Hemshin Armenian Ozcan Alper was born in 1975, in the small town of Artvin in north eastern Turkey. He first studied Physics at Istanbul University, but later opted for a change and graduated with a degree in History of Science. During this time, he grew interested in filmmaking and cinema and started working in alternative cinema groups. In 1999, he started his professional career in filmmaking and worked in several films and TV series as assistant director and production staff. His first short film, Momi (Grandmother), received several awards and was the first film ever shot in the Hemshin language (an Armenian dialect spoken in the north eastern Turkey). Sonbahar (Autumn) is his first feature film, which was supported by the Turkish Cultural Ministry. He also writes film reviews in Yeni Film, a well known cinema magazine in Turkey.
Our sister publication in Canada, Horizon Weekly, conducted an interview with Alper, which we present this week:
Horizon: What is the present situation of the Turkish movie industry? Are there any recent cases where censorship has been imposed on a film released in Turkey?
Ozcan Alper: During the past 15 years, people have been talking about a new Turkish cinema movement in Turkey. I myself cannot say if this is a new wave or not, maybe we should wait a little longer and see… But, if we look at the international film festivals of the last few years, the Turkish cinema is being mentioned more and more. The directors from my generation are seen as the continuation of that “movement.” Well, we can say that there is a definite progress towards something better.
Compared to the olden days, we can’t really say that there is an open pressure or strain on the movies released. But, I think there is still some type of self-imposed censorship present. For example, there was a film made regarding Ataturk called Mustafa, written by a very famous writer. The government officials didn’t really say anything about the movie, but the general public and the public leaders started a campaign against the film and the writer, almost like a lynch campaign.
We really don’t know the limits or boarders of this pressure. For example, if one was to make a movie on the Kurdish or Armenian issues in the country, openly going against the popular beliefs and thoughts of the general public, no one knows what the repercussions will be.
H: In your second film, Sonbahar, there is the subject of the search for identity. Why was this film based on this subject?
O. A: Maybe this has to do with individual sentiment, but I think for me, it could have something to do with becoming aware of one’s own culture and language afterwards in life. Understanding your identity through your past and the land that you were born on. These aspects and the melodies of the people, the voices of the soil, of the wind, and of the sea are important for me. I also firmly believe that all these local ways of life are common for all of humanity universally.
H: What is the present situation of the Hemshin villages? Why is the new generation leaving the villages and settling in the urban areas?
O. A: Only the elderly and the children remain in the villages. The younger generations go to universities or work in the big cities. But over the summer months, almost everyone returns to their homes and the population doubles. The villagers are mostly farmers and the income that they receive from their hard work is not sufficient enough to take care of the whole family.
H: What kind of a reaction did your movie receive by the Hemshinli, the Turks and internationally.
O. A: The Hemshinli reaction was very interesting because when I was filming Momi, even the Hemshinli leaders showed trepidation and negative response. I made Sonbahar eight years later and I realized that the reaction was totally different. Having someone from their own background and culture become famous within Turkey and internationally made them proud and happy. The same people started saying that I was reviving and awakening the Hemshin culture. The young Hemshinlis especially showed a lot of interest and started studying their own dialect.
A big part of the film has to do with the Turkish Left (socialists). For that reason, they too showed a lot of interest and support. The movie premiered on Dec 19 (the day that the Turkish government imprisoned the socialists years ago). Since, more than 150,000 people have seen it, more than 40 Turkish cities had panel discussions regarding the movie and the subject matter. It was also supported by the workers’ group and government employee unions.
On an international scale, the movie was shown in about 20 countries and film festivals. Some very important international film magazines wrote articles on the movie, such as Variety in the US and Screen in Europe.
In the end, to be attending the New Directors/New Films Film Festival in New York is a huge break for us, because this film festival selects the first or second movies made by new directors. So, to be picked from thousands of other films and to be a part of the first 15 movies is a very important step.