Senem Tüzen is an up and coming Ankara-born director who has been creating compelling short films since the early 2000s. Now, having just made her first foray into feature-length films with the incredibly evocative and emotionally tense Ana Yurdu (Motherland), she has begun to accrue even more critical acclaim for her work via the Istanbul production house Zela Film that she started along with her husband.
The film centers around an urban, working-class woman who, in the wake of a divorce, quits her office job, gives up her Istanbul apartment, and comes to live in the village of her recently-deceased grandmother in order to finish a novel and realize her dreams of becoming a writer. When her conservative mother arrives unexpectedly, however, her writing stalls and her life turns bitter as both mother and daughter are forced to confront the darker corners of each other’s inner worlds.
Yabangee was lucky enough to catch up with Senem in a cafe in Taksim earlier this week. As we sit and talk, Senem’s calm yet telling face reveals an individual who is at once humble and proud of her work and its importance in an increasingly polarized political and social environment; societal aspects that, according to her, will invariably come out in any well-told story. Though well composed and almost subdued in her expressions, a distinct glint of appreciation and happiness resides in the corner of her eyes, and one can hardly blame her. Her film has pulled in a number of awards at various international film festivals over the past few months. And today brings even more reason to smile: her son, now a year old, has just taken his first steps earlier in the afternoon.
As we sit within eyeshot of Gezi Park, the symbol of the country’s recently divergence of political discourse, we discuss her latest film, creating art in modern day Turkey, romanticizing the idea of home, and why all of that matters.
Thank you for coming, Senem.
Let’s talk about the film’s reception. You’ve received a number of awards over the past few months for categories such as Best Film (Ankara FF and Tbilisi FF), FIPRESCI (Istanbul FF and Warsaw FF), Best Screenplay (Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Adana FF), Turkish Film Critics’ Best Film Award (Adana FF and Istanbul FF), Best Cinematography and Best Lead Actress in a film (International Adana Film Festival) – how does it feel to see such a positive critical reception to the film?
It can be a bit embarrassing, actually, like after getting so many awards at the Ankara Film Festival recently. It is also a very nice feeling, of course. I was born and raised in Ankara, so it was a strange feeling to pick up awards in the same theater where I used to watch films as a teenager. But it can also be uncomfortable, because a shadow of censorship is hanging over the industry. There is an old law that requires all films made in this country to have a certain government document before they can be distributed or even shown in festivals. For years, festivals didn’t bother to insist on it, so if you weren’t aiming to sell your film or go to cinemas, as a filmmaker you didn’t bother with the expense and trouble of getting the document. It is a law that had laid dormant, in a way. But in the last few years, festivals have given in to new government pressure and have selectively applied this requirement to keep certain films from being seen at all. It’s censorship by other means.
Last night in Beyoğlu, there was a special screening of the film in which only women were invited. Why did you feel it was important to have that kind of event?
This was proposed and organized by Filmmor, a women’s cooperative that supports women filmmakers. It was a good match for Motherland, because the film deals with female identities and through this mother-daughter relationship, questions what it means to be a woman. The event was a success, with a great discussion afterwards.
You have said in the past that this film is a type of “love letter” to all mothers. In your mind, what is the most difficult aspect of the mother-daughter relationship, and how did that affect how you made the film?
In my own relationship, and in other women I observe – and not only from Turkey – there is always this issue of a love-hate relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s a very uncomfortable love. It’s a very interesting topic, especially here in Turkey, where the role of women is more complex than in some Western cultures. We are in a transition between traditional and modern values. We are hanging there on an invisible bridge. And when you are hanging up there, it is almost impossible to fulfill the roles of both the old and new description of ‘woman’.
You’ve said that people romanticize their homeland, and especially those who live in Istanbul, and when someone does indeed go back home, they find that their village or hometown wasn’t what was missing inside themselves. In your eyes, why do we romanticize home in this way?
It’s a basic question of existence. Why do we always search for things we don’t have in our hands? Why are we always imagining something better somewhere? In Turkey, this becomes a longing for a ‘hometown’, because of the amount of internal immigration. With mass migration to big cities like Istanbul — some for economic reasons and some escaping war — the result is people living in cities who feel they belong elsewhere.
The cinematography of the film is quite unique. There are a number of shots in which the camera peeks out from around a corner in a home, or is placed behind a window outside an apartment. What was your intention behind filming in this way?
I wanted to invoke Halise’s (the mother’s) paranoia, that everyone in the village is observing them, gossiping about them. This is one of the conscious reasons I had. But at the same time, I don’t like writers who take the point of view of God, who act like they know everything about their characters. I wanted to show that we are apart from them, and over the course of the film, we will be getting closer and closer to these protagonists as we get to know them better. If you are writing a character, how much can you know about them? How much do you even know about yourself? I think I shot the film in this way to remind us of this distance.
Speaking of the village-folk, there seems to be a lot of social commentary in the film. The gossiping groups, the mother’s insistence that her daughter come with her to the mosque to pray for forgiveness – to what degree is the film a critique of traditional values in Turkey?
In writing this film – which took several years – I changed many things as I matured. And I noticed in this process that everything is political. Relationships exist in hierarchy, the belief systems we are living in are like water we swim in. While we observe a mother-daughter relationship, we observe society. I knew that if I made it realistic enough, it would reflect what’s going on in society, the positive and negative colors.
Do you expect, or has there been any social critique of the film? How will the film be socially received in Turkey?
On the whole, the critical response in Turkey has been very very positive, but some of the negative critiques have been quite revealing: one critic thought the film was a grave threat to conservative values, then once an audience thought the film itself was too conservative! These responses, to me, expose our prejudices as a polarized country.
We’ve talked a bit about the film focusing on mother-daughter interactions – as I understand you yourself are now a mother.
(Smiles) I am. I have a little boy. He’s a year old.
How has the process of becoming a mother changed how you see this film? Do you see your own relationship as complicated as the ones you show in the film?
What I notice is that our relationship will get more complicated as he becomes more conscious. I will explore it more and more. But I consciously wanted to shoot the film before I became a mother. I was already soft to mothers – we all are. It takes a lot of emotional effort to open that door and start criticizing our mothers. Nobody really wants to do it. To convince yourself to be honest with yourself. I thought if I become a mother, that would become more difficult. So I wanted to finish filming before that happened.
You’ve made many short films, as well as this feature length. What inspired you to get into directing?
I was confused about what I wanted to do when I was a teenager. I had a friend who was into film-making, who is now a script-writer. I was always interested in psychology and psychiatry. What happened was, when I was 15, I saw two films. One was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and the other one was Braveheart. Both of them affected me in different ways. I came across Stalker on TV without knowing which film I was watching. And I was truly fascinated by it. It was so deeply different from everything I’d seen before. Around that time I saw Braveheart. I remember leaving the cinema and thinking, “I’m going to make films about freedom, too!” (Laughs).
What comes next for you? What projects would you like to pursue?
Well, Zela Film is a very personal company for me. We also make documentaries, short films, as well as features. After producing Motherland, we are looking for new ways to make truly independent cinema. Maybe it’s impossible, but right now I’m looking over scripts that can be shot guerrilla-style, independent of any government or institutional support. The problem is, my preferred style is not so cheap. I like heavy cameras! But I’m trying to rethink things.
Let’s talk about the ending of the film. I had the pleasure of seeing the film last night, and when the credits rolled, not a single person stood up, or even said a word, for about two minutes straight. Perhaps it was surprise or shock, or a combination of feelings, but I’ve never seen that in a theater before. Why was it important for you to end the film in such a distinct way?
(Smiles) I love to hear it. It’s much better than awards. You make a film, or anything, and it’s like a secret letter from the soul to other people’s souls. And to share that is everything. To see that my letter stops people for a moment in their own stories, rushing through life, it means it touched their soul – and they understood it, but then they must work what it means to them on their own.
Ana Yurdu (Motherland) is in cinemas now—with English subtitles in Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Izmir (details: anayurdu.com)