‘Wondrous cinematography’ and ‘relevant issues’: How Semih Kaplanoglu’s ‘Grain’ won over the Tokyo International Film Festival

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Contributing Writer

Hollywood is a Goliath. The movies that come out of the United States capture the hearts of people around the world. When it comes to the festival circuit, though — Cannes, Toronto, Venice — the film world starts to look much more global.

Japan’s biggest event of this kind, the Tokyo International Film Festival, closed its 30th edition last week with an appearance from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, the latter awarding the festival’s Grand Prix to Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu for his film “Grain.”

Kaplanoglu won the Competition section, which, despite Hollywood’s dominant reach worldwide, didn’t include any North American films this year. The U.S. was represented on the Competition jury, however, by actor Tommy Lee Jones, who headed the panel.

“It doesn’t really matter what country a film comes from, especially in a film festival,” Jones says. “At their best, film festivals are about relieving audiences and filmmakers from the demands of commercialism. All the usual trappings of blockbusters — car crashes and violence and superheroes — they’re not needed here. The only standard we deploy when determining the Grand Prix is how good the movie is.”

The 71-year-old Jones speaks with an incredible amount of authority on the matter. He was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2005 for his work directing “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” He won the best actor prize for the same film.

“Speaking as one who has been behind the camera,” Jones says, “I can tell you that however excellent the movie, there’s always something wrong with every one of them. Movies are like people in that none of them are perfect.”

In addition to Jones, the Competition jury at this year’s TIFF also included Iranian writer and director Reza Mirkarimi, Chinese actress and director Zhao Wei, French director Martin Provost and Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase.

“We were a jury that spoke five different languages, with five interpreters, so you can imagine discussions got a little difficult at times. We were a bit like the United Nations in that respect, but I do believe we had a better sense of humor than the U.N.,” Jones says with a laugh. “The best thing was that I got to be friends with people in different film industries.”

Diversity is definitely one of TIFF’s strengths. At the closing ceremony, award recipients excitedly exchanged congratulations in a number of different languages.

Kaplanoglu, 54, is a familiar figure at European film festivals. The third movie in his famed “Yusuf trilogy,” “Honey,” won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010.

“Grain” is the director’s sixth feature. It is based on a chapter in the Quran and set in a near-future dystopia where electronic “killing walls” as Kaplanoglu describes them, are erected along borders to keep out refugees. Food is scarce and major corporations are hoarding seeds. The world is divided into bleak but functioning cities and rural areas that have been damaged beyond repair due to war and climate change.

Protagonist Erol Erin (Jean-Marc Barr) is working as a DNA scientist for a big company when a mysterious genetic virus hits the sole food-generating plantation in his city. Unable to pinpoint the cause or offer a solution, Erol decides to seek the help of a colleague who has gone rogue.

“Grain” was shot entirely in black and white by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, whose frames are composed in a way that makes every scene a work of art in itself.

“This was a unanimous choice by the jury,” Jones says about “Grain.” “I was very impressed by the truly wondrous cinematography, and how it discussed the most relevant issues in today’s world through a shared mythic experience.”

Kaplanoglu tells The Japan Times that he spent five years making “Grain,” and in that time global affairs changed dramatically, often for the worse.

“My crew and I would look at the screenplay and then look at the news and it was like, ‘Reality is catching up to us, much faster than we could foresee,'” Kaplanoglu says. “It really was a revelatory — and in many ways a frightening — time.”

One sequence in “Grain” features an abandoned baby becoming a symbol of hope. At the time Kaplanoglu was filming the scene, the death of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi made headlines across the world.

“On the day we saw this news, Jean-Marc Barr said to me, ‘You were able to save the baby in the movie, but we are powerless when it comes to real life.’ And all we could do was look at each other sadly and then go back to work.”

Perhaps this sense of helplessness explains why halfway through the story, “Grain” shifts from a sci-fi parable to a poetic, meditative dialogue between Erol and the character of Cemil Akman, played by Bosnian actor Ermin Bravo.

“We went to an abandoned district in Detroit and then to Anatolia (in Turkey) for location work,” Kaplanoglu says. “And in both places I encountered refugees from the Middle East who had terrible stories to tell. I guess that colored my perception of what I wanted to say with this film.”

Kaplanoglu says while his film isn’t meant to be entertaining in the Hollywood sense, he is happy that it entertained so many in Tokyo.

“I wanted ‘Grain’ to pose the question of what it means to be human, because we are harming the world in a million different ways,” he says. “We’ve come to point when everyone must make a conscious choice to become a human being, and not just a slave of commercialism.”

It’s not the kind of takeaway you’ll likely get from a blockbuster, and that’s exactly why events like TIFF exist.

Past Grand Prix winners at TIFF

Semih Kaplanoglu’s “Grain” won the Competition section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. Here are the other directors and films that took first place this decade:

2016: Chris Kraus’ “The Bloom of Yesterday” (Germany/Austria)

2015: Roberto Berliner’s “Nise: The Heart of Madness” (Brazil)

2014: Joshua and Ben Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What” (U.S.)

2013: Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!” (Sweden)

2012: Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” (France)

2011: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s “Intouchables” (France)

2010: Nir Bergman’s “Intimate Grammar” (Israel)