In “Life in Limbo” – available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms – filmmaker Sakae Ishikawa documents a dam construction project on the Tigris River
“Life in Limbo”
Director/Producer/Editor: Sakae Ishikawa
Director of Photography: Scott Anger
[Disclosure: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE]
The full short, “Life in Limbo” is available free on SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Sakae Ishikawa is part of a new series of SnagFilm filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE.
So what’s the story here?
The controversial Ilisu Dam has been planned since the 1950s’, and and its reservoir would flood the ancient town of Hasankeyf. The project would displace as many as 50,000 people in the area, an area that has been part of nine civilizations in its known history. Most recently, the region has been fought over in a war between the PKK, a Kurdish separatist guerrilla militia, and the Turkish state.
This archaeologically rich town is the finest example of a medieval city in the region. Caves in the limestone cliffs surrounding the town have been inhabited since the 9th Century B.C., and ancient relics dot the town. Because of its archaeological significance, it was designated a conservation area by the Turkish government. With this classification, building was forbidden and economic development stalled. Ironically, the government’s plan for the dam is part of a bigger project with aims to develop the Southeast, an area which has long been underdeveloped. By flooding the town, however, it is destroying cultural heritage that is irreplaceable. More importantly, it is displacing a community that has lived there for generations and has a deep connection with the land and culture.
And how did you come to making movies?
I never really thought about filmmaking until I was going to college. I originally planned to go to the journalism school at Northwestern but financially it was steep, so I went to San Francisco State as a broadcast major instead. From there, I transferred to NYU as a film student. I never had an interest in doing feature films like many of my fellow students. I find the truth so much more interesting than fiction.
Once I graduated, I went to work as a runner at the legendary Maysles Films, the people who made one of my favorite films, Gimme Shelter. From there I worked my way up to being the staff assistant editor. I learned so much from the people I worked with there. It was better than film school to be in the editing room with filmmakers such as Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson, and Grahame Weinbrun. I have continued to work and learn from many people that I met through the Maysles connection.
I had been working professionally as an editor but wanted to try my hand at directing and producing after so many years of working on other peoples’ projects. I also had spent some time in Turkey and wanted to find excuses to visit. When I found Hasankeyf, I found the perfect film project for me.
On being inspired by the dam:
I first visited the town of Hasankeyf in November 2005. I was immediately struck by the dramatic beauty of this town and the warm hospitality of the town’s residents. Being in remote Southeastern Turkey, Hasankeyf is not on a typical tourist route, although it is rich in cultural history. . Tourism had been on the increase since 2000, when the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, declared a ceasefire with the Turkish military. I wondered how the town would change in the future: would it become a popular destination with big hotels? Would Burger King and Pizza Hut become part of the landscape? It was then that people told me that the Ilisu dam would be built and the town would go underwater. I was stunned.
In 2006, I set out to make a portrait of the town, to capture the life of the residents by the magnificent cliffs on the Tigris River. I also wanted to document the archaeological relics that dotted the landscape and discover the history of the town.
Getting permission and other issues…
When I first thought of making this film, many Turkish contacts thought it would be impossible to get permission to shoot in Hasankeyf. This is in Southeast Turkey, an area which has experienced separatist violence since 1984 in which over 40,000 people have been killed. Although things had calmed down since a ceasefire in 2000, people had lived with the threat of violence, whether from the Turkish military or the PKK, for years.
When I started filming, I wanted to be careful that those who were in my film would not get in trouble for doing so. I didn’t ask specifically about the dam or their feelings about relocation, but tried to make a film that showed their love of their home and their way of life. During the shoot, I did start understanding that the logic in the area was “if you’re against the dam, you’re against the government, and therefore you are for the PKK.” Not true – but if people did speak about the dam, they would always preface their comment by saying, “it’s not that we are against the government but …” On our first shoot,, we tried to drive out to the proposed dam site and were stopped at military checkpoints. With the fear we felt from residents, we also became extra cautious and turned back. I worried about doing anything that would cause my translators or characters any problems with authorities.
And why should viewers take a look?
I would hope that the Snag Films audience would respond most to the characters in the film, in particular, Mehmet Tilki. Mehmet moved back to his childhood cave after living elsewhere as an adult. He spends his time hunting and fishing and hanging out in the home that has been in his family for four generations. The love that he feels for his home and town is palpable , and I would hope, one would get a sense of what a special place Hasankeyf is.
Scott Anger did a fantastic job of capturing the natural beauty of the place and the music was written by Grammy award winning composer Christopher Tin. The very talented Turkish / Egyptian musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek performed on the soundtrack playing various instruments.
Other film favorites?
Into Great Silence, a meditative documentary on life icenturyh Century monastery was a film that I watched with interest. It captured the rhythms of life in a place in which the participants were largely silent. The beauty of quiet moments was apparent.
I wouldn’t say the following films were inspirational in the making of my film, but a few of my favorite documentaries include: Salesman, Bus 174, One Day in September, Grizzly Man, and Daughter from Danang.
I don’t think I am quite finished with the town of Hasankeyf. When I was shooting “Life in Limbo,” building had not started on the dam. Funding for the dam had been stopped in 1998 and in 2006, so I did not want to wait for the dam to be built to finish a film. Plans had been developed in 1954, so I had no idea what the timeline would be. Now that Ilisu is in the process of being built and relocation has started for some, I would like to go back and document the hardships people are facing as their communities are being uprooted,. I would also like to record the destruction of Hasankeyf. While I did try to make a balanced view of the problems in the region; I do not believe the Ilisu Dam is the solution to the economic underdevelopment in also the Southeast. I also believe that many people will not be treated fairly in the relocation process and would like to give them a voice by continuing to film.
Otherwise, I’m constantly looking for a new project. I know that filmmaking is a commitment , but I’m always on the lookout for an idea that will capture my heart like the Hasankeyf project.