is portraying cities himself. When I asked him he chose to contribute both for Istanbul and Berlin films. He  also wrote his personal story with the films. I am presenting his answers to you also in Turkish.

Encompassing All Aspects of a City

I grew up in a big city. London. Since then I have lived in two more big cities: İstanbul and Berlin. And as a film-maker I have made 3 “city portraits” as films: London in The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, Naples in Naples Open City 1943-1948,Istanbul in Hasret (Yearning)I have yet to make a film about Berlin. Maybe one day I will.

When thinking about a city portrait, such as Hasret (Yearning)) I have to ask myself: is a city just made of bricks, asphalt, roads, buildings?  Talking about a city, can one only talk about it in terms of facts, figures, statistics?

Syrian refugee workers, Yearning.

No. A city is also formed of people, memories, dreams. It exists now and also in the past,  both the remembered past, and the forgotten past which still – even if it is forgotten – has formed its present existence. And places have character, they have atmosphere, they have numinosity. And the existence of cities is also echoed in the literature written about them, in the songs sung about them, in poetry.

Hasret takes the audience even to a very conservative neighbourhood named Çarşamba in Fatih, Istanbul.

So if you are to encompass all of these aspects of a city in a film, does it make any sense to limit yourself to facts? Or do you need to allow the portrait of the city also to encompass the numinous, the metaphysical and the imagination?

Again from Yearning, when things are getting a bit surrealistic.


Wings of Desire (Der Himmel Über Berlin)Wim Wenders, 1987: This was probably my first real introduction to Berlin, seen when I was a teenager growing up in London, on the huge screen of the Lumiere Cinema (now sadly turned into a hotel). The film has its weaknesses, but, seen on a big screen at an impressionable age, I found it quite overwhelming. And I knew I wanted one day to go to Berlin. The film is a beautiful combination of the city’s reality and its existence on a more metaphysical/philosophical level.

Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (Berlin, Symphonie einer Großstadt)Walter Ruttman, 1927: When I did actually move to live in Berlin, I was happy with most aspects of life there, but the cinemas were disappointing for me. Of course there are some great cinemas in Berlin, such as the Internationale and Delphi, but most of the time they play only German-dubbed movies, which is anathema to me, a Brit who grew up in a subtitle culture (almost no films are dubbed in the UK). And in London I had the incredible National Film Theatre to visit to watch old classic movies. When I turned up at the the Arsenal(Berlin’s nearest equivalent to the National Film Theatre) to see Berlin: Symphony of a MetropolisI was told that the pianist had not turned up for work (this only one week after I had seen a Lubitsch silent film there, projected back to front!) Unimpressed, I nevertheless bought a ticket. And so I saw this film in total, absolute silence, with about 3 other people.  And actually, that was a rather interesting experience, which I will never forget: it made the film look like a parade of ghosts, brought briefly back to silent life on the screen.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980: Fassbinder’s TV series was shot entirely in Bavaria. I think they never set foot once in Berlin to shoot it (this is maybe a kind of metaphor for the way Bavarians think about Berlin: a dirty place full of insane people). But it is a weird, mesmerising portrait of the city’s underworld, and Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John and Barbara Sukowa are spellbinding in the lead roles.

Brigitte Mira & Hanna Schygulla in Berlin Alexanderplatz.


Uzak (Distant), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002: When I saw Uzak, I had only spent a couple of days in Istanbul before, and had only seen the standard tourist sites. Uzak showed another side of the city, and made me want to return and find out more about Istanbul, and Turkey (I didn’t know then that I would end up living in Turkey for four years, make three films there, and marry a Turkish woman!). I then went down to the National Film Theatre to see Ceylan’s Kasaba and Mayıs Sıkıntısı, films which I found even more compelling as evidence of his genius. Kasaba (Small Town) and Mayıs Sıkıntısı films which I found even more compelling as evidence of his genius.

Mehmet Emin Toprak in Distant, who passed away in a car accident returning from Ankara Film Festival at age 28.

Tabutta Rövaşata (Somersault in a Coffin), Derviş Zaim, 1996: I’d love to see this again – I have only hazy memories of it. A boat by Rumeli Hisar, a graveyard, stolen cars, a peacock. Does he eat the peacock? I think he does… Sometimes half-remembered films are more evocative and compelling than the films one knows well…

Ahmet Uğurlu and the peacock in Somersault in a Coffin.

11’e 10 Kala (11 to 10), Pelin Esmer, 2009:I remember meeting director Pelin Esmer and her telling me about this film she was going to make about her uncle. I was suspicious: I have seen too many student films where film-makers make films about family members, believing them to be especially interesting and unique… when they actually aren’t. But when I saw Pelin’s film, I was entirely beguiled by her uncle, and by Nejat İşler. The film has an unusual quality – a realism that comes from the uncle playing himself in a version of his real life, and an underlying poetry, an elegy for an old Istanbul that is being made to disappear.

Mithat Esmer is acting a version of himself in 10 to 11.

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