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Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag – ‘Across the Sea’

Slamdance Women Directors: Meet Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag - 'Across the Sea'

Esra Saydam is an award-winning filmmaker born and raised in Istanbul who later moved to the US for her filmmaking career. She directed two shorts that screened at festivals such as the Seattle FF and !f Istanbul and was broadcast on NYC TV. During her studies at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program, she also produced over ten films, including I Am John Wayne, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2012. Across the Sea is her first feature as a director. 
Nisan Dag is an award-winning writer/director based in New York and Istanbul. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program and a Fulbright Scholar. Her animated and narrative shorts were selected by festivals around the world, including Cinequest, Indie Memphis, and the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Dag recently directed an episode of a MTV Series and is currently developing several feature projects. (Press materials)

Across the Sea
will premiere at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival on January 24. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

ES and ND: Across the Sea is a cross-cultural love story about Damla, a woman who is stuck between her past and present. Damla left Turkey for New York to pursue her ambitions and hasn’t returned home for nearly eight years. Recently married to an American, she’s now six months pregnant but isn’t ready to be a mother, partly because of an unresolved secret involving her first love, Burak. In her journey back to her small coastal hometown, Damla has to find a way to make amends with Burak before she can peacefully move on to her life in America.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ES: The film was originally a short-story idea that I had after feeling homesick while living in the U.S. Back then, nothing was going well in my “American life.” Later on, I pitched the story to Nisan while we were both at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program. We had a very similar past: both of us were in young relationships that we chose to leave behind in order to pursue a career in film. This film was meant to be a love letter to our first loves back home in Turkey.

ND: I made Across the Sea in search of inner peace and to reconcile my past with where I am now. However, Across the Sea is more than a romantic love story. In the film, we explore different kinds of love and the hardships and rewards of living a cross-cultural life. Having previously made fantasy and science-fiction shorts, directing a drama meant exploring new ground, and the idea of trying a different genre excited me as well.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ES and ND: Only a few months after we moved back to Turkey from New York, we had to commence our principal photography, which was a very tough thing to do. Although we were from Turkey, we were not familiar with the Turkish system of filmmaking and had to work with a multi-national crew with [varying] habits, so it was crucial to create the right team for the film. We had to make sure that everyone could adapt to the differences and difficulties of our set in Turkey.

Also, it was tough to convince investors and potential funders [of our project], not only because we were first-time filmmakers, but also because we are young women filmmakers. We had to work 300% more to show them that we could pull off our directorial debut successfully.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

ES and ND: We love it when a film resonates differently with different people. For us, it’s about that gray area between black and white. We wanted to make a film that has many layers to it. Some people look at the surface, while some see what’s deep down. The most important thing is that the film should somehow stay with them until the very end.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

ES: Don’t get consumed by the false idea that being a woman is a disadvantage. When you direct a film, everything should be about the story and nothing else. So you should never give up on defending this point to others, because it is true.

ND: I’ve seen women who have the urge to play “tough” and put on a more strict persona to fight back the stereotypes against women directors. I think that gets in the way of one’s artistic expression. Whatever wild animal is living inside you, let that free. Be yourself.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

ES and ND: Across the Sea had strong reactions from feminist critics in Turkey, mostly due to the nature of our spoiled protagonist and how she needs to be rescued by heroic male characters. In our society, as women filmmakers, we are expected to make films that empower women and that raise awareness about women’s issues. That is a huge misconception, in our opinion. Even though we respect these matters, we don’t want to categorize and limit ourselves to just being women. We are human; we want to talk about human issues. As filmmakers, our hearts beat with the story. Our next story can be about a strong heroine, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Directors should not be forced to advocate anything in their works because of their demographic identity.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

ES and ND: It was partly funded by the Ministry of Culture in Turkey (they had a fund for first-time filmmakers) and partly by private equity. We had in-kind donations from private companies, and a post-production company in Turkey partnered with us to provide post-production services for free. So the film is somewhere between a studio and crowd-sourced production.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

ES: There are films like Lost in Translation, The Piano, In the Cut, and Ratcatcher, which encouraged my journey to become a filmmaker during my teenage years. These films were proof that women are also well qualified to direct films on every budget level. Among more recent films, Ginger & Rosa by Sally Potter has special meaning for me because it touched on worries that existed in my own life. I was captivated by the amazing performances and mise en scene.

ND: Back when I was making animated shorts, I was inspired by Maya Deren’s films, who was mostly known for Meshes of the Afternoon. She was the one who drove me from animation to live action and gave me the idea of incorporating the magic of animation into live action. Among recent titles, my favorite is Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold. I enjoy how Mia’s character is so lovable and charming despite her aggressive and grouchy ways.

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