'Jail made me a film director'
How a notorious Istanbul prison forged the career of one of Europe's finest movie-makers. By Fiachra Gibbons
Monday January 30, 2006
Istanbul has been silenced by a huge fall of snow and nothing is moving. The ferries have frozen to their quays, and, with the traffic stilled, the old city from which the Romans and the Ottomans ruled two of the world's greatest empires has stirred from its smoggy sleep. Istanbullus treasure these days that come along once or twice a decade when an ice storm sweeps down from the steppes and returns that mythic city to them.
Holed up in his apartment, Zeki Demirkubuz has given himself up like everyone else to the luxuriant mid-winter melancholy this enforced holiday affords.
The country needs the break. There's been blood in streets for the past month. First with the annual feast of the sacrifice, the kurban bayram, when millions of sheep and cattle were put to Abraham's knife, followed by more wholesale slaughter when bird flu sent the country into panic. Then there was the anger and shame as a threat of imprisonment - now thankfully lifted - hung over the country's greatest writer, Orhan Pamuk, for "insulting Turkishness", while its most notorious assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot the last pope and murdered one of Turkey's most revered liberal journalists, was set free. In a head-spinning week in which the dark old certainties about the military "secret state" that reputedly ruled Turkey were turned on their head, the murderer was returned to prison and the innocent man allowed to go free.
Turkey has changed more in the past year than it has in the past 70. But Demirkubuz won't be drawn: "Every day I hear something that surprises me and makes me feel happier. But I wonder if it is real or just psychological."
Surely a film director who was jailed for his beliefs - and whose life might have come from Albert Camus's The Stranger, whose plot he borrowed for his film Fate - has something to say about this? Like Camus's hero, who was also punished for a crime he didn't commit, Demirkubuz appears not to care.
"Politics is what it is, but for me loneliness is best," he says with nonchalance and certainty. "Every artist needs to be a stranger in a way. It is very important for me to be alone, either for my thoughts or my writing. Silence is often more powerful than words ... "
Demirkubuz is one of the utterly unclassifiable talents Turkish cinema has quietly produced to surprise, delight and challenge the world. Like his friend Nuri Bilge Ceylan, responsible for such masterpieces as the Cannes-winning Distant, he seems surprised that his serious films have struck such an international chord. Yet he is one of a select club of directors to have had two films competing at Cannes at the same time, and probably the only one who credits the generals who threw him into prison for turning him into a film-maker.
At 17, Demirkubuz was jailed without trial by the military junta that overthrew the government in 1980. That September the ancient fountains that had watered Istanbul through sieges by the Huns, Mongols, Arabs, Crusaders and the Turks themselves, were cut to stop revolts breaking out as the army and gendarmerie hunted out thousands of students and activists. Many were never seen again. Demirkubuz was a member of a Maoist group that, even now, he refuses to name - many leftwing parties are still banned and more than 100 members of one militant group have died over the past six years in prison through hunger strikes or by burning or blowing themselves up.
Idealism was not something you wore like T-shirt in Turkey of the 1970s and 1980s. It required commitment and usually sacrifice. It was when this ideological war between left and right spilled on to the streets that Agca cut his teeth as a killer, in rightwing ultra-nationalist death squads working with the military.
Demirkubuz found himself in Istanbul's Metris prison, the most notorious of those used to hold political prisoners, among them poets, writers, musicians and thinkers. "That is where my education began," he said. "Sometimes I think that if it wasn't for jail, I would not be a film-maker."
For many of his generation, arrest or imprisonment was normal, even a rite of passage. Many were destroyed or scarred by the experience, but it was the making of the young Demirkubuz, whose peasant family had just moved to Istanbul from Isparta in the south. "Before I was arrested I only read political books. Prison introduced me to the classics." The first novel he read was Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. And like Ceylan and Pamuk he became obsessed with the Russian master, particularly with his novel The Devils, about a group of small-town revolutionaries who turn on each other.
"Dostoyevsky was a shock to me. It took me 10 years to begin to understand him," he said. He began to realise that character, spirit and nature are more important than politics, and that "pain was the one thing that united us. Pain is everywhere, we must all face it. All my films are about it. Dostoyevsky wrote the same book again and again with different characters working their pain through different situations. I try to make the same film over and over again. Changing subject is just opportunism to me, something that is done for political or financial reasons."
In anyone else this might sound sententious, but in films like Block C, Innocence and Confession, Demirkubuz has striven for the depth his literary heroes reached for. Fate is basically about the difference between fatalism and existentialism - about a man who doesn't seem to care about anything. Not something you'd think would keep you on the edge of your seat for two hours. But it does.
If I told you that the film that followed it, Confession, is about a man who cares too much, and that between them they probably tell you all you need to know about Demirkubuz, you'll see why he believes cinema can never be too simple.
· Fate is released on February 3.