Communique From Turkey: A Q&A With Director Dervis Zaim
by Dimitra Kessenides
Dervis Zaim’s “Somersault In A Coffin” made its American premiere last
week as part of the ongoing New Directors/New Films series at New
York’s Museum of Modern Art (where its final screening is tonight at 9
p.m.). It’s an easy film to overlook, perhaps, lacking the buzz,
marketing and distribution deals that so many of this year’s other
selections have benefited from.
A Turkish production, the film is written, directed and produced by
Dervis Zaim, a 34-year old documentary filmmaker who embarked on this
first feature film in 1996 with nothing more than a script in hand.
“Somersault In A Coffin” takes a sensitive, human look at the life of a
homeless outcast, Mahsun. Set in modern day Istanbul, Zaim deliver’s a
painfully real depiction of the
city’s forgotten people, those left behind and silenced by their lack of
prosperity and status. Mahsun lives in Rumelihisari (one of Istanbul’s
oldest neighborhoods), stealing cars at night (for warmth and
excitement) and racing through the city. An occasional fisherman and
toilet cleaner, Mahsun can’t seem to break out of the trap — the coffin
— he’s been living in. A stolen peacock (a symbol of good fortune and
prosperity) offers Mahsun a glimmer of hope.
Zaim’s filmmaking feat hasn’t escaped notice. Much in the style of
Italian neo-realism, he shot the film in 24 days with $15,000 (mostly
from his own savings), borrowed equipment, and the help of friends and
acquaintances. In November, as the film was traveling to festivals
across the globe (including ones in Turin, Italy, and Thessaloniki,
Greece), a prominent profile appeared
in The New York Times. Zaim described his film in that article as a
“real outsider. . . It’s not a love story, there’s no killing . . . It’s
about a Mr. Nobody who confronts society and culture and environment.”
indieWIRE: Yours was this guerrilla filmmaking effort, going out with
the bare minimum of resources, shooting in three weeks time. Why did you
approach your project this way? And are there others in Turkey who’ve
made films in this way?
Dervis Zaim: The situation in Turkey is especially problematic for young
directors. First of all, the old model — where there was more
government funding for films, as well as more producers, and exhibitors
— doesn’t exist anymore. There is no systematic model for the film
industry. Before I shot “Somersault In A Coffin,” I had another script
and went to two producers. But they didn’t accept it for various reasons.
In time, I understood that the only chance for me was to write another
script which would be [cheaper] to produce, and more minimalist.
So I wrote “Somersault” and I began to look for financing. Not
surprisingly, I wasn’t able to raise the amount of money I had hoped
for. The only sponsor I found was a catering company. Then I decided to
start pre-production and go into production using my own money. After
production was completed, I met someone from [the Turkish production
house] Istinsnai Filmler and Reklamer (IFR) which provided the funds for
post-production. In the end, with the finishing funds, and to prepare
the film for submission to Cannes, it cost nearly $150,000.
[So] given that there are no clearly defined models, I decided to use
different approaches to make the film.
iW: What’s the climate for making films right now? Are most new, young
directors doing what you did?
Zaim: In the early 1970’s, the Turkish film industry produced about 200
films a year. But towards the end of the decade, the industry collapsed,
and, today, the number of films produced in one year has decreased to
about 15 films per year. Even though there are some improvements in the
filmmaking business, Turkish directors have to cope with huge problems.
The inflation rate in Turkey is around 80 percent. For this reason, many
people think that filmmaking is a luxury.
Since “Somersault,” three young Turkish directors have produced their
films under very similar conditions. It is too early to say that these
kinds of films have successfully created a new kind of filmmaking for
young Turkish directors. But I’m happy to see that a number of these
kinds of films are getting made. Guerrilla filmmaking isn’t the only
model for Turkish filmmakers
today. There are, for example, a number of directors here who work with
$1 million budgets and make American-style action movies.
iW: What were you influenced by in making this film?
Zaim: It is true that I was influenced by Italian neo-realism, as well
as the French New Wave and American independent cinema for this
particular film. While I was in London [as a student] four years ago, I
attended a workshop on directing and producing a low budget movie
[organized by the Hollywood Film Institute]. After the workshop, I
realized that this kind of independent, low-budget film producing
requires a shadow of a big, established film industry. Again, in Turkey,
we have no big, systematic film industry. So I had to rethink the
conditions of making films in Turkey. This is true for every aspect of
filmmaking, not just for producing.
iW: What kind of attention has the film received? Are locally produced
films popular in Turkey, do they attract audiences?
Zaim: Somersault won 10 prizes in Turkey. And the film has won 9
international awards, two of which were public, audience awards. And at
the festivals which it traveled to [among them Toronto, San Sebastian,
and Montpelier, France], I sensed that audiences really enjoyed the
film, even given the fact that it portrays many of the harsh realities
of Turkish life.
But, given some obstacles we’ve faced in marketing the film, and in
finding distributors, the film hasn’t done well at the box office in
Turkey. Yet, locally produced Turkish films are gaining in popularity.
One film, “Bandits,” also produced in 1996, had 2 million admissions. I
wasn’t expecting the numbers that “Bandits” scored, but the level of
audiences was below what I anticipated. Nevertheless, there is a
momentum now for people interested in making films here in Turkey.
Five years ago, [Turks] had no interest in seeing a Turkish film.
iW: But did you make any money off the film?
Zaim: In the end, we broke even.
iW: You have said that your interest is in tackling “difficult”
subjects. Are other Turkish filmmakers tackling such subjects? Are
there issues and facets of contemporary Turkish life that you feel need
to be examined more in film?
Zaim: Since Yilmaz Guney [the well-known Turkish director whose film
“Yol” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982, and who was jailed for the
critical nature of his films and books], Turkish cinema hasn’t produced
political and critical films. There have been a few in recent years,
like “Isiklar Sonmesin” by Reis Celik. But generally speaking, these are
political films whose critique of the ideological system is undermined
by the adoption of a dominant language and imagery. My hope is that we
will be able to produce films depicting social issues critically, and at
the same time challenge the cinema’s traditional, ideologically
conditioned method of depiction.
Right now, [for my next project] I’m focusing on the Cyprus problem, a
“difficult” subject. [People on Cyprus] are living in a geography which
is not stable. For a filmmaker, this is fascinating. I’m at the point
where I have finished the script and started to look for funding. It’s
going slowly, but I hope I’ll have greater chances for my second project
[in terms of producing
it, and marketing and distribution].
It’s important to make different films which are not determined by
iW: These kinds of issues can be touchy. Did anyone in Turkey have a
problem with your film and what it depicts? Are there curbs placed on
filmmakers’ freedom of expression?
Zaim: Even though there are torture scenes, etc., we had no censorship
problems. In Turkey today, censorship continues. But in recent years, we
have noticed some mitigation of it. The government hasn’t been using
censorship against filmmakers. We haven’t seen any Turkish films banned
in the last five to six years.
iW: I read somewhere that the project existed for eight years, true?
Zaim: My protagonist, Mahsun, is based on a real character whom I know
personally. In Istanbul I was living in the Rumelihisari district, which
I used in “Somersault.” After a certain period of time living there, I
noticed this man, Dursun, who continuously stole the cars and left them
where he originally stole them from the day after. Also, I knew other
people who were living around [this district] and I used many characters
and little stories which I observed from Rumelihisari. But while I was
doing this, I added a lot of “lies” – fictional events that never
happened. I began to write the story 6 months before shooting, but it
was in my mind for a long period of time before that.
[Dimitra Kessenides is a freelance journalist in New York City, and the
coordinator of the Thessaloniki USA 1998 festival of Greek and Balkan
films, to take place from May 29 to June 4 at New York’s Cinema