Saturday, February 18, 2012

Berlinale | Caligari Award for Tepenin Ardı

A three-person jury awards the Caligari Film Prize to a film in the Forum. The prize is sponsored by the "German Federal Association of Communal Film Work" and “filmdienst” magazine. The winning film is honoured with 4,000 Euros, half of which is given to the director, the other half is meant to fund distribution.

Mavi Boncuk |
One of the two Turkish films at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is director/writer/ historian Emin Alper’s gem of a debut feature, titled “Tepenin Ardı” (Beyond The Hill).

Set in a rural Anatolian town, the film toys with genre conventions of the Western, thriller and family drama and succeeds in creating a chilling portrayal of a group of men (young and old) who come together in the name of fighting against a “common enemy.” The best part is that there actually is no enemy, and this notion only becomes an excuse for these men to re-establish and re-create their given roles in a male-dominated community that is the product of an authoritarian and patriarchal culture. The film, shown under the Forum section, is competing for the Best First Feature Award at the Berlinale, and the winners will be announced on Sunday.

The affable duo of director Alper and his producer Enis Köstepen from Bulut Film spoke to Today’s Zaman this week at the Berlinale about their film and the status of Turkish art house cinema.

By day, you work as a history teacher. How did you venture into filmmaking?

Emin Alper: Actually, my journey in cinema began long before my journey in history. I was interested in cinema right from the beginning while I was doing my undergraduate studies in economics. I was a member of the cinema club at university, and I would always write about cinema. I was also writing drafts of screenplays. Then, I found myself doing my masters and then Ph.D. in history. So I kind of ended up in the academic world. But I always wanted to make a film; I previously directed two short movies [“Rifat” and “Mektup”] and in my mind, I always wanted to make a feature. I had many screenplay ideas. So I can’t actually say that I started as a historian and then ventured into filmmaking.

So why did you choose to write and direct “Beyond the Hill” as your first feature film? How did the process begin?

E.A.: To be honest, I began with “Beyond the Hill” because it had a small budget. In fact, my first feature project idea was something entirely different. But the problem was that it was quite a large-scale project, and we couldn’t get support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Directorate of Cinema for that. So then, I thought I would start with something smaller. We’ve been friends with the producers from Bulut Film for a long time, and we were talking about collaborating on something and hence, this was the project that seemed the most feasible. But of course, the filmmaking process is an evolutionary one; for instance, this story was much closer to a family drama [in the beginning, while the final script relies more on] metaphoric allusions.

There were many drafts of the script, and while we were talking about and discussing the story in the early stages, this notion of “creating an enemy outside of the community” was only one of the ideas. The film had stronger elements of the concept of adolescence, for instance. But then as we talked, the other elements fell more to the background, and the concepts of “patriarchy” and “common enemies” became a priority. We felt like we needed to make a statement, and we thought it could be more provocative.

How did you work with the actors? All of them seem so brilliant and incredibly attuned to the story, they seem like they actually inhabit that world as opposed to just “performing” -- especially Tamer Levent as the grandfather, who is the main “father figure” of this patriarchal clan.

E.A.: Well, I really worked on the casting process. The grandfather character was very important and actually, we found Tamer Levent at a very late stage of pre-production. And also, the thing is, I mean this is my first film, and I couldn’t just invite people in for an audition. Mainly I watched the actors’ previous work, and then we gave them the script. They all liked it a lot, which was a very important factor for us. They really dedicated themselves to the process. Mostly, we did several readings before we went on set. They’re all very talented actors.

And how long did it take to shoot?

E.A.: Three weeks! It was very difficult regarding the time constraint and the budget. I mean, we shot the last scene right at the last hour of the last shooting day, and if we had missed the sunset, we would have had to shoot another day.

You’ve received extremely good reviews from the foreign press in Berlin. How do you think the film will do back at home, at the Turkish box office?

E.A.: It’s hard to say, but if we look at previous examples of Turkish art house cinema, it’s not a brilliant situation. I mean, for example, Seren Yüce’s “Çoğunluk” [Majority] got rave reviews in Turkey and abroad, it won the best first feature film award at the Venice Film Festival and the best film award at Antalya’s Golden Orange. Around 20,000 people watched it in cinemas in Turkey, and this is a good-case scenario. I mean, a lot of the people I knew went to see “Majority” so I thought at least 80,000 people must have seen it, but it turns out that it was less.

Enis Köstepen: The problem with distribution of art house movies in Turkey is that the producers have to shoulder the entire load. Other parties besides producers should be involved in creating better distribution conditions for art house films, especially the distributors and the exhibitors. In the current situation, you’re lucky if your film gets shown for one week in a cinema in a mall. Then again, you look at the İstanbul Film Festival, and over the years it has managed to sustain and create a steady audience, the tickets are immediately sold out. But through traditional distribution channels, none of the distributors or movie theater owners make an effort to create or sustain art house audiences; they don’t make an event out of it. I think that a new method should be developed to attract audiences to these kinds of films and promote them; new tools should be created.

E.A.: Exactly. I mean in Turkey, we don’t have a distribution system that supports the word-of-mouth method. If your movie doesn’t do well in the first few days, then it’s pulled out of the system. Independent directors consider themselves lucky if their movie runs for two weeks. It seems that the blockbusters have invaded all of the theaters, and they stay for months. The thing is, this isn’t only true for Turkish independents but also for foreign independents. Even a film like “Melancholia,” which won an award at Cannes, from internationally acclaimed director Lars von Trier, will not get a lengthy distribution time [in Turkey]. The pie doesn’t get any larger, because the number of movie theaters remains the same, but at the same time, more and more films are getting made.

So, how do you feel about the critics’ reaction in Berlin? Do you think they expect a certain kind of film from Turkish art house cinema?

E.A.: I really can’t say something conclusive about that. I mean, I haven’t quite grasped what’s really going on. However, for example, there was an article in The Hollywood Reporter that said in Turkish festival films, the influence of Nuri Bilge Ceylan was rampant, and mine was “one of his more successful heirs.” I guess they like to categorize new Turkish festival films under that umbrella. But I mean, like I said, I can’t generalize these expectations. Some who watched the film in Berlin also said it was quite different from other art house movies made in Turkey.

This is a very “male story” since it chooses to follow men who are the victims/perpetrators of the patriarchal society. The only adult female is the character of Meryem, who is actually the most sound and mature person in the story. Was there a reason her name is Meryem, a Turkish name that is the equivalent of Mary? Does it symbolize something?

E.A.: Actually it’s a coincidence that her name is Meryem.

E.K.: Don’t forget though that her name in the first script was “Eve”!

E.A.: You’re right! You’re the first person who noticed that! It must have been a subconscious decision. Well, the woman in the story did end up taking on the responsibility of being the most sensible character. She is a victim of this society as well, and she is left out of the inner circle of these men, she has been left outside of that world, and thus she becomes the objective observer of the events that unfold. This film is a criticism on “male communities” and the dynamics of the patriarchal system.

It seems that lately there have been a lot of art house Turkish films that tackle the “patriarchal society” and its effect on individuals. What do you think about that?

E.A.: People try to explain and explore concepts that hurt them. The patriarchal system is also something that hurts men as well; I mean, we are all, men and women, victims of this situation. It’s not a coincidence that filmmakers take on these subjects.

How are men the victims of patriarchy?

E.A.: For instance, I think that men who are a bit more understanding have a gentler nature that cannot always deal with the authoritarian culture. And I think these cultures can be very violent, this really disturbs me. There are a lot of pressures on men too, they can be oppressed in two ways, either they are forced to perpetrate violence or they become the direct victims of violence. Having to perpetrate violence is a very serious problem. If you do not choose to execute violence then you are made to feel as if you are a “less of a man.”

Are you working on a second film?

E.A.: Yes, there is another script I’m working on. This is going to be something directly political, not metaphorical like “Beyond the Hill.” It’s a political thriller that takes place in İstanbul. It will also tackle the “male community” issue.

How do you feel about being at the Berlinale? It must be a great honor.

E.A.: Of course, I’m very happy. It was a bit stressful for a while because I’m not very used to being under such scrutiny. So many people watch your movie and then comment about it. I mean, in academia, you write one article and maybe 15 people read it, and they don’t even comment on it! Suddenly, I saw 700 people in the theater, so at first I got quite stressed. But then, when we started getting positive reviews, I was happy again.

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