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Film Festival Helps to Bridge Centuries-Old Barriers Between Turks and Armenians

Film has become an important medium in helping to break down barriers between neighbors Turkey and Armenia. The border between the two countries has been closed for more than a decade and the historical controversy over Armenia's claim that the Turks committed genocide against its Armenian population in 1915 continues to sour relations. But this month's Golden Apricot Film Festival in the Armenian capital Yerevan sees the two countries' filmmakers coming together. It's part of the Turkish Armenian Film Platform launched at this year's Istanbul film festival. The project was inspired by of all things, a football match.

Last year's football match in the Armenian capital Yerevan, between Armenia and Turkey, with the historical attendance of the Turkish president, was the catalyst for restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. But football diplomacy is fast making way for film diplomacy.

At last April's Istanbul Film Festival, Armenian filmmakers attended the first joint workshop as part of efforts to build ties between the two countries.

Cigdem Mater, Director of Istanbul's Mithat Alem Film center, says film can play a unique role in helping to ease age old misunderstandings the neighbors .

"These two people who are very near to each other, and two neighbors which are very far away from each other," said Cigdem Mater. "We lived together for thousands and thousands of years. And now we actually are trying to re-know each other. So it's a huge process and a new process and we think that the cinema has a huge power to help with this process because its easy when you watch and see a movie to understand what happened, to see what you are missing."

To achieve this goal , the Turkish Armenian film platform was founded at the Istanbul Film Festival. Twelve Turkish and 12 Armenian filmmakers are now working on documentaries, short and feature length films. Mater, one of the platform's founders, says it aims to offer both technical and practical help in working together.

"This network will operate as a logistic help," said Mater. "It could be possible to help people to find art directors, cinematographers or even scriptwriters. So this platform will help both countries filmmakers to make better movies about each other."

An elderly woman from the Armenian town of Gumre on the Turkish border recounts a traditional fairy tale. It is a scene from a documentary currently being filmed by Turkish director Zeynep Guzel. She is recording such tales from towns on both sides of the border. Guzel says the film seeks to transcend the historical animosities of the past.

"History seems so factual but it is something so abstract on the level of historians, politicians and governments etc., but it doesn't touch to the real life to me," said Zeynep Guzel. "We need put the similarities in front. And fairy tales is [are] something that is [are] more transcendent than the border. It is something so universal, you can find the fairy tale in northern Ireland. The same fairy tale as well. It is something so specific to that culture as well. It became specific with the tellers. We want to grab something very beyond the history, before all of these talks and painful events."

But not all films skirt around the painful past of the two countries.

A Turkish Armenian recounting how some of his family members were rounded up and then massacred along with thousands of others in the surrounding mountains, during the deportations and mass killings of Armenians in 1915.

The killings, say Armenia along with much of the world, were genocide, something Turkey strongly denies. The scene is from the documentary Hush by Turkish filmmaker Berke Bas. It tells, for the first time, the story of the killings through the perspective of an Armenian child, Bas's grandmother, who was saved by a Turkish family. The film platform organized for the film to be screened at this year's Yerevan film festival. Bas says she made the film for both Armenians and Turks.

"There are thousands of stories that are lost like this, that not heard, that are not shared, that are not transmitted through the generations," said Berke Bas. "Because in Turkey we have a terrible relationship with our history and our past. So this kind of story can make Turks feel we have lived with these people. These people are part of our culture, part of our lives, part of our family histories and I feel we have more in common than what divides us. And as for the Armenian audience I would like them to feel we share the pain , we share the history, and we have a right to know and talk about this history."

Such hopes are shared by Mater who along with the dozen Turkish filmmakers will attend this month's Golden Apricot Film Festival. She sees the ongoing cooperation as part of a much wider reconciliation process in which culture can trump politics.

"I think films, concerts, music and exhibitions will help a lot in this process," said Mater. "Sometimes even seeing a picture of Istanbul in the streets in Yerevan helps a lot in this reconciliation process Because people will remember again the things they listened [to] from their families."

Within a year, the first Turkish-Armenian films are expected to be completed.