‘A movie without spiritual values is like useless knowledge’

‘A movie without spiritual values is like useless knowledge’

March 07, 2010, Sunday/ 11:19:00
Talented director Semih Kaplanoğlu is continuing his tradition of winning awards.
Kaplanoğlu, who has directed many national and international award-winning films, competed in the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, where he took home yet another prize.

Kaplanoğlu’s “Bal” (Honey), which is the final film in his “Trilogy of Yusuf,” which began in 2007 with “Yumurta” (Egg), followed in 2008 by “Süt” (Milk), became the first Turkish film in 46 years to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. Even though the film’s audio and visual components were not completely finished, it was chosen to compete for the main prize. The director, who has a unique way of using time, is very keen about the quality of the image and sound and the way characters are presented. He directs his films in a way in which viewers recognize a different detail each time they watch it. Yet “Bal” is waiting in line to be screened because “Recep İvedik” is still in theaters across the country. Let’s hope that one day the cinema sector gives as much attention to arthouse films as they do popular films.

In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Kaplanoğlu gives some insights into his films, focusing on his award-winning “Bal.”

Let’s begin with a classic question. Were you expecting to win?

A person never feels like he can “win the big prize.” Of course, you always hope that you do, but you don’t know if you will until the very last moment. You are very happy, but in the end you don’t take the award, you’re given it. It’s a relative thing, and it depends on the jury. It shouldn’t be perceived as having “made big achievements.” We will look into new films. Everyone, including those in Turkey, Turks in Germany and Muslim journalists, all were very happy. People would turn me around and kiss me. It was like we were celebrating a national game. It makes a person think about how hungry one is for success. By the way, we also received the Ecumenical Jury Prize. Usually the jury gives this award to a film that is related to Christianity or that shows actions that elevate a person’s sense of spirituality. But they chose our film out of 20 other films. They said they liked the spiritual elements in the movie. They were especially affected by the scene in “Bal” where women gathered at someone’s house on Miraç Kandili [Night of the Journey] and recited a poem on the Prophet’s ascent. This is important in showing that what we aspire to do is not limited to just Turkey but is open to anyone who believes.

When you were accepting your award, you called on authorities not to build a hydroelectric power plant in Çamlihemşin, which is where you filmed “Bal.” What is behind this sensitivity?

When I was searching for a place to shoot the film, I travelled to many places in the eastern Black Sea region. During this quest, I saw that several streams had been drained because of the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in Artvin’s Borçka area and that the forest had been severely damaged as a result of cutting down trees to build a road. I heard that there were plans to do the same near the Fırtına Stream in the Çamlıhemşin area. That area has some of the most unique plants and fish, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But these die when power plants are constructed. Are hydroelectric power plants really necessary? No. To the contrary, they contribute little. Those places need to be protected. People need to be encouraged to visit those places without polluting it. That’s what I wanted to draw attention to it.  

Let’s turn to your films. Why’d you choose to make a trilogy?

“Süt” was initially “Aydınlık Gün” (Bright Day), and it had a different structure. It was about the story of an 18-year-old poet. Then I wondered what this young person would be like at the age of 40, and I wondered what his childhood would be like. I thought about what kind of a person he could be. These are questions I always ask myself when writing a character. Then I thought, “Why don’t I turn it into three different movies?” It seemed smart to begin with his most serious and energetic age. All three scripts were for the most part finished before we started filming. That’s why we were able to film all three stories within four years. If we filmed one story and then wrote the next, it would have taken us much longer.

There are examples in the cinema world of reverse storytelling. The first one that comes to mind is “Star Wars.” Doesn’t that make it harder to tell the story backwards?

What you are mentioning is chronology. Why should our concept of time be linear or backwards? Why do we need a limit? A person does not completely lose his youth and childhood when he turns 40. They continue to exist within him. Moreover, the essence of a person does not change. When you begin with the end and move backwards you are able to see this essence more clearly. That is because the future is filled with promises for a child. But for a mature person, the past is like having acquired wealth. It is for this reason that while the shift back and forth between the future and the past and other connections are made through the character, reading it backwards will have a stronger impact. Besides, the trilogy is finished. Viewers can watch it from the end to the beginning or the other way around. There are many ways to watch it.

The concept of time is used differently in your films.

All our actions take place in the present. It takes us one minute to walk a distance of 100 meters, but it doesn’t even take 10 seconds in the film. This actually disconnects us from real time. Time is the main element and unit of a movie. We measure films with time. It’s like gravity. If a person loses his sense of time, he will go insane. He cannot continue on with his daily activities. Time is a very important concept in our culture as well. For example, there are five time periods in the day. Time plays a role in the development of our own plans and in our own life experiences. It is for this reason that a filmmaker who does not contemplate the concept of time is acting irresponsibly about a critical issue. It means that there is something wrong in his relationship with what he is doing because the things time points to in a film and the way it is used requires a sense of responsibility. We need to step outside the human perception that American cinema and the modern age has imposed on us. In this respect, art needs to shake those things that have become common and fixed. Time has deeper meanings for me beyond aesthetics and the concept of realism.

In your films, the characters are in conflict with themselves. Is it because of the ego, which is inside of us and works 24/7, that you focus on choices and an informal questioning of these choices?

I think a person’s biggest struggle is with his ego. The main starting point is the predicament a person finds himself in as a result of that struggle. If you look at the world from the perspective of your ego, you will only see problems, confusion and misperceptions that stem from your ego and individuality. Actually we are all witnesses and guests in this world. It is for this reason that our life experiences are not all that different. So we shouldn’t turn characters in a film into heroes because characters that are turned into heroes are seen as utopian. While watching the film we identify with him, and we feel as though we accomplished what he accomplished in the film. When the film ends it ends for us as well. Instead, a film should make a viewer contemplate and question, and after watching the film the viewer should compare his life to the life of that character. I think one of the ways to do that is to reflect a sense of time that is perceived as being real time, to not screen movements or make them faster and to reflect the relationship that stems from internal conflict with the concept of time.

We recognize new details every time we watch “Süt” and “Yumurta.” This shows that the script was cleverly written.

This is related to the script, the way we worked with actors during the filming process, the location, what we focused on during the shooting and how we connected one scene to the next. For some directors the script and storyline is very important. For other it’s the visual effects, and for some others it is the character. I think that one should not take away from the other. They should be in harmony with each other. I think all elements need to blend very well in a movie. I try to get viewers involved in a spiritual state in the film. I try to get them to contemplate. This is what happened in “Bal.” It occurred occasionally in “Süt.” I try to be careful about not ruining the mood in the film by emphasizing certain elements. That is why I do not use music in the film -- because I know music is generally used to manipulate emotions. But the props and images can give the same effect. I try not to make any concessions to the main elements. After all, in normal life music doesn’t start to play when I’m walking down the street.

In your shots, the presence of the camera is not felt, and your characters and places seem real to the audience.

Nothing in a film is coincidental. Turn on the camera, put it somewhere and expect players to act as if the camera is not there -- this is not possible. There, everything is under control, with preparations and practice beforehand.

You say: “I don’t select my players according to my characters, but shape my players according to my characters.” Accordingly, you have to play with and change your script even after it is finished, don’t you?

Actually, people are not radically different from each other. There are only certain nuances. In “Yumurta,” Saadet Aksoy’s character was a girl living in the country. I thought to myself, “How can I make a country girl out of a girl from İstanbul?” Because of this, we discussed this with her for many hours. I didn’t tell her to go to the country to see how the people there behave and try to emulate them. Nijat İşler, too, completely surrendered himself to me. What I do is to find certain parallels between a player and his/her character. Then, the rest occurs automatically. In this way, the player does not feel forced to mimic or act like someone. What you intend to get from a player is already there inside him/her. For instance, in “Bal,” the father of Yusuf is lost in the woods and does not come back. Bora, who appears as Yusuf, is seven years old, and before I decided on him, I wanted to learn about his relationship with his father. He said to me: “One day, my father had a heart attack. They took him to the hospital. And they did not allow us to see him for three days.” And I asked, “What did you feel?” He told me how he was afraid of the possibility of not seeing his father again and how he was confronted with the notion of death and how he could not sleep at night. As I was shooting those scenes, I told Bora, “Image yourself in front of the hospital where your father was hospitalized or think about how you felt when you first heard the news of your father’s illness.”

But professional actors do not work like this. “I went to a prison and observed life there” or “I lived somewhere for several months,” they say, in explaining how they performed their roles.

To me, this does not make sense. To observe workers and then play the role of a worker does not touch on the sense of reality. I believe that everything is there inside a man. Fear is fear and love is love. Emotions do not change in the end. Therefore, I do not make any distinction between amateur or professional actors.

Bora, who played Yusuf in “Bal,” is a small child and has never acted. How did you discover him?

We worked with many children for “Bal.” We took their photos and interviewed them. Since I wanted to tell the story of a father and a son, the most important reason behind choosing Bora was his relationship with his father. His father, Raşit, takes Bora with him as he goes to houses to repair refrigerators. He has learned the names of all the tools in his father’s toolkit. They make a good pair. In “Bal,” Yakup and Yusuf go to collect honey together, and they walk together in the wilderness and chat. That’s the references of the father-son relationship between Erdal Beşikçioğlu and Bora Altaş that came out in connection to the relationship between Bora and Raşit. If you want to get better results from an actor, s/he should be able to add parts of his/her life to the character s/he plays. I think the spirit of the actor is very important. This is the very reason I refrain from sharing most of the script with my actors. I just tell them what they will play on the stage. They only see the film in its entirety when they watch it in the movie theaters.

Obviously, the titles you give your films are not coincidental. “Yumurta” symbolizes a 40-year-old man breaking his shell. “Süt” refers to the young taking the shape of whatever shell one is in, while “Bal” indicates a more viscous and sweeter nature attributable to the weakness of childhood, don’t you think?

More or less. In my opinion, there are feelings associated with the future. There is a living creature inside that will emerge when the shell is broken. What connects a mother and a son physically is milk, and when the breastfeeding of the child is stopped, that physical bond is broken as well. Metaphors are abundant in “Süt,” as Yusuf’s family is operating a dairy. The future is uncertain in that many diverse products can be produced from milk. There is also purity and cleanliness. As for “Honey,” I tend to associate it with our pristine and beautiful nature that we bring with us when we are born to this world. Moreover, there is a breakfast scene in all films, which I’ve noticed as well. Since breakfast represents a family gathering after which the day starts, it is very likely that I tended to choose names from breakfast.

The name of the main character is Yusuf (Joseph) and the breaking of the egg’s shell is analogous to being saved from the well. There is a plethora of Sufi concepts or elements in your films.

This alone could be the subject matter for another entire interview. I believe that cinema has spiritual aspects and that a movie lacking in spirituality is like useless knowledge. For this reason, I first try to open up my films to the spiritual domain. However, the classical narrative or Sufi elements in a film should be felt spiritually, not mentally. Otherwise, that film will be a didactic one. I ponder this question, and I try to create such a language.

What do you think about the relationship between dreams and films? Yusuf lives in a dream world, particularly in “Süt.”

I have developed a concept I call spiritual realism. A sphere that is oriented only with respect to dreams or spirituality may no longer accommodate the sense of realities. It may develop into a fantasy, completely failing to touch human beings. Therefore, it must have some connection to reality. In my opinion, cinema should pave the way to intermingle reality with spirituality and help the audience feel that this world does not consist merely of what is visible. Another thing I want to underline is that a film should be able to help people feel that they do not live in this world only with their own will or existence, but within a universal will or existence. We see dreams, but we do not live them. If we call dreams films produced by individuals, then we can even say that “Bal” tells us that the entire trilogy may be a dream. The end should be decided by the audience. In this way they can be made more active participants.

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