Fall 2006 | ArteZine

Interview with Pelin Esmer, Director of Oyun



” Theatre never ends. We have suffered, but our children will not,” was the optimistic statement made by nine Turkish countrywomen at the end of the play “The Outcries of Women.” Their performance was a result of intense preparations, which transformed their own tragic stories into a play under the supervision of the local schoolmaster. This is the first time these women share their stories…


Q: How did THE PLAY change the daily lives of these women and their relatives? Are you still in touch with them? Are they aware of the growing success of THE PLAY?


A: It would be wrong to say that their daily routine changed much; most of them are still working in farms or on construction sites while three of them are currently managing coffee shops in a southern Turkish village. That being said, one of the women, Ummiye has started a new theater group in Mersin, the city closest to the village, and is writing and directing her own plays. The rest are still doing theatrical productions in the village with the help of Hüseyin, the principal of the elementary school in the village. Some of their husbands joined the theatre troupe as well. Although being active in theatrical productions in their village has affected their lives, the most important change has been personal growth. For example, their composure conveys more self-esteem and self-contentment. They have a better sense of themselves. Also, relatives who were initially not very supportive of their endeavors have had a change of heart. They are very proud. I tell the women (and their relatives) about all the festivals that I attend and awards received. They were also able to come to Istanbul to attend the movie’s premiere. Two of them joined me at the Human Rights Festival in San Sebastian, Spain, as well.


Q: You have said that the nine women involved in theatre in their own village would have written and produced a play regardless of whether or not you had made this documentary. “I wanted to shoot a fiction-like documentary rather than a documentary-like fiction film, without trying to be invisible but quietly integrating myself in their lives at that very village, at that very moment and with the very people experiencing this…

The language of documentary, in contrast to the language of film, requires the filmmaker to enter other people’s lives, their hopes and fears, loves and hates and then to go out and resurrect them on the screen. The challenge is engrossing and often intoxicating. While it lasts, it can take over your every waking moment.”

Did you really feel that you entered these people’s lives in Arslanköy in that sense before shooting THE PLAY? Having majored in sociology, did you observe their lives as a typical yoruk (nomad) woman and compare them to other women in southeastern Turkey?


A: I immediately went to their village to meet these women after reading in newspapers that they were trying to put on a theatrical production. I first spent 3-4 days with them in the village with the objective of meeting them, of introducing myself and seeing whether they or I would both be enthusiastic about the project of making a documentary about them preparing, writing, and producing their own play. I did not shoot much during the first trip. I used this time to get to know and understand them better. These were the only days we spent together before the shooting began. Three weeks later I went there with a small crew of three including myself to start the project exactly when they commenced with their own preparations.

Even though I studied sociology and loved it, I made this film as a filmmaker rather than as a sociologist. Of course, studying sociology helped me. But I focused more on distinct aspects of their characters and tried to tell their stories using a cinematic language. Rather than jumping to conclusions, I preferred to ask questions in order to learn more about their lives. Even though I was aware that their nomadic origins made them special particularly in terms of their need for independence and freedom, I never perceived them as representative of any group. For me they were these nine wonderful women who had found a great man helping them to tell their story. And I was dying to tell their stories.. They could be any one of us.


Q: THE PLAY your first feature documentary, has been screened at over twenty festivals worldwide. It was embraced as universal, with a cinematographic maturity by critiques and appraised as “…boisterously insightful, hilarious and socially relevant in equal measure, and the perfect antidote to today’s crop of dryly crusading, good-for-you documentaries. Not to be missed…” by New York Magazine. As a young and promising director, how do you explain this success and how do you see yourself in today’s modern Turkish cinema? What are the leading difficulties of independent filmmaking in Turkey? In the future will you focus only on documentaries, or are you planning on expanding into other areas of filmmaking as well?


A: Thank you very much. Even though at first glance one might say that this is a film about some specific women from a small Turkish village, I tried to make a film that the audience from any part of the world, man or woman, living under whatever conditions, could relate to and could foster questions about stereotypes.

At the moment I am more interested in things that don’t change, the traits that are common in every human being. I try to ask questions rather than underlying the differences and stereotypes with which we operate. I like to see differences as details of life, not something to be scared of. So, I assume that my approach to these women–by not labeling them, by trying to tell their story as a more universal one rather than as an authentic one–helped audiences relate to their own lives.

In Turkey many young directors are trying to do their first or second films, documentary or fiction under varied conditions. Some get more funding; some make their films with the help of digital technology that has really democratized the cinema medium. At the moment there is enthusiasm in the film sector, but the main difficulty is finding the necessary funding. We all try to find other ways to make our films by trying to keep the film budgets small. The Ministry of Culture provides some support as well as sponsors. For example I started this film with a very tiny budget that my co-producer and I put together, and then I gradually managed to get support from the ministry and Danone firm.

Young people try to get support from private and corporate sponsors, the government, or they seek funds from abroad. I think there is also increasing interest in independent cinema and young independent filmmakers in Turkey from Turkish producers who can help films reach an audience. I’d like to make both documentaries and fiction depending on the subject.


Q: THE PLAY won the best documentary filmmaker award at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, an event that is the heart of the American movie industry. This is indeed a great accomplishment for a young Turkish woman director. How did you think the Tribeca Film Festival and New Yorkers received the film?


A: Even though I really cannot stand to watch my film any more, having watched it thousands of times, I watched the film with the New York audience. I was curious about where and how they would react. They seemed to be into the film and reacted very openly. I really enjoyed the question and answer session after the screening. I was very happy to see that after the film finished they remembered all the characters by heart even their Turkish names.


Q: What are your short and long-term projects both as a director and as a lecturer?


A: I am working on a script of a fiction project I have had in mind for awhile. This will take some time. I am not in any hurry. In the meantime I am also developing some ideas for different documentary projects. At the moment I am not teaching at a university but I would like to continue in the near future since I enjoy sharing ideas and experiences with young students.


(Phone interview, Chile and Brazil, September 2006)


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