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Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus Strait, splitting it geographically between Europe and Asia and culturally—as the cliché goes—between the East and the West. In recent years, the city has developed a thriving contemporary art scene, and in 2010 the European Union named it a European Capital of Culture. So it made sense when, that same year, Liberatum, the British cultural organization, which had already put on high-end arts festivals in Moscow, Mumbai and Marrakesh, brought its brand to the city for the first Istancool.

“The idea was to bring people from all over the world—artists, filmmakers, musicians—and have them meet with Turkish artists, doing workshops and Q&As,” says Demet Muftuoglu Eseli, Istancool’s creative head and a major player in the city’s art world. “Basically, it’s like an artistic exchange program.”

In the festival’s first two years, this has meant events such as author Gore Vidal being interviewed by Turkish writer Leyla Umar; a panel discussion on cinema and marketing, featuring actress Kirsten Dunst, Italian producer Marco Mueller and Turkish film star Nurgül Yesilçay; and Courtney Love shooting a music video with Turkish director Alphan Eseli (who also happens to be Demet’s husband). This year’s Istancool (May 25–27) is planning to feature a wonderfully strange clutch of personalities, such as Willem Dafoe, Karl Lagerfeld, Riccardo Tisci, Chiara Clemente, Nate Lowman, Giada Colagrande, Zoe Cassavetes, Jean Pigozzi, Richard Phillips, Josephine Meckseper, Mario Sorrenti, Mary Frey and Charlie Seim. All the events are free and open to the public.

Bringing a progressive, urbane cultural festival to an Islamic country with a record of censorship presents some obvious challenges, but Istancool has not shied away from the provocative. In 2010 one event featured Turkish artist Taner Ceylan displaying graphic images of homosexuality and drug use while traditional Turkish music played. Last year Amnesty International sponsored readings on human rights and freedom of speech. None of this has riled the government too much.

“Actually, they are one of our supporters,” Eseli says. “There were never concerns about who we bring in, what the panels are.” It’s her hope that the festival will shed some light on this liberal side of her homeland. “Turkey is not how it looks from the outside.”


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