Interview: Yeşim Ustaoğlu
By Meredith Slifkin on 1.16.2013
Turkish director Yeşim Ustaoğlu has quietly but surely made her mark with films such as Journey to the Sun (99), Waiting for the Clouds (03), and Pandora’s Box (08), each attuned to the societally specific experiences of her characters yet viscerally relatable. Araf: Somewhere in Between, the subject of our Hot Property column in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue, is about a teenage girl living with her mother in a dead-end industrial town who begins an affair with a much older truck driver. FILM COMMENT spoke with the filmmaker last October at the New York Film Festival.
Araf: Somewhere In Between
Araf translates as “limbo” or “purgatory” in English, and throughout the film there is imagery of lava, frozen earth, roads and bridges. Could you talk about this idea of limbo?
Yes, the title, araf, means “limbo,” as you say. What is limbo for me? It is something between inferno and heaven, it is a place of suffering, waiting while suffering. Why? Because you have no idea where you will go, who is judging you, while individually you know your sins. That is what the suffering is, more than anything. You really stretch your skin off if you know and if you don’t know. You know yourself but you don’t know what happens.
I was thinking about my own meaning of the word recently when I was in Moscow. I saw this amazing exhibition by a German artist Claudia Rogge. It was about Dante’s work: inferno, purgatory, and heaven. And what she created, my understanding was the same as hers. When I was watching, it was too difficult to look at—which is what I wanted to do. That is the meaning of araf for me. And that’s why the film starts with the exploding lava: to disturb. People found different metaphors in that. It is an explosion, like a girl’s explosion or orgasm. There are many metaphors you can feel by yourself.
Could you speak about the role of female sexuality in the film, and in contemporary Turkish society more generally?
I think Turkish women are like everyone all over the world. They are women with their own feelings and desires. To keep them in the traditional way—the idea that they shouldn’t have any feelings or love—is ridiculous, and it is impossible. To have a 13- or 16-year-old girl to be the wife of a husband and never be loved is another crime. So I wanted to talk abut the real human being, how a woman is a human being like everyone else with heavy emotions. Zehra is a real person. It is not just about what happens to her, it is about what she does.
Were you influenced at all by melodrama with this film? The red truck, the white snow, desire and innocence. It seemed almost like something out of Sirk or Fassbinder.
Not really, I hadn’t thought about that. But I was watching some melodramas actually and thinking about how that can influence young people. I love Fassbinder. My intention is more to go through the characters’ psychological dynamics to tell the story. I’m very close to my characters. The story comes out of my understanding of them.
So your films come from a more personal place?
I think it’s very personal, yes. Growing up, from childhood, what is your interest, what is your drama, your obsession, your fears, the things you see and read. I read so much and still a lot. I love poetry. Writing the film, it is like writing a poem. Filmmakers like Bergman or Ozu or Antonioni or Lumet, Cassavetes and the New York school—they all have influenced me. But in the end you are on your own.
What sort of reception has Araf received in Turkey?
It was really respected by the audiences—young people and ordinary people, students. Of course the press was bad. It’s very controversial. That’s normal. I was very surprised when I was checking the [attendance] results that it did very well in small towns. So many people went who come from what we might think would be conservative areas. I was happier to see the numbers from those small towns than in Ankara or Istanbul. That was very important to me. The film is very controversial and very tough, not easy to digest. Some media don’t like to talk about that, but the audience is always different. They show their own reaction. I have the same response with all my films.
The film is very dependent upon two teenage actors. You mentioned that Neslihan Atagül, who plays Zehra, had only a little bit of acting experience, and Baris Hacihan, who plays a co-worker who is interested in her, had no experience.
Yes, he had no experience. He didn’t even know what it meant when I offered him the job. He couldn’t imagine. I found all of them when I did casting work with an agent, but I go out [looking] with my assistants everywhere. Life is on the streets, on the outside. The people are out there. I see many in the agencies but I was looking for someone like Zehra who is real. Finally I met with the actress who plays Zehra and I knew that she was the one, with her big eyes. I thought, I can work with her, and with some training she can be excellent. She has the capacity. She just won the best actor/actress prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. I came from Moscow a couple of days ago. The boy, Baris, has a lot of talent. I found him in a very small amateur theater. When I saw him, I thought, “OK, this is the boy.”
What makes this such an important time for Turkish cinema? Is there support for more female voices?
I and some other filmmakers are doing quite well, after what we started in the Nineties. We started with nothing, and the conditions didn’t change, but we learned how to make films and express ourselves. We became established film directors and opened a path for the younger generation—how to be individual and how to believe in something and to do it. This is I think the most important time for the Turkish cinema. The conditions in the industry are changing but not that much, so we have to think about making films in other countries.