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Scorning box-office success, Yeşim Ustaoğlu has collected prizes in the world’s most prestigious filmmaking circles with her films which have a strong social and artistic side. We discussed with her her latest film, ‘Pandora’s Box’.
I first heard Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s name in 1994 in connection with the film, ‘The Trace’, but she made her real debut with ‘Journey to the Sun’ in 1999. ‘Waiting for the Clouds’, shot in 2003 against the backdrop of a poetic Black Sea landscape, was followed a year later by ‘Life on their Shoulders’, a striking documentary set in the village of Topluca in Çamlihemşin. Ustaoğlu has always put people ahead of the box office in her films, capturing and depicting universal moments in her stories of Turkey, which she knows well and has observed for many years. She went on the road to find and portray the people of this country, turning her camera now on the Black Sea’s mountain villages, now on a remote corner of Southeast Anatolia, now on the poor districts of Istanbul. The geography and cultural richness of these lands has always had a prominent place in her films.
Yeşim Ustaoğlu’s ‘humanist’ camera has not only clinched her unique style, which brought a breath of fresh air to Turkish cinema, but has also gained it enormous respect in the world’s leading filmmaking circles. Ustaoğlu has walked off with a number of prizes from the world’s most prestigious film festivals, such as San Sebastian, Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto. We asked her about her latest film, Pandora’s Box, in which she tells a story of alienation based on middle class morality.
Picking up prizes in the world’s leading film festivals is nothing new for you. What to your mind is the significance of Yeşim Ustaoğlu Cinema in the world?
In the end it’s audience appreciation. But I believe that my films have captured a certain style in the cinematic sense. I can say on my own behalf that I have a concept of cinema that grapples with the suffering peculiar to humans, such as existence, identity, loneliness, entrapment, in its human dimensions. While placing importance on and dealing with almost every subject pertaining to man, I chose the path of attempting to arrive at a universal language by starting from local elements. And a series of films emerged which espouse the purpose of examining the problems common to all human beings - in Turkey, in Japan or anywhere else in the world.
You said in an interview that you wanted to reach everyone in your films. But the social and artistic aspect has always taken precedence over box office success in your films up to now. What do viewers find wrong with your films?
Every film, every work, has a specific audience. Works of art also exist through the perception of the viewer. For the average viewer in Turkey, the level of development of perception and culture is unfortunately low. In fact, we would like to appeal to the group just below the average, but this is only possible through cultural policies that need a long time to take effect. On the other hand, the demand for quality cultural content in Turkey very clearly appears to be growing. I can say that the generation of thinking and questioning young people is growing apace and, parallel with this, that alternative cinema is going to be more in demand than popular films in the period ahead.
In your latest film, Pandora’s Box, you examine universal themes through family relationships. Nevertheless we know you more for your multi-layered stories about Turkey. Are your films becoming a little more inward looking?
I think I have taken the same tack in all my films. You can be universal to the degree that the problems of the people of this country that I’ve taken up in my films are identical with the problems of other people anywhere in the world. I believe that my films embrace that mission.
Does the success of your films stem from your having captured a universal language of cinema?
Let’s leave the answer to that to the viewers, if you like.
Pandora represents the first woman on earth in mythology. Who is the Pandora in your latest film?
In fact, in the film it’s the situation of an entrapped family. Quite frankly, the Pandora’s box of mythology doesn’t overlap perfectly with the film. To put it briefly, we could describe the situation in which the three characters from a middle class family find themselves as a kind of imprisonment in a Pandora’s box. When the lid of the box is opened, we see the intolerance, the problems, the failures of communication and the existential impasses among the individual family members burst forth one by one. In fact, the reason the box is opened at all stems from the sense of spiritual loss experienced by the characters for the grandmother they are about to lose. The film essentially revolves around the main theme of the inner world of the human being, and the corruption and brutalization of his soul. Without of course losing the hope one feels for man, especially for young people and the coming generations.
We see in the film that the ruthless principles of modern urban life break up the family. But the situation doesn’t change when the same family comes together in a rural setting. Is this the fate of the nuclear family in our day?
Let’s not call it fate. Man is a creature that can determine his own fate in the end. We weave our own life knot by knot from millions of possibilities. A person might just as well prefer to distance himself from the experiences of the family in the film.
It was a kind of madness, wasn’t it, to assign the lead role to the famous French actress Tsilla Chelton despite her advanced age and her not knowing Turkish?
(Smiling) What film of mine is without some madness anyway? Tsilla is a fabulous actress and she never let me down. In one of the reviews written about the film they say that she is a perfect Black Sea woman. Maybe if we hadn’t revealed that she’s French most viewers would have assumed she was a Black Sea woman.
There’s been an explosion of interest in Turkish films recently. The new dynamism in the sector has encouraged a lot of young filmmakers. Is it possible that Turkish cinema will have a voice in the world in the years ahead?
Yes, cinema has really taken off in Turkey. If the young filmmakers that have begun to emerge in the wake of the more conventional popular films can generate new ideas and create an enduring language of cinema, then this takeoff will mean something. Only time will tell, of course. But we are seeing successful first films by a bevy of young filmmakers today. Naturally this has to be taken seriously. Only time will tell how far their enthusiasm will take them and whether or not they can make it last.
Travel, the road, going from one place to another have an important place in your films. What does the road mean to you?
For me the road always means change, transformation. Not being stagnant, not getting stuck in one place. The road is one of the things I’ve carried with me since childhood and one that has made me who I am. I grew up in Trabzon looking at a stark black sea with no light. And while I loved and was very attached to that place both in my childhood and growing up, I always asked myself this question: Am I going to stay here? Or is this road in front of me going to take me somewhere? And if so, where? I think that I can’t let go of asking that question in my films as well.
Besides being stories about Turkey, your films have also brought the geographical richness of these lands to the world. Where is the Yeşim Ustaoğlu camera going to go next?
(Smiling) That I can’t tell you yet. But you can expect a road theme again. I have a project I’ve been thinking about and that I’m working on; more I cannot reveal. Pandora’s Box is still brand new, so it makes more sense to devote my energy to it.