Something we tend to forget when we go to the movies, especially if we are passionate about films, is that cinema enjoys one of the greatest qualities of art: its language can be universal. It is precisely this aspect that Turkish director Serhat Karaaslan is interested in exploring. A member of the Cannes Cinefondation residence, Karaaslan was born in 1984 and his shorts—”Bicycle” (2010), “Musa” (2012) and “Ice Cream” (2014)—have made the film festival circuit, screening at Toronto, Locarno, Montpellier, Sarajevo and Istanbul.
Karaaslan is a passionate storyteller and very much devoted to his home country, which plays a crucial role both as narrative tool and as cinematic background. His simple and candid scriptwriting informs tales of childhood and rurality, always balancing between the longing for new possibilities and the ironic realization that some dreams can’t be accomplished. He is currently working on his first feature, “Passed by Censor,” that has been selected for the Berlinale Talent co-production market in 2015. Indiewire met Karaaslan in occasion of the 2015 Locarno Filmmakers Academy.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was interested in doing cinema as a teenager but in the place I grew up in—which is called Varto, close to the border with Iran—it’s not
acceptable to say “I’m going to make films”; it’s not realistic. So first I studied Pharmacy, did the military service and then finally took a second degree in film directing in Istanbul. I started to make films on my own and realized I waited too long for nothing… Cinema is something you can learn by yourself.
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How did you become interested in cinema?
I grew up in a village where there was no television but I remember there was always some spectacle going on, storytelling was strongly present. I was always interested in listening to stories and re-tell them to other children. To me, the story is crucial, for other directors it isn’t. When I was in high school we started to watch some independent movies, like videotapes of Yılmaz Güney’s work. His work was forbidden because it was political. But it was very realistic for me. They are set in the Kurdish part of Turkey, where I come from: I saw my family, my territory. I was also very influenced by the Dardenne brothers. I think that they already created the cinema I want to make. Also Abbas Kiarostami and Zeki Demirkubuz (to whom I dedicated “Musa”), neorealism and the nouvelle vague, “Bicycle Thief” and so on.
You clearly reference “Bicycle Thief” in your first short, “Bicycle.” It has a neorealistic nuance and feels almost as if you had an ironic perspective on the story.
People found it humorous although I consider it a very sad story. At “Musa”‘s first screening, the viewers thought the short was a comedy. Yet when I’m writing I am not trying to be funny. I want to make realistic movies. Life is full of different feelings and that’s why I don’t want clear cut endings… as “life goes on.”
The setting is very important in your work, especially in “Bicycle” and “Ice Cream.”
Many people didn’t believe that “Bicycle” was set in Istanbul because it’s such a poor
area that not even city residents travel there. Some thought it was a documentary, perhaps for the observational style. Locations are indeed crucial to me. Scouting helps me to structure the story. For “Ice Cream,” I postponed the shooting because I couldn’t find the right place, which ended up being the lake Van, the largest in Turkey.
Your shorts show that you care about the point of view of your characters, who are often children.
The story of “Ice Cream” comes from my memories as a child, when these ice cream men would come to the village with their motor bikes. It’s a film about a boy who never gives up. He is very energetic and that’s perhaps why many people felt like the pace of the movie was much quicker than it was. The camera is always at the kid’s height and there is almost no shot without him.
How do you approach casting?
Until now I have only worked with amateur actors. For “Bicycle” it took me three months to find the right kid: one day I was going to a foster house and on the way there I ran into a bunch of children playing football. When I saw the kid who later starred in the movie, I immediately knew he was right for the part. I started to work with a professional actor in “Musa,” but he didn’t suit my idea of the film so I stopped filming and eventually worked with another non-professional actor. Also, I didn’t want to cast the young boy of “Ice Cream” because he was too naughty and agitated, but he insisted, “don’t waste your time, hire me, I will cut my leg to act in the movie.” And since the short is about a stubborn kid, I cast him. And he was perfect.
In “Musa,” the story of a bootleg DVD seller who suddenly discovers his dream to become an actor after he’s cast by an obscure art-house filmmaker—it’s clearly a bit of meta-discourse about cinema.
My idea is that most art-house directors claim to portray “real life,” the street life and common people. But if those people can’t watch their movies, if there is a great distance between you and the people you’re making the film about, then there is a big problem. To make movies that anyone can watch doesn’t mean to produce cheap and commercial works.
Watch “Bicycle” below:
This article is part of a series written by members of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.
READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Locarno Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival