In that film, which tells of the relationships between the members of a Turkish family in a small town, Özdemir played the village lunatic.
Two years later in Ceylan’s “Mayıs Sıkıntısı” (Clouds of May), Özdemir earned kudos for his portrayal of a man named Muzaffer, who returns to his native town to make a movie. In 2003’s “Uzak” (Distant), yet another critical success by Ceylan, he played the role of the photographer Mahmut. That film won the Grand Prix and also the best actor prize for Özdemir -- who shared the honor with fellow actor Mehmet Emin Toprak -- in the 2003 Cannes film festival, making Özdemir and Toprak the first Turkish actors to clinch the prestigious Palme d’Or for Best Actor. However, as the film’s director and cast members were posing for the international press on the red carpet while promoting “Uzak,” Özdemir was nowhere to be seen.
The reclusive actor never attended award ceremonies to collect his awards, he never appeared on TV, nor did he speak in any interviews. He always chose to remain “distant” from the limelight, that is, until last month -- when he presented his debut directorial effort, “Yurt” (Home), as part of the 18th Altın Koza International Film Festival. His film made its world premiere in the festival’s national feature competition, but Özdemir was still not around, trying his best to avoid media attention.
Following painstaking efforts to contact him, Özdemir consented to speak to Sunday’s Zaman about movies, his life and his reluctance to appear in the media.
Özdemir first explained why he doesn’t like to be around too much, saying: “I didn’t like the [filmmaking] circle. I’m outside the industry, I have a day job. I cooled off at one point. … Moreover, fame is not for me. I simply don’t like it.”
So how does he manage to escape the limelight? Özdemir says he finds the question absurd. “Nobody in [the Black Sea province of] Gümüşhane knows me,” he says with a quip. “Nobody knows what the Palme d’Or is. If I were to tell them, ‘Here, I made this film,’ and show it to them, their reactions after watching it would be ‘I never suffered such agony.’ This is how things are in the provinces; they don’t care about [fame].”
“One day, an acquaintance of mine came to me and told me he watched my film [‘Uzak’]. He said, ‘I’m baffled that they gave you an award for that film!’ I like the kind of sincerity in that comment. I told him: ‘I was baffled, too. They just gave it, I couldn’t turn it down’,” he recalls.
Özdemir was originally a building contractor, like his father. He once even took an interest in fishing. He says he prefers to lead a tranquil life in nature with his wife and their only child -- the couple’s cat.
‘I’m not an actor’
“I never really started [a career in] cinema, I just got involved in it,” Özdemir says.
He had an interest in films during his early years and decided to become a filmmaker during his high school years, but after trying his hand in photography for around six months during his first year in high school, he just put it aside, thinking he was not good at it. He later bought a movie camera, but it proved to be very difficult because in those years almost all moviemaking equipment had to be imported to Turkey. Özdemir came to İstanbul in the 1970s to study geological engineering at İstanbul Technical University (İTÜ), but this was in reality “my excuse to get closer with the filmmaking community,” he recalls.
In 1974, Özdemir started frequenting Yeşilçam -- the Beyoğlu street that was the heart of the Turkish movie industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s -- with the hope of finding a job on movie sets. “But I couldn’t… Then, in time, I gradually found myself surrounded by people who discussed cinema all the time,” he adds. In the meantime, he went in and out of the construction business, working together with his brother, an architect.
“I’m not an actor, not professionally,” Özdemir says. So, if he’s not an actor, how did he get the role in Ceylan’s “Kasaba”? “I used to know Nuri Bilge from our time together in a mountain climbing [club]. We used to come together from time to time and discuss cinema,” he recalls. One day, during the shooting of “Kasaba,” Özdemir dropped by the movie set to say hello, but he couldn’t leave. The film crew was looking for someone to portray the village lunatic. “I was conned into playing the role. Nuri Bilge proposed that we take a trial shot. I, Nuri and [line producer] Sadık [İncesu] each played the village lunatic. Mine was the best of the three takes. At first I refused to play the role, but I couldn’t get away, so I played it,” he recalls.
And that role he first refused to play brought him the Palme d’Or. “I wasn’t expecting to win. That’s totally chance; a bad actor can clinch a prize, and a very good actor may be snubbed. No need to exaggerate.”
“Normally no one would recognize me if it weren’t for that Palme d’Or. … After the award, I received four or five offers from foreign [directors] to act in their films but I didn’t have the courage to accept because I didn’t speak English. I rejected their offers without even reading the scripts.”
In “Yurt,” Özdemir recounts the story of an architect who returns to his hometown only to find it unrecognizable. “This film is my own story and the main character is me. I made this film as a reaction to the [government’s plans for] hydroelectric power plants. It’s totally illegal, immoral, an engineering failure. … I hope someone comes up and stops this savagery.”
And are there more films in the works? Özdemir’s answer is brief: “There are issues I’m concerned about. I might make films on them. I just cannot make a romantic movie when the world is such a mess.”