Kaan Müjdeci is a Turkish screenwriter, producer and film director. Fathers & Sons, his short documentary about dogfights in central Anatolia, premiered at the Kraków Film Festival in 2012. Müjdeci expanded this inquiry into his first feature film, Sivas, which premiered at Venice where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and Dhaka where it won the FIPRESCI Prize.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Müjdeci discusses the dynamics of power between men and animals, life in central Anatolia, working with non-professional actors, and his next project.
FLMTQ: The title of your short Fathers & Sons evokes the book by Turgenev, which occupies a central role in understanding the direction that the socio-political situation in Russia was taking at the time, and as such, offered a socio-political preview of Russian society and the troubled times to come. Was this parallelism deliberate?
KAAN MÜJDECI: Of course! If it's not parallel, why use it?
Russia is a big man's world. Macho culture is very popular in Russia and in Turgenev's book we can see that— power, and the power of control, and how power has changed and in what direction is very similar to the tendencies of masculine power. I wanted to make a bridge between manhood and power. To the form of power that is applied without control, without any limits.
So Turgenev is a natural point of reference for how I envisioned power dynamics in Fathers & Sons. The generational transferability of blood between father and son is also another point of reference.
FLMTQ: Fathers & Sons focuses on dogs that are fighters, and on the relationship between fathers and certain types of sons who are aggressive yet return love to the father. How does this idea connect with the Turgenev quote included as a preface to the film: 'he looked much more excited than his son, it was as if he had lost himself a little, as if he was always afraid of something?' Why did you choose this particular quote: one that communicates a feeling of frailty, of fear, of weakness?
KM: The second part of this quote is translatable into the visual image space. I see it as kind of a translation, a mirror reflection in the film, but moreover into the power dynamics in the family. There’s a claim from the father in a family: he wants his son to be very powerful, but not more powerful than himself. He says, 'I still want to reflect my power over the power of my son.'
But an additional layer of meaning arises in the analogy of the dog. The dog obeys and is loyal; moreover, owning a dog creates a very good status for the father in the community. And you see very clearly that the most precious, the most desired, component of a power mechanism is respect. But there is also always a fear of loss in the dynamic which becomes a drive, a habit, for the father. A certain type of arousal emerges from the fear of loss. It's a very powerful libido power as well.
FLMTQ: What motivated you to make a documentary about this particular part of society? Specifically, the more isolated, rural regions of Turkey? Both Sivas and Fathers & Sons take place within these communities.
KM: I wanted to get to the simple drives, the simple instincts of man. If I were to tell this type of story in an urban space, in Manhattan for instance, there would be so much data and so many environmental components that counteract simplicity— the metro, different ethnicities, racism, the backstage and the cafes, culture. These components make it difficult to communicate a simple instinct.
So I chose the simplest way to tell the story. You have the man, and you have the animal. This part of Turkey is the simplest space, the simplest background.
FLMTQ: Do you consider dogfights and the associated power dynamics explored in these films to be a native trait of life in villages, rather than in cities?
KM: No, I actually see almost no connection. The geographical features of Turkey don't carry significance. The space enabled me to explore the man. So Turkey's geography or socio-political dynamics didn't play a role. I was there to talk about a man and an animal. Those are the components. Man and animal and power.
FLMTQ: While Jerry has a different setting than Sivas and Fathers & Sons, all three seem to tackle a common thematic preoccupation— human loneliness, or the fear of loneliness, and the need to establish a sense of rapport or companionship with another being.
And in all three films, the camera engages with the animals in a way that suggests human to human conversation. For example, the shots of the animals' eyes— close-ups of Doru, the horse, and then the same close-ups of Sivas— create a direct link between the audience and the animals' emotions. Which is the same emotion we see in the eyes of the little boy, and his way of looking at the adults' world and everything happening around him.
What made you decide to present the humans and animals as equals, and how does this relate to the theme of loneliness that pervades the three films?
KM: When I was a child, five or six years old, my uncle bought me a canary, and he told me, 'this cost 50 lira.' One canary. And I was really shocked, because I trusted the canary to choose me. And I thought that if the canary chose me then he is a guest in my house, and when my uncle told me the canary cost 50 lira, I really didn't understand. Why did he go to a shop and buy me a canary? I have always thought that animals have thoughts, and can speak. I believe these preoccupations come from that instinct I had with my canary.
FLMTQ: How did you conceive of the child protagonist in Sivas, and who is Sivas? What does the dog Sivas stand for in the film and in the life of the child?
KM: It's very difficult to say. It changes for me every time. Throughout filming, all the drafts, the editing process, it changed. Sometimes Sivas is my ego, sometimes Sivas is my girlfriend, sometimes Sivas is my mother, sometimes my father, sometimes Sivas is me, and then Aslan is my ego. It really changed in every phase. When I look at the film ten years later, perhaps I will detect another meaning. I will think 'who is Sivas?' for years. That's the important thing.
FLMTQ: One interpretation is that Sivas is a proxy for Aslan, because Aslan doesn't seem to be a child who is very much looked after, and the dog is looked after only to the point that he becomes strong so he can win. And in the moment he is not winning he isn't looked after anymore, and this happens to be the moment that Aslan rescues him. So Aslan rescuing the dog represents him doing for Sivas what others are not doing for him— we barely see Aslan with his father, his mother, or his brother. There is a teacher who seems to care about Aslan, but he also asks him to be a dwarf in the school play. The teacher doesn’t ask Aslan to be a prince.
Do you see Aslan as looking for a way to establish his sense of authority, and Sivas as a vehicle by which he can achieve that?
KM: Do you remember the conversation between Aslan and Ayse on the blue hill? And Aslan asked, 'would you ever let your dog fight?' We can change the subject: would you let your soul fight? Would you let your mother fight? Would you let your lover fight? Would you fight?
So, what Sivas actually stands for or what Sivas actually is, is hidden in that sentence on the blue hill. The audience can decide what kind of symbol or metaphor to read from that.
FLMTQ: What was it like working with non-professional actors? How did you find the boy who plays Aslan, and how did you work with him to get him into character?
How much of Aslan's character— full of energy, full of anger and frustration, and also full of desire to do well for himself— was present in the boy, and how did you evoke such a naturalistic performance from him?
KM: The real boy and Aslan are actually very different characters. Before shooting, I spent six months casting. I looked at more than a thousand kids in a 50 kilometer radius.
In the end, I held a workshop with thirty of those kids. Not an acting workshop, but role-playing, and introduction, and we played football and got to know each other. Then I chose four kids from the thirty, and we were together all the time, with their parents, and we would go eat together. In these three months I got to know a lot of things from the boys. And I chose Hasan, the blond one. The blond boy was Aslan first.
But one day I saw Hasan and Dogan (the boy who plays Aslan in the film) playing a game, and the blonde boy won every time. And I thought, ok, this is the point. He should lose every time. Hasan was blonde, he was handsome, he won every time, and he didn't really know the feeling of loss, I don’t think. Loss is the most important thing in this film. I needed that performance.
Then Dogan, the boy with the black hair, was a very bad actor. Really. Because he was really shy, and allergic to dogs, and actually very afraid of dogs. But, what he needed— in real life, he needed Ayse. He had a good motivation.
So I introduced a parallel between Ayse, Hasan and Aslan. Every time we ate together, we would talk and grow closer. It was very intimate. We learned to trust each other and then it became possible.
FLMTQ: Given his problems with them, how did you manage to get the boy playing Aslan to work with dogs? How did you develop their relationship? What kind of training was involved?
KM: Aslan is very afraid of dogs, and this dog was huge. The boy is under 20 kilos, and the dog was 35 kilos. Think about it! The dog's head is this big! And Aslan was afraid of that.
But we ate together: me, the dog and Aslan. Every morning I told Aslan, 'you must feed this dog.' And in learning to feed him, they formed a good relationship. Because the dog touched Aslan's hand when he fed him every morning. The relationship is about touch, I think. It was one month of therapy time. It was a very difficult time for us, but the dog was very calm. He was fantastic. And you know, this is a child. They play, and after one week everything is fine.
FLMTQ: Before Sivas, Aslan's relationship with a horse renders him a passive character. The horse is being sent to die, and Alsan doesn't want to accept his parents' orders to look after him; in the end, however, he obeys.
So when Sivas arrives in the story, Aslan's fate, or circumstances, change. Through the dog he can establish authority— all the children start to respect him, but most importantly, his family shows more respect to Aslan. His mother even registers this shift when Aslan refuses a bath from her: 'you are a boy Aslan, you have become no man. Are you my lion?' Lion, of course, being the king of animals.
And this is the first time we see Aslan smile. And after that, we see him in his bed which is beautiful with colorful linens, and it is the first time that Aslan actually appears to be happy in his sphere of domestic life. The rest of the film, he is always outside. Because he's always out, the audience is left to assume that perhaps there is some problem in the domestic sphere, but this moment contradicts that: Aslan sits in his bed like a cocoon, nurtured, and actually happy doing something that belongs to the realm of a child.
How do you connect the arrival of Sivas with Aslan's rehabilitation, or change of fate? Do you consider his adoption of Sivas a rite of passage?
KM: It's very cold in the villages of Anatolia. In central Anatolian villages the houses are built very small, because of the cold. And when you are a child, of course you don't like home. Not because you don't love your parents, but because in the village, being outside is amazing when you're ten years old. People in the villages are simple because they're closer to the animals. They're closer to animal feelings.
When a dog lives there, does the dog stay at home? No— the dog goes to the mountains. The dog goes everywhere. And the child in central Anatolia is very very similar to the dog. Every morning he wakes up, then he goes outside, and comes home only for sleep. For me, it's a good feeling to be close to the mother, when she washes him. That scene for me personally is when she sees the king growing, changing.
Not to mention that Aslan means 'lion.' In Turkey, every human name has a private meaning. And Aslan means lion.
FLMTQ: What was your experience shooting your first film in Turkey?
KM: It was very difficult because it was my first film, and in Anatolia, and with thirty kids, twenty dogs, and no professional actors. Of course, it was very difficult for me. And now, for example, I think 'why did I make that?!' A clever person would make this as their second film. And I am very tired all the time. The courage of a fool! I wouldn't do it today.
FLMTQ: Can you tell us a bit about your next film, and when you'll be shooting?
KM: This film is more difficult. It takes place in Japan and is called Iguana Tokyo. This time we don't have a dog, but a big iguana. And a fourteen year old girl, and a mother and father, and they play a game. And who plays very well has a big space in the room. The film is about that.
I want to start shooting in October. But the animation part starts in May. Twenty-percent is animation, and the rest is live action. The project was presented at Cannes' Cinéfondation last year.
Interview by Dr. Loreta Gandolfi
Guest Curator at Filmatique