By Ivonne Sheen

In the current online edition of the Visions du Réel festival stands out the international competitive section Burning Lights, which is dedicated to formal experimentations and new expressive explorations in recent documentary cinema. Among the section’s films, Mimaroglu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island (2020), the first feature film by Turkish director Serdar Kökçeoglu, creates an audiovisual portrait of the avant-garde and little-known Turkish electronic music composer, Ilhan Mimaroglu.

The film experiments with the ties between cinema and music, triggered by an idea that introduces us to the composer’s universe and that is expressed by himself: “music is a cinematographic phenomenon. Cinema for the ears”. Kökçeoglu creates a film composition inspired by the music and philosophy of Mimaroglu. The material used is mostly home videos filmed by the composer, excerpts from his musical works, his personal reflections, and some testimonies from people close to him and music scholars such as David Toop. Common interests are intertwined between the director and the portrayed, expressed in the hybrid exploration between the experimental and the testimonial, which also dialogues with the musician’s work in which everyday elements also emerge as aesthetic experiences.

Mimaroglu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island is also a film about art, love and life. The lon lasting relationship between the musician and his wife, Güngör Mimaroglu, is a rich dimension that runs through out the entire film. She is a left-wing activist, she moved with Mimaroglu to New York to live a new life in a new place. The two shared critical positions regarding society and traditions, being closely linked to the left movements of the NY of the 60s-70s. The film grows based in Güngör’s testimony, who finally is the only possibility of access to the intimacy of the deceased musician, since she was his only confidant. As a couple they built their own order, breaking free from hegemonic patterns. As a musician, Mimaroglu despised and questioned idolatry towards classical musicians such as Mozart, taking it as a traditional bias that needed to be renewed. He was constantly in a state of creativity and self-absorption that distanced him from social life. Despite his time at Atlantic Records where he was able to produce jazz records by great musicians such as Charles Mingus and the recognition he had for the composition of Satyricon (1969) by Federico Fellini. Beyond his place in society as an artist, was his relationship with music, which was an absolute love and an existential burden that manifests itself in his constant reflections on it, in his intense dedication to exploring and experimenting, as constant vital inquiries.

Kökçeoglu manages to create a mosaic divided into three chapters – or perhaps three movements as in musical compositions – in which passages from the life of an artist intensely committed to his passion are portrayed. In addition to the home movies and brief portraits of the present, a short film by Mimaroglu is shown, in which he asks existential questions linked to death and in the credits ironically jokes about the great production requirements of cinema, by putting himself in all the possible credits that a film could have, from the director to the catering. In addition to being a cinephile, he positions himself as an artist who is intimately critical about art production and its place in society.

Mimaroglu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island manages to be a tribute that expresses admiration for the genius of a little-known prominent character, from the exploration of archival documentary possibilities, without losing a human approach that, in the same line of the portrayed musician, it does not create a monument of adoration, but rather it collects metaphors and testimonies about love and the passing through life.

Burning lights section
Director: Serdar Kökçeoglu
Producers: Dilek Aydin, S. Buse Yildirim, Esin Uslu
Turkey, USA, 2020, 77 min