Filmmaker Mehmet Tanrısever, the name behind previous acclaimed historical films such as “Minyeli Abdullah” and “Sürgün” (Exile), has made a comeback after a hiatus of 20 years with his new movie, “Hür Adam: Bediüzzaman Said Nursi” (known as “Free Man” in English).
The film, in which actor Mürşid Ağa Bağ stars as the 20th century Muslim scholar Said Nursi, had its theatrical release on Friday. The biopic, which runs a hefty 160 minutes, takes a cross section of Said Nursi’s story, recounting three phases in his life.
Filmmaker Tanrısever, who is also one of the three co-writers of the film’s script, is actually a businessman. He first got involved in the movie industry in 1989 when he set up the production company Feza Film, which produced his films “Minyeli Abdullah” and “Sürgün.”
“Hür Adam” had stirred controversy ahead of its release with complaints filed against the filmmakers, one after the other. But Tanrısever is confident enough about his movie to say that “Hür Adam” is one of the top five movies among period dramas shot in Turkey. “In fact,” he adds: “‘Hür Adam’ is perhaps the best one [out of the top five films in Turkey]. I look at other period pieces that have been made, and when I compare my movie with them, I would say it is the best. I know what I did, what I produced. I cannot be modest about this.”
Sunday’s Zaman spoke with Tanrısever and lead actor Bağ about the film:
You took a break from filmmaking for about 20 years. What brought you back to the industry?
Of course 20 years ago, Turkish films weren’t very popular. Not many movies were being made, and there weren’t as many movie theaters, either, but that is not why I returned to the industry. I see it as a part of a cause. I first started filmmaking because I wanted to express an idea. Then many years later I took up filmmaking again for the same reasons. I think it’s important to keep up efforts like this.
Were you detached from cinema during that period?
My industrial life was kind of hectic, but I was never detached from movies. There was always this gnawing feeling inside of me. Big companies like Yimpaş and Kombassan had ventured into the movie business and later went out of business. I always asked myself “Why can’t we be good at these things?” After seeing movies with audiences of 3 to 4 million in recent years, I started getting upset with myself, wondering why conservative people can’t make good movies. So, I liquidated my business and spent time making movies. I ended up making this movie.
So why can’t conservative people make good movies? Were you able to find an answer to this question?
A conservative party has been in power for eight years, but conservative people are not active in the movie industry. They prefer to watch what others make. Industrialists say they don’t understand anything about making movies or art. Islamic communities say it is still too early to get involved in movie making. Conservative people have money, but they don’t invest it in new ideas or art. They prefer to look after people who are in need and provide financial support to them. May God be pleased with them. The government is building roads and bridges and planting flowers in parks. That is great, but they should also make and support films that appeal to our heart and soul. Movies are an incredible educational tool. That is why I decided to embark on this endeavor with my own means. The movie “Minyeli Abdullah” turned out great. It improved people’s morale.
Why did you choose “Hür Adam” as your comeback movie?
I actually wanted to make this movie 20 years ago, but I came across some spiritual obstacles. I believed in the power of these obstacles and decided not to make the movie.
What do you mean by spiritual obstacles?
One of the screenwriters, Mehmet Uyar, saw Said Nursi in his dream. The esteemed scholar dismissed our friend, saying: “Now is not the time. Don’t you know me?” After 20 years, we decided to try again with Uyar and Ahmet Çetin. We said we would give up if we were dismissed again. Our comeback was challenging but amazing. Said Nursi began a revival of faith and the Quran. In the movie, we try to explain his journey.
Was the script written by three people?
Yes, I wrote it with Uyar and Çetin.
How long did it take to film it?
We filmed the movie in eight weeks, and the production work was complete within 14 weeks. We used 2,500 props in the film. It is the outcome of immense effort. Apart from Turkey, it will also be released in January in eight [European] countries with large Turkish populations.
Some of Said Nursi’s students are still living. Did you seek their help when writing the script? Or did you show them the film?
We showed the film to a couple of his students. One of them was Mehmet Fırıncı, who liked it a lot. We also showed it to Abdullah Yeğin, who was another student of Said Nursi. He had tears in his eyes after watching the film and told us that we did a good job. I went to America to show the film to Fethullah Gülen as well. I had dedicated the movie to him, but he did not want it so we took it out. But in general everyone liked it.
What resources did you use when writing the script?
There are close to 20 books that describe Said Nursi. Then there are works written by the scholar himself and impressions from his students. We tried to be true to the facts as much as possible. The movie flows very smoothly. It is 163 minutes along, and the narration is great.
Isn’t that long?
The movie “Çağrı” (The Message) is three hours. So are movies like “Gandhi,” “The Kingdom of Heaven” and “Titanic.” These are biographic films. How can you fit the scholar’s 80-year life into an hour-and-half-long movie?
Why is the movie named ‘Hür Adam,’ or ‘Free Man’?
The scholar has a wonderful saying that goes “I can live without bread, but I can not live without freedom.” There was also a weekly titled “Hür Adam” that was published in the 1940s. We liked the idea a lot. Being a free man means bowing to God and being grateful to no one else. This is what the scholar tries to explain. This is the way he lived. He rejected titles and statuses.
Is this a propaganda film?
I see this movie as a service. If you make movies that are more extravagant, they include both action and comedy. It was very difficult for us. Think about it, the movie begins in 1882 and ends in 1970. Ottoman costumes, republic costumes, old writings and new writings, the call to prayer, Turkish and Arabic, all of these are included in the movie. If I did not regard this movie as a cause, why would I have filmed it? The scholar is a wonderful person, he is a humanist. He is someone who was willing to burn in Hell as long as he could see that people had sound and strong faith, because he believed that even though his body burned, his heart would be like a flower garden. How can we not make a film about the life of someone like this? I believe we need to explain and show his life to our people.
Does “Hür Adam” refer to the Kurdish problem too?
Any Kurd or Turk who watches this film will see how Said Nursi acted. The scholar was always constructive. Sheikh Said proposed starting a rebellion. Said Nursi opposed. “Jihad can be carried out inside with knowledge and wisdom. How can you wage jihad against the Turkish nation, which has been serving Islam for a thousand years? It is haram [forbidden].” Those who watch the movie will see brotherhood.
How true is the scene where Said Nursi met Atatürk?
This is a biographic film, so we tried to portray his life exactly the way it was. It is known that Said Nursi met with Ataturk. Actually, they met a couple of times.
Did the conversations in the film really take place?
We provided the gist of them. There are many sources. Said Nursi fought in the East with a large regiment of 5,000 people. Ankara kept close track of him, and Atatürk asked him to support reforms and to give fatwas that are flexible on drinking alcohol and the dress code. Said Nursi told him not to interfere in the Quran. In return Atatürk says: “Hodja, I have had deep respect for you ever since your speech at Thessaloniki. Go and live freely, but don’t interfere in our reforms.”
How much attention will “Hür Adam” attract? How big an audience do you expect to attract?
God knows. I can’t make a prediction. If the public stands behind movies like this, they will be produced more. This is an obligation for everyone, not just Mehmet Tanrısever. It’s important to understand this. Politicians, businessmen and Islamic communities should understand this as well. This is about enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. You can show the good and not include the bad in your film. Our hero fought against evil with good people. We need to learn a lesson from this cautionary war. There were some movie theater owners who said they would not play the movie in their theater even if they were going to make a truckload of money from it. Cinema is America’s biggest tool for propaganda. Religious people should believe in this endeavor and support it.
Mürşid Ağa Bağ: God let me play this role
What did you think when you were offered the role?
I had been recommended to the producers, and I met with them upon recommendation. We did a test shot and the producer liked it. I also did some reading to understand Said Nursi and his lifestyle. I took part in some gatherings.
What kind of works did you read?
I looked at biographies because understanding his own writings takes much more time. I tried reading them. At first you don’t really understand much. I read his “Tarihçe-i Hayat” [History of My Life].
Other than reading, is there anything else you did to prepare for the role?
Tanrısever asked me to lose some weight, so I went on a serious diet. I lost about 18 kilograms. I was 88 kilos, going down to 69 kilos during the filming. Nursi ate very little. I had to lose weight in order to look like him physically. He also prayed until morning, so I did that too.
How do you feel about the Said Nursi role being your first lead role in a movie?
It’s a matter of fate. I did not hesitate when they made me the offer. Some artists take part in very indecent projects and no one asks them any questions. No one asks them if they think playing in an immoral movie that can have negative consequences in society will affect their future career plans, so no one should be asking me that for this role. If people who play in movies like that can say “I am a professional, I can play the role of a psycho if I have to,” then I can comfortably say I am more professional and can play a role like this.
Were you able to connect with your role?
Absolutely. You have to believe in your role to be able to play it, otherwise you won’t be able to.
The amount of visual material on Said Nursi is very limited. Was that a challenge for you?
Obviously it would have been an advantage if we had access to information about his movement, walk and tone of voice. I tried to do everything they asked me to the best of my ability. Other than that, I tried to feel the spiritual energy. I did that by seeking refuge in God. That is what Said Nursi used to do. God gave me the fortune to play this role.
You are going to be remembered as the artist who played Said Nursi. Will this bother you, or will that make you happy?
If they remember me like that, then it means I have achieved my goal. It means I have played well, and that would make me happy. I am a professional. I don’t hold back from any role. People who watch television shows I have acted in say that I can play all kinds of roles that they have liked. That makes me very happy.