Antalya Golden Orange Festival interview: Emin Alper

At the 59th Antalya Golden Orange Festival, Emin Alper’s Burning Days won a record 9 awards in the National Feature Film Competition, including Best Director for Alper himself (paradoxically it didn’t win Best Film, which went to Özcan Alper, Soner Alper, and Necati Akpınar’s Black Night; the full list of winners after the interview). Prior to the ceremony Cédric Succivalli sat down in a small roundtable interview with the Turkish director about homophobia as a Turkish state policy, the influence of Nuri Bilge Ceylan on Turkish cinema, the pros and cons of streaming platforms, and raki.

Q: Your film is full of symbolism and metaphors, and the strongest one symbolizes the huge chasm between those who want freedom and change, and those who want to stick with tradition. Is this such a huge gap in Turkish society at the moment?

A: It symbolizes every kind of disaster that authoritarians and populists will drag us into, whether that be war, like Putin, or an economic crisis, like Erdogan. If you look at history, it will tell you that this kind of manipulators manage to get the support of the people, and through authoritarianism and manipulating the population will lead their country to disaster. So in a way, my film is like a disaster movie.

Q: One of its themes is corruption, but it also deals with minorities, like the Roma people, and the negative attitudes towards them, sometimes devolving into naked xenophobia. Again there is this clash between the conservative corruption and the striving for democracy.

A: Totalitarian regimes also have an aversion to minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people. They manipulate the feelings of the majority by creating enemies, and these groups are easy targets to rally the majority around. It’s a tried and trusted strategy. All these elements are connected in my film, and lead to one figure: the mayor who wants to get elected, and manipulates people to see these ‘others’ as targets. I’ve always been political, I was always an activist. It continued when I moved into film, and I’ve always had projects and stories that were like that. But my country doesn’t permit non-cultural stories. Still, in Turkey you luckily don’t go to jail for shooting films, even though it is risky. But it’s hard to get financing and distribution. After this film for instance it will be hard for me to find money for my next. I don’t think I will have to go to jail though, because the oppressive system is rather arbitrary, and their targets are the more popular figures, not arthouse directors.

Q: There were two other films in the competition, Black Night and Snow and the Bear, that had similar themes. Can you talk about the general direction Turkey is going in with regards to cinema?

A: I was also surprised to see the thematical connections between our films. All these films do not tend to describe the contradiction between country life and city life, but they choose their locations as a metaphor for the country as a whole. For instance, I myself have nothing against townspeople, I come from a small town myself. But I wanted to create a microcosmos, and to illustrate the loneliness of the modern intellectual and artist, and place someone like that into this microcosmos. Turkey has many contradictions with regards to tradition, modernity, the Kurdish, the Turkish, religious minorities, and this government has big support from the conservative elements in Turkish society.

Q: Speaking of minorities, it was a bit surprising and shocking to see three films with LGBTQ elements, in a competition of ten titles no less, and to see Turkish directors use this topic, with all the risk involved in doing so.

A: In the last five years homophobia has become a state policy. Before that homophobia already existed in Turkish society, for sure, but now it is truly a state policy. And as a reaction artists have begun to make LGBTQ films. Which is very good, because it shows we want to fight. The homophobia and the homoerotic scenes were actually not part of the first draft of the screenplay, but I put them in precisely because of this state policy.

Q: The character of the journalist also is labelled as a threat because of his homosexuality.

A: I didn’t want to tell a simple story of good versus evil. The prosecutor is also not good, the journalist is also not good. You cannot be sure about the honesty and integrity of their intentions. You cannot be completely pure when you fight evil. That is why I depicted the characters like this: this is a fight between evil and less evil.

Q: The film sometimes feels like a western. How did you manage to weave your country’s policies into this framework, and did you have films that were an inspiration?

A: It was initially not my intention, but then I started to realize the similarities with American films set in the American South. That is a region that is also very conservative and full of prejudice, where the ‘others’ are black people. This has created many authoritarian mayors and sheriffs, much like the authoritarians over here. So I found that American literature and films dealt with similar stories, and I see Burning Days as almost an American film.

Q: There is also the position of the judge in your film, a very handsome woman who is also playing a game.

A: She symbolizes the bureaucrat, and bureaucrats always take the middle road: survival.

Q: Do you have hope for the future of the country?

A: This is my most optimistic film (laughs). But the fight will continue. The situation is grim, and in my previous films the protagonists were more hopeless. In this film I wanted to emphasize that we are going to fight, and the sinkholes (editor’s note: a plot point in the film) will be their downfall. The current government is losing popularity because of the economic crisis, and hopefully after the next election we can look to the future with more hope.

Q: The opening scene was reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, maybe because of the landscape. Did you want to tell us something with that? Was it an homage?

A: I just wanted to open the film with a sinkhole, and end it with a sinkhole. But of course there are many other scenes that are much harsher that Ceylan’s cinema.

Q: On the international scene you are now considered one of the spearheads of new Turkish cinema. What is your take on the younger generation of directors? Perhaps it’s not really a Turkish New Wave, but do you feel a connection?

A: I was not considering myself older than my friends, and I didn’t see myself as part of a generation until I came to this festival. Maybe we should talk to each other more (laughs). Conditions are pushing us somewhere, and maybe we should discuss those conditions more consciously amongst each other. Stylistically and thematically, especially compared to Iranian cinema or Romanian cinema, Turkish cinema is more heterogeneous. Across the ten titles in competition here you have all sorts of genres. Fifteen to twenty years ago, because of the strong influence of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, there was more homogeneity, but then suddenly it changed. In the last ten years a new generation of directors has come forward that each have their own distinct way of making films. It almost becomes a disadvantage in international films, because Turkish cinema is hard to pin down now, since we have no true ‘Turkish’ style.

Q: Politics has always been present in your films, but so have raki bars. Why is it important for you to always include at least one scene there?

A: Drinking raki is important. It takes at least three or four hours, and as you steadily get drunk all the contradictions that were kept under the surface at first start to come out. Sometimes you fight, sometimes people even kill each other, but I always think it is a nice way to create tension and bring things to the surface. So it is a very convenient place for me, and it can also be very funny. If you observe a raki table, you will fall in love with it. I really like writing those scenes.

Q: You talked earlier about the difficulties of finding financing for your films. With the arrival of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and MUBI it has become easier to get funding, but at the same time this is also detrimental for cinemas. What’s your view on this?

A: COVID changed everything. Both Netflix and MUBI came to Turkey in the last few years, and their entrance was really harsh. Some arthouse films that the audience was really looking forward to were released directly on MUBI, and Netflix has no real interest in arthouse cinema. There are some rumours of an increasing interest on their part, but we shall see. And now Disney+ has entered the picture as well. This can be a source of financing, for sure, but it will not be good for cinemas. Last year the box office numbers for arthouse films were horrible, and that was not just because of COVID. Like I said, some of the more popular titles were on MUBI. It’s a very good platform to watch arthouse, and its effect on arthouse theatres will be ambiguous, but of course they, being a smaller platform, cannot be a source of money.

Q: While watching the film I was reminded very much of Poland, also a country with a large divide between the traditional and conservative on one end, and modernity and progressiveness on the other. With the war between Russia and the Ukraine, Turkey and Poland have recently become more connected. What has the impact been on Turkish society, has it connected people against a common enemy?

A: The problem you mention of conservative versus progressive is of course very universal. Sadly the reaction of Turkish people has been disillusioning. This country has a strong tradition of anti-Americanism, so if America supports one thing there is a strong habit to support the other. Some people unfortunately ignore the human tragedy and show solidarity with Putin, just because of this anti-Americanism. It is getting better, but still half of the population is not identifying themselves with the Ukrainians.

Q: You are currently shooting a TV show for Disney+. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

A: My goal is to find financing for my films. The production company that I’m shooting for is also the company that invested in Burning Days, so I’m not directly working for Disney or getting paid by them. I’m making this show to be able to do my films. The show is centred around a woman who enters a kind of modern cult that is living on an island. We have actually just ended the shoot, and are now working on editing and post-production.

59th Antalya Golden Orange Awards

International Feature Film Competition Awards
Best International Film: The Visitor – Martín Boulocq
Special Jury Award: Valeria is Getting Married
Best Director: Bread and Salt – Damian Kocur
Best Actress: Marina Foïs – The Beasts
Best Actor: Pejman Jamshidi – Dustland

National Feature Film Competition Awards
Best Film: Black Night – Özcan Alper, Soner Alper, Necati Akpınar
Dr. Avni Tolunay Special Jury Award: Mirror Mirror – Belmin Söylemez, Haşmet Topaloğlu
Behlül Dal Best First Film Award: Snow and the Bear – Selcen Ergun, Nefes Polat
Best Director: Emin Alper – Burning Days
Cahide Sonku Award: Çiğdem Mater – Burning Days
Best Screenplay: Murat Uyurkulak, Özcan Alper – Black Night
Best Actress: Merve Dizdar – Snow and the Bear
Best Actor: Selahattin Paşalı / Burning Days AND Cem Yiğit Üzümoğlu / RSVP (Please Respond)
Best Cinematography: Christos Karamanis – Burning Days
Best Music: Stefan Will – Burning Days
Best Editing: Özcan Vardar, Eytan İpeker – Burning Days
Best Art Director: Meral Efe Yurtseven, Yunus Emre Yurtseven – Iguana Tokyo
Best Supporting Actress: Laçin Ceylan – Mirror Mirror
Best Supporting Actor: Erol Babaoğlu – Burning Days
Turkish Film Critics’ Association (Siyad) Best Film Award: Burning Days – Emin Alper
Turkish Film Directors’ Association (Film-Yön) Best Director Award: Emin Alper – Burning Days