Eylem Kaftan: A Quantum Leap From Documentary to Feature Film

Our world certainly needs to hear more women’s stories! We had an inspiring conversation with director Eylem Kaftan about her “quantum” leap from the documentary to the fiction, her latest film, women in cinema and of course other stories waiting deep under to be unearthed.

“There are mirror neurons in our brains that are capable of reflecting. When people tell us their stories, it makes us feel like them. Cinema or other visual arts are rare forms of cultural expression that activate our mirror neurons most.”

I guess it was the mid-1990s. We were two university students sharing the same penthouse. We were organizing film screenings at the BÜSK (Boğaziçi University Cinema Club) and publishing a cinema magazine called Image. Then you have chosen the cinema sector, like the director Emin Alper and the film producer Yamaç Okur, whose paths also crossed with ours at that cinema club. I followed another way. When did you first realize that you need to tell visual stories?
It seems to me that I haven’t chosen to tell visual stories, but visual stories have chosen me to tell them. Cinema was a flame inside me but I didn’t dare to turn it into a fire. During the year we shared the same penthouse with you, I watched a lot of movies and wrote several pages on them as a passionate cinephile, and I looked at the cinema from a more theoretical perspective. I was young and inexperienced. When I graduated from the university, a cinema master’s degree program had been launched at Bilgi University, in 1998. Selim Eyüboğlu* said: “We are opening a cinema department. Come and apply!” I received acceptance as a grantee and worked as a teaching assistant. We shot a small documentary in Barış Pirhasan’s (screenwriter and director) course as well. These were my first attempts. Then, I accidentally found myself in front of the film and video department of York University, while I was searching for Ph.D. programs in philosophy of science in Canada. I stepped in and talked to the head of the department and asked, “Would you accept me if I applied?”. They said, “It’s worth a try!” That’s how I was encouraged to take the path of cinema. When I was doing my master’s degree at York University, the 1999 earthquake occurred in Izmit Bay, Yalova and Çınarcık regions, where I passed my childhood years. “I have to turn this grief into something else,” I said to myself. It was a huge emotional impact. A whole family had been lost at the 10-story building behind our house. There were still corpses under the wrecks. Fortunately, nothing happened to our relatives, but there were a lot of deaths from our close circle. Somehow unconsciously, I took the camera in my hand and started to shoot. My first film was this earthquake documentary, which I finalized in 2002 and titled Faultlines. Later, it received awards in Canada, and that has further encouraged me.


The first documentary that brought you to international festivals was Vendetta Song (İsmi Güzide), which was a true female story. Does our world need to hear more women’s stories?
At that time, I was reading Women Who Run with the Wolves. Its author Clarissa Pinkola Estés had compiled tales and stories from several different regions. It is a beautiful book. It tells us about our mothers, grandmothers, or female ancestors, whose bones buried under the ground carry spiritual power. She describes it as “an indestructible life force”. At the time, I was struck by a story about my aunt. She had been killed years ago in Diyarbakır. The murderer had not been found. She had no photographs left behind. She did not have a civil registry. She did not even have a tombstone. The story of this woman touched me a lot. I was dreaming of the geography where she lived. I remember a photograph. Apparently, we had gathered around her grave made of stones in a cemetery up on the hill, when I was very little. I wrote a story called “The Lost Bones”. Later, I visited Diyarbakır again, applied for film funds and TV channels, and finally found the producers for shooting the story that departed from a faint photograph…

Can we say that you dug out the story begging to be told?
Exactly! Recently, I have read something that goes like this: “The dead want their stories to be told.” Actually, I don’t do anything. I become a channel or a medium for that story. I have been asked a lot lately: “What is the director’s duty?” I think, it is to mirror or reflect. I imagine what is reflected in my soul’s mirror and turn it into something. This is a kind of alchemy.


You have a wide variety of interests as a documentarist. You can “hop” from a story on football to Sufism. This is not very common. Are you curious about everything? Or do your stories have something in common? What exactly are you after?
I am a very curious person, but it is not true that I am curious about everything. Some things do not interest me at all! I am attracted to human stories more. Although football and Sufism may seem like irrelevant subjects, they all have a common spirit. While I bring that soul into existence, I also meet my own soul.

Can we briefly talk about these two documentaries? One is on popular culture and the other is on a more spiritual path. What have you learned from these stories?
The first documentary is called Passion and the Penalty (Aşk ve Ceza Sahası). It was released in Al Jazeerah World. Initially, I had intended to make a documentary about the footballer Alex de Souza, but the film’s scope expanded with the outbreak of Fenerbahçe Club’s match-fixing incidents in 2011. Then I decided to trace the whole story of Turkish football right from the beginning till 2011. I started with the “Kara Çoraplar” (Black Socks) team that formed the basis of Fenerbahçe Club. Kara Çoraplar was banned in the late 1800s during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit, and their footballers were detained! I had a lot of fun filming this project, though.

The fans must have respected you, as a female director who is interested in football...
You are right. They said, “You would be a great football journalist.” I was just reading about football. On the one hand, I was following daily magazines and newspapers to read about which football player had been transferred for how much. These are very important in football conversations! I was following the criticisms about the coaches and match comments, but I was also reading books on the universal football culture. In geographies like ours, where people do not have many hobbies and life goals, football is the source of great passion. Actually, I’ve had a glimpse of the human being behind the game. Why tens of thousands of people gather together and chase a ball with such great love? What is happening in their hearts? I was one of the few women at the Champions League match of Trabzonspor Club. I felt quite safe, though, among thousands of men. After the match, I asked an elder guy on the street: “Why are you here?” It touched me to hear him say in tears, “There is nothing else in my life other than this, is there? There is nothing else I believe in!”

When I expanded my research to Beşiktaş fans, I realized that the neighborhood culture and the brotherhood relationship was like a “school” for many, i.e. a socialization sphere where they learn how to be men, even though we criticize it. I remember scanning the image library of Yapı Kredi Cultural Center. I was impressed by black and white photographs showing elegant Beşiktaş Club fans coming to watch a game at İnönü Stadium in their suits and fedora hats!

The Void in My Soul (Ruhumdaki Boşluk), on the other hand, is a documentary that I made on Sufism in 2015. It was about the spiritual journey of three Sufis -an American, a Russian and an Israeli- coming from distinct cultures. They opened their heart to me sincerely. I followed their spiritual transformation -starting right from the breaking points in their faith to the point when they finally felt in peace and “at home”. Thanks to Lilah Segev, a young musician living in Israel, I made my first sema** ceremony in a dargah (dervish convent) in Jaffa. I stayed in Israel for a week to follow her footsteps. Once, we tried entering the Masjid al-Aqsa together, but we were not allowed in. They were not keen on letting an Israeli person in the mosque, even though she said she was a Mevlevi Sufi.

Then there was Cem Aydoğdu, a half American, half Turkish guy. He had grown up among different religions and decided to become an atheist at some point. One day in Iran, he stayed up all night and was so impressed by the sunrise that it came to him as a revelation. He described it to me as “an orchestra starting a symphony”. He murmured to himself that there should be a creator behind all this. That was when he was strengthened in faith and he told me about that moment in the gardens of Süleymaniye Mosque, at the sunrise and in tears again! I am usually after those feelings coming right from the heart that cannot be express to anyone.

How do you build this trust? It is a little difficult to get into people’s inner world and open their most intimate side to you.
I think I have natural “therapeutic” skills. It was always in me. I am a person who opens myself very quickly too. I can suddenly find myself telling something very intimate to someone I’ve just met. People rely on me for this.


You also gave lectures on cinema at Kadir Has and Bilgi Universities. What would you give your students today, if you could filter all your experiences and concentrate them in a magic pill?
If only I could give it all in a capsule… First of all, I would like to give them the pill of “passion”. It seems to me that many young people suffer from a lack of enthusiasm. I see most of them so indifferent that they almost look soulless. Of course, there are many who are not like this… When you do what you are passionate about, it does not tire you at all. Do you get tired when you are with your lover? The person you love gives you energy; he or she heals you and elevates you. I wish I could pass that feeling to my students. The rest comes anyway. First of all, you have to be a cinephile. You have to watch movies. Which directors are making what kind of stuff?

There are also some directors or writers who prefer not to look at what others do for the sake of originality, aren’t there?
I do not know if there is such a director in the world. All directors I know are proficient in the history of cinema. They respect the masters. No matter how many movies you watch or know many directors you know, you can still be original. I think this is a great way of showing respect.

It is like an inter-generational dialogue…
Sometimes I feel some of the dead closer to me than many of my friends. When I read Tarkovsky’s diaries (Time within Time: The Diaries 1970 – 1986), I had the feeling that I would not be able to have such a close connection with anyone. He explained the pain, struggle and effort, the worries and fears that only a filmmaker could understand in such a sincere manner… People should not only watch the movies, but also look at the lives of the directors. What struggles did they wage? What did they experience? Disciples of cinema should open their eyes and ears wide and observe people. It’s all about activating the mirror neurons. That’s when you empathize with others and stories begin to flow.

Mirror neurons?
There are mirror neurons in our brains that are capable of reflecting. When people tell us their stories, it makes us feel like them. Cinema or other visual arts are rare forms of cultural expression that activate our mirror neurons most.

You are talking about the intersection of psychology and cinema.
I am very interested in psychology lately. You know that I have a philosophy degree. Philosophy may be the system on which my mental world rises, but recently I have focused more on psychology. When asked about the social role of the director in an interview recently, I said: “She/he is a healer or a therapist.” We have a big identification with the characters and stories that we watch, so the catharsis we experience at the end of the story brings about healing.


Shall we talk about your latest work as well? In 2020, your first feature film The Hive (Kovan) has been released. What is it like to jump from documentaries to fiction? Is it a kind of quantum leap?
I liked the term “quantum leap!” What do you exactly mean?

I am not an expert of physics, but as far as I understand, 1 plus 1 add up to more than 2 with the maturation of the conditions at the micro-level.

You explained very well, bravo! This is exactly what happened with me, because you don’t understand what you are capable of doing, unless you do it. You always know more than what you do. When you act, you take a giant leap and gain new skills that you have never had before. Previously, I was looking at life from “the documentary” perspective.

What does The Hive tell? Is it a universal story?
It tells about the effort of people who live in the big cities to return to nature. They are well educated, considerate and have a career, but they have been overwhelmed for various reasons and said “Another life is possible!” It is absolutely a universal story, as the majority of the world’s population live in cities, where you have one or two people per square meter. Farming is increasingly abandoned; agriculture is becoming an underestimated profession. Young people, instead of being farmers like their fathers, go to work in construction sites and mines or prefer to be third-class citizens in the city. Now, we see the “reverse migration” of urban types to the countryside. The Hive focuses on what these people experience. Can they be happy in nature? Can they find what they’re looking for? I based the script of The Hive on a woman beekeeper and the Black Sea people’s encounter with bears. Today, the story has become more important than ever, because living in the city has become meaningless due to the pandemic. What is the meaning of city life, after all, if you are unable to go out to a cafe or restaurant, you feel anxiety whenever you are among the crowds or if you do everything through Zoom?

I also have a question about the actors. You know, What’s Up Mags is also published in Spanish. I guess our Latin American readers would particularly be interested in The Hive, as there are two leading names that Latin America recognizes from Turkish TV series: Meryem Uzerli and Feyyaz Duman. How did they perform, in your opinion?
I am very happy with both. They were quite harmonious together. They portrayed two lonely and lost people who returned to nature from the city to find “a nest” at each other within Artvin’s wild nature. There were also quite ironic events taking place in the background of this love story. I think they became a sweet couple. In the beginning, I didn’t think of working with famous actors. Of course, Feyyaz may not be regarded in the “celebrity” category, as an actor and friend whose cinematic taste and approach I respect a lot. He mainly acted in more artistic films that received awards. I did not know Meryem, but I loved her when we met! Initially, I was prejudiced a bit, as she was coming from the “mainstream” commercial world. When I realized how pure and sincere she is, we became good friends. I hope to do good projects with her, until the end of my life. She was very uncomplicated and positive; she never forgot her lines and devoted herself to this project a hundred percent. It was an interesting experience for them as well. Under difficult conditions, on the top of the mountains, they became part of a story, narrating the mystery and fascination of nature. It was like being at camp for a month. It calmed us down and made us feel good.


I think the film succeeded to transfer that feeling, as it returned from festivals with some awards too. It has also been on the pre-list of nominees for “Best Foreign Language Film” category of the 78th Golden Globe. What do festivals and awards mean to you?
Our films are not made with a commercial motivation and they find their true expression in world festivals. No matter how we claim that we don’t care, the awards ensure that the film is heard and honored. I love festivals, as you come across original films with a free narrative, and also with different minds! That world also has its own rules and a marketplace. There are many lobbies and networks behind the scene. Nevertheless, I learned a lot during this process. Screening the film to different audiences at each festival is the biggest award! You receive quite different reflections and questions from the audience in the cities of Mardin, Diyarbakır and Kayseri in Turkey, or Madrid, Zurich, New York and Hong Kong around the globe. As for the Golden Globe, there are almost 100 submissions from around the world; and we are on that pre-list. There are films among them that debuted at important film festivals as well. It’s been an honor for me to be on the same list with great masters and to be among about 30 female directors on the list.

Now you are working on a feature film again. How would you summarize its theme, if you were at an “elevator-pitching”. Let’s say you are looking for a fund for your film, and you got on the same elevator with an important film producer!
Our story is called “A Real Woman”. A young woman who is a film student in Canada goes on a journey to Diyarbakır to fulfill her grandmother’s last wish and look for her aunt, whom her grandmother had not seen for 30 years. But on this journey, she learns that her aunt was actually murdered long ago, that no investigation had been done for her murder and that she did not even have a tombstone. That’s the story of a young woman, breaking her shell and going on a dangerous and detective-story-like journey that would confront her with the murder suspects.

Again, a young woman inheriting the story of a female ancestor! May God speed your story, then…
Thank you, dear Özgür, for your original and free-minded questions!


To follow Eylem Kaftan’s work on Instagram: @eylemkaftan, @kovanfilmofficial
The Hive is currently broadcasted on Netflix.

* Selim Eyüboğlu currently works as a lecturer on cinema at Université Paris VIII Vincennes – Saint-Denis.

** Sema is the Sufi ceremony that the whirling dervishes perform. The ceremonies were started by Jalaluddin Rumi, the Persia-born 13th-century mystic and poet who lived in Konya, then the capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire. “Sema” means “listening” and involves devotional music and dance, performed in a trance-like state. In 2008, UNESCO confirmed the “Mevlevi Sema Ceremony” of Turkey as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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