INTERVIEW: Architect-Filmmaker Ustaoglu's "Journey" Finally Lands in U.S.
by A.G. Basoli
(indieWIRE/ 02.09.01) — When distributors lament the difficulties of a small movie finding its audience, they seldom admit to their own responsibility in preventing an audience from finding a film. This was the case for 38-year-old Turkish writer-director Yesim Ustaoglu‘s vivid and thought-provoking second feature “Journey to the Sun,” opening at New York’s Cinema Village today (Friday), a luminous meditation on friendship over enemy lines that tackles Turkey’s incendiary Kurdish issue. Although Turkey’s Ministry of Culture approved the project for production and release, the story’s somber intimations fell on deaf ears with the country’s unofficial censors and for two years after the film’s completion, no Turkish distributor or media would touch or discuss it despite its national and international success.
Finally taking matters into her own hands, Ustaoglu went straight to the exhibitors and in the spring 2000, a year after the film cleared Best Director, Best Film, International Film Critics and Audience awards at the Istanbul Film Festival and won Peace Prize and Blue Angel Awards for Best European film at Berlin (where, ironically, the film’s premiere coincided with fugitive Kurdish rebel leader Ocalan’s arrest), “Journey to the Sun” opened in Turkey to overwhelming audience acclaim.
Set in Istanbul’s inner city against the volatile political backdrop of a decade-long guerrilla war, the film examines the bond between the politically naïve Mehmet (Newroz Baz), a Turkish city employee, and Berzan (Nazmi Qirix), a Kurdish underground political activist as they negotiate their friendship past a legacy of hate.
Ustaoglu’s background in architecture account for the film’s stunning physical beauty; it’s also helped by the sense of authenticity captured by cinematographer Jacek Perecki, former collaborator of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. “I like to be close to and honest with the people I represent and not to show them in ways that they’re not,” says Ustaoglu who traveled extensively throughout Turkey in search of the locations and actors, through the three years it took her to complete the film. “That’s why I used real people when I cast the film. When I create a character it has to be very real. You have to be able to touch and feel the people.”
In an interview with indieWIRE, Yesim Ustaoglu discusses the relationship between architecture and film, the symbolic use of water, working with non-professional actors, and self-censorship.
indieWIRE: You were an architect before; does that inform your films?
Yesim Ustaoglu: I decided to become a filmmaker when I was a student. I didn’t study cinema, but I watched movies and read a lot about cinema and movie theory, and in the meantime I was studying architecture. I realized that there is a link in these two disciplines: like design. When you start designing you have to examine a location, the daylight or whatever lighting and always you have to think about the human element. Whenever I design for architecture, I always think about characters: who will use the space. You have to know them. You have to know their culture, you have to know their habits, because if you do something that is strange, they will never touch it or use it. So I like to know the people always. And I was writing, too. I was writing stories and I was taking photographs. Image is very important to me. That’s also part of architecture.
iW: Did you actually practice as an architect?
Ustaoglu: Yes, I did my first movie when I finished my Masters degree. I always worked as an architect and I always produced my short movies with my money from architecture. And then when I did my first feature, I stopped. But up until that time I did both. And it was nice to do both. I was working on sites with the big projects stopping every three years and taking my money to make a short.
iW: Why did you call the film “Journey to the Sun”?
Ustaoglu: Because the movie approached the sun, always. The sun is rising in the East and the journey goes from the West to East. We finished the movie when the sun was going down, whereas at the beginning it was going up. The other meaning is the color. The whole movie is graded with sun colors: all the interiors, walls, and clothes — reddish, yellow. And with the grading of the warmer colors the movie had a very warm tone. It gives also a sense of hope to us for this friendship; it’s a very strong friendship, but a very sad story too, because one of them dies.
iW: What made you want to make a movie about the Kurdish issue?
Ustaoglu: It just affected me for years to hear of such a problem in my country. People are suffering. I had Kurdish friends throughout my life. In my school, in my life, in my crews, it’s always a combination of Turks and Kurds. In daily life, they’re very close to each other.
iW: You used non-professional actors.
Ustaoglu: They are all non-professional. The kids, but all the other secondary roles are people from the actual places. I didn’t bring anyone from Istanbul, just our crew and the main characters and during the journey we worked with the people who lived in those areas. But in order to do it this way, I had to make many trips myself to work with the people to find out more about them and to talk to them.
iW: How did you work with them during rehearsal?
Ustaoglu: Of course, at the beginning they were not so ready to act. But they were ready with their feeling and emotions. They had no idea about cinema and being in front of the camera. They were just so ready with their hearts and feelings and they loved the story. It took quite a long time to rehearse, almost one year. We met almost every day. It became like a family. It was more about concentration rather than acting technique. It was very interesting and I think quite important for the film. If you notice the film has more planned reverse shots. When there are conversations, there’s not much cutting between the characters, we just concentrate on their conversation with the close-ups, but in one take. On set, when they were completely concentrated they forgot everybody, and they were acting and it was wonderful to see how they acted in the first take. Then it went down a bit. If I needed to have another take, maybe for technical reasons, they would repeat themselves a bit. But when I realized this, I was so careful to shoot to make the first take wonderful.
iW: What about the locations?
Ustaoglu: All locations were the real locations. We didn’t set up anything. We didn’t change the roads. The whole country is nice, but I really didn’t want to make anything nicer for the shoot. I was quite careful about that. I traveled a lot everywhere. By car, by bus, whatever I found, I stayed in the countryside and many places. I live in Istanbul now, but I traveled for many years before that. When I was working in restoration, I went to a lot of places. I like to go to ever part of the city in Istanbul. It was so nice to catch those locations. It took me quite a long time to make the final decisions.
iW: There’s a really beautiful shot at the beginning with the house reflecting in the water, that comes back toward the end. Can you talk about that shot?
Ustaoglu: I knew the movie would end with the water covering Berzan’s village and it gave me the idea that it’s also a story about transformation. The Turkish character goes through a great transformation. Water in middle-eastern and Turkish culture is very important: it’s the meaning of life and it has a spiritual meaning. I used the theme of the water for every character: one is listening to the water pipes, the other one is working at the laundromat. Water is always the link in the story. In one way it gives the idea that Mehmet is naïve, but he’s a very special person, talented and very open-minded. So since I had thought about the water for the ending, I thought the movie should start with the water too, when Mehmet is carrying Berzan’s coffin at the start of the journey. The movie starts with that image: a mysterious image reflected in the water. That first shot is with a long lens and because of the lens, you see somebody carrying something, but you don’t know in the reflection what it is. The idea is that we follow him, but we don’t know what happened and who the dead person is. Then we go back to the beginning and introduce all the characters and we see their relationship and what they are doing in the big metropolis. And then we catch that opening moment again at the end of the town where the journey begins.
iW: Did you have any problem with the government in making the film?
Ustaoglu: I think the real problem in Turkey is self-censorship. We must talk more about ourselves, this is important. This subject is taboo; we can’t talk about it, so what else can we talk about? There are a lot of things we can talk about. In this case, I didn’t think about the outcome. When you start to think about the outcome you can’t do anything and you cannot be honest; you start to compromise.