It's not the expected thing for a documentary on Turkish music to open with a quote from Confucius, but that is not the only fascinating surprise that "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul" has to offer.
The latest film by Fatih Akin, who directed the exceptional "Head-On," turns out to be a Bosporus-based "Buena Vista Social Club" with cultural commentary thrown into the mix. When Confucius said that to understand a people's culture you have to understand its music, he might have had a film like this in mind.
"Crossing the Bridge" does more than offer a wide variety of entertaining and intoxicating Turkish music. It also uses music to paint a portrait of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and provide a window into a rich and varied national culture.
Born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, Akin has taken Istanbul to his heart like a native. The title of his film refers to the fact that the city, placed at the point where Asia and Europe meet, has always been as open to the East as it is to the West.
It is that inevitable cross-pollinization that characterizes the music that "Crossing the Bridge" presents. "Your ears are open to everything, even when you don't want them to be," is how one local DJ puts it in the film. Based on the sounds the film exposes us to, the city's musicians have achieved a remarkable synthesis, creating music that has both kept it Turkish and kept it real.
Writer-director Akin has chosen German bassist and composer Alexander Hacke, a musician with a passion for collecting sounds, to be our guide to the Istanbul scene. Though Hacke's hipster persona acts as an irritant, the music he exposes us to never lets us down.
More than that, almost all the bands and singers picked are included not just because they make great music but because they stand for something about the way the contemporary scene has evolved. Erkin Koray, for instance, cited by many bands as a prime influence, is a celebrated wild man from the 1960s, a provocateur who says he is still "a bit too extreme for Turkey." Much more contemporary is Ceza, the preeminent Turkish rapper, whose sound is hypnotic and whose politically aware philosophy has no use for the trappings of America's gangsta culture.
Perhaps the most intriguing singer in the film is Canadian Brenna MacCrimmon, who became fascinated with Turkish music to the point of learning the language and seeking out and singing long-forgotten songs found on ancient records. Turks, she says, are both "ashamed and joyful" that it took someone who came from so far away to keep that kind of music alive.
MacCrimmon's frequent accompanist, virtuoso clarinetist Selim Sesler, is a member of Turkey's vibrant Romany, or Gypsy, culture. He takes the film to the small town of Kesan, where all-night drinking and music sessions take place.
Among the musicians with tricky cultural-political issues to deal with is Aynur, a young woman with a piercing voice who sings in Kurdish, a language that was forbidden for public use in the not-so-distant past. Similarly, Orhan Gencebay, one of the superstars of traditional Turkish music, had to face resistance to his use of a lute-type instrument called the saz because it was at one time considered "too Islamic" in Turkey's strictly secular culture.
"Crossing the Bridge" saves one of its best acts for last, treating us to a hypnotic song by Sezen Akzu, whose words play over a moody series of black-and-white photos of Istanbul's past. This is not only a city that never sleeps, it is also one that never forgets its past, a history that this remarkable film enables us all to share.
'Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul'
MPAA rating: Not rated. Times guidelines: a scene of drug use.
A Strand Releasing release. Director Fatih Akin. Producers Akin, Klaus Maeck, Andreas Thiel, Sandra Harzer-Kux, Christian Kux. Screenplay Fatih Akin. Director of photography Herve Dieu. Editor Andrew Bird. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Laemmle's Music Hall. 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.