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The Play, A Band Called Death: Two documentaries that aim to enlighten

The Play suggests the urgency of documenting life as it is lived in Turkey, a country trembling for change.

Writing Herstory

The planet has been yanked to and from the brink of apocalypse almost weekly at the megaplex this summer, but I doubt you'll see a more stirring struggle than the one depicted in The Play (Bell Lightbox, Aug. 29). In this powerful but plain-spoken documentary – a surprise hit in Turkey when released in 2005 – a group of rural women work with a local teacher to put on a play about their lives.

Their stories are harrowing: More than one was left to give birth alone; others were abandoned, beaten and ostracized for seeking an education; some are terrified of what will happen when the show is over.

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But when the women finally staged their play, their performance was rewarded with an explosion of applause – a response that presaged what would happen when the movie about them was released throughout the country.

It may also have indicated the appetite for change in Turkey that is currently manifested in protests and calls for political reform.

The Play, directed by Pelin Esmer, is the final movie being screened in an engrossing and enlightening week-long series that begins at the TIFF Cinematheque on Aug. 22. Called Rebel Yell: A New Generation of Turkish Women Filmmakers, the eight-film retrospective (three fiction features and five documentaries) captures a wave on the rise in this complex and restless Euro-Middle Eastern nation.

In a domestic movie industry that historically has been controlled by men and catered to their traditional sense of entitlement and authority, these women are talking back in film, and what they're saying is what we hear and see in The Play: Our stories will be told.

While some of the films are wryly comic (The Moustache, screening Aug. 27, takes an irreverent look at culturally embedded Turkish male vanity; On the Coast, also on Aug. 27, takes to the seaside with the vacationing middle classes), the rest are both sober and sobering.

Belmin Soylemez's enigmatic Present Tense is the story of a lonely woman who works as a café fortune-teller to finance a move to the freedom frontier of America. And Asli Ozge's docu-dramatic Men on the Bridge (Aug. 25) enlists a cast of largely real-life cultural and economic outcasts to play versions of themselves in a movie that casts a cold eye on aspects of life that Turks often ignore.

This feat of unembellished life-casting echoes the village women taking to the stage in The Play, and suggests the urgency of documenting life as it is lived in a country trembling for change.

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Death Risen

As newsworthy and troubling as the current economic woes of the once-mighty industrial city of Detroit are, the music rising from the ruins there suggests a city where hardship and joyful noise go hand in hand.

But while Motown, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger have provided the most familiar soundtrack of Detroit's urban energy and pop pluck, an even more powerful case for the city's innate musical vitality is made by the rediscovery, through documentary, of music most of us hadn't even heard before.

First came Rodriguez, the charismatic and almost monkish folk-rocker whose cult resurrection was depicted in Searching for Sugar Man, and now comes A Band Called Death (Aug. 16-22 at Bell Lightbox).

The music of the early-seventies African-American punk band Death – Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney, working-class brothers inspired by the high-decibel onslaught of Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and The Who – was so defiantly against all grains that it took 30 years to find receptive ears.

But when it did, which is the story told in Mark Covino's and Jeff Howlett's reverently record-straightening documentary A Band Called Death, pop music history was effectively challenged to a rewrite. If this fiercely angry, louder-than-bombs, pre-Sex Pistols music didn't qualify as the birth of punk rock, then what did?

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Largely the brainchild of the late guitarist David Hackney, who died of cancer long before his brother-band's music found an audience, Death's struggle is an especially pointed variation on one of music's most oft-told tales: A band formed ahead of its time sits in muffled obscurity while others reap the harvest of what it first planted.

While Death's belated recovery is remarkable just for the fact that the band was black and the city was Detroit – where R&B and rock tended to divide along racial lines – nothing quite prepares you for the almost prophetic foresight of David Hackney.

He reportedly turned down a lucrative contract offer from Columbia Records' Clive Davis because it came with the condition that the Hackneys change the band's name. No deal, David said, much to his brothers' perfectly understandable astonishment.

Somehow he knew there would be an audience for Death, even if his own had to come first.

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About the Author

Geoff More


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