When it comes to African cinema, even the most avid film watchers’ minds draw a blank. African titles never make the final cut in all-time-great film lists. It’s this void that Dr. Mahir Saul wants to fill.
Saul’s affection for Africa is rooted in Turkey, developed in the United States, and sealed during numerous anthropological research trips to Africa. Last winter, it came full circle when he introduced African film, for the first time, to eager Istanbul Museum of Modern Art audiences.
Saul, 62, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor, grew up in Istanbul—a city situated in Europe and Asia, bisected by the Bosphorus Strait, and known for its past rich cultural diversity. “When I was a kid, it was normal to hear four or five languages on the streets, the baker spoke Armenian, the vegetable vendor spoke Greek, and our neighbors might be speaking Italian,” he says, matter-of-factly, like someone in rural America should have experienced the same.
Saul’s anthropology path was circuitous and accidental. Odds were that he should have become a shirt salesman like his father. Instead, in 1968, he happened upon the Turkish Folklore Society, a hip, intellectual Boy Scouts-like institution devoted to dance, music, and research publications. With a prominent folklorist’s encouragement, he then studied economics at Boğaziçi University, joined Indiana University’s respected Turkish Program as a master’s student, and eventually became an anthropology PhD candidate. Saul selected Africa, the world’s second largest continent, because he could meld his French skills, economics education, folklore background, and heritage. Saul was tailored for the region.
For 15 years, Dr. Mahir Saul has taught African Film and Society—a course designed to emphasize Africa’s vast intellectual and cultural accomplishments. Saul believes that these films enrich peoples’ knowledge, dispelling stereotypes that Africa is only plagued by famine and war. It is this vision that led him to approach the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Collaborating with Müge Tüfenk, Director of Film Programs, he designed a film series to showcase African talent.
In Istanbul, Saul reconnected with his past and provided film lovers a chance to break free from Western-oriented film lists. “There was so little here about modern, national African cultures. It can be difficult to drum up enthusiasm for African cinema, but it’s important to show that we are all connected,” he says.