It’s easy for countries outside of the West to end up cinematically typecast around a couple of directors, if not a single one. With Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has embodied how the country’s cinematic landscape has been perceived abroad, with recent films Ivy (dir. Tolga Karaçelik), Mustang (dir: Deniz Gamze Ergüven), Cold of Kalandar (dir: Mustafa Kara), and Ember (dir. Zeki Demirkubuz) broadening things up as they’ve screened in international festivals. While the majority of these films have their strengths – some in abundance (read: Mustang, watch: Mustang) – there’s a clear narrative-driven element to them; it’s something that positions Gürcan Keltek’s debut feature Meteors (Meteorla) as a refreshing change. In some parts, the work is a landscape film like Keltek’s 2015 short, Colony. At other times, it’s an implicitly political piece – focused on highlighting the Kurdish minorities in the country’s east. It’s a short, rewarding work, with a visual palette affirming Keltek as one of Turkey’s most captivating up-and-coming experimental filmmakers.
We caught up with Keltek at Locarno Film Festival to talk about working on the film in a zone of conflict, how he views his work, and whether or not he hopes to be able to screen it in the country it depicts.
This is your first debut feature but it’s not your first film, correct?
Was it 2015 when you made Colony? About the missing persons unit in Cyprus. Now, with Meteors? Is that the English title? Meteors?
It’s Meteors, it’s the English title, yes. The previous one was about missing people.
Actually, it was about the landscape in Cyprus, because everything we show in the film is part of the landscape there. There was unmarked graves. I always saw it as a landscape film instead of missing people because I was always afraid of the word ‘trauma’. It gets used a lot and personally, I always thought that it doesn’t reflect the aspect of the things that happened in the last few decades.
Yeah, I think that’s true. It is a lot more than that. I feel like there’s always a few words that get thrown around way too much in film criticism – and I’m as guilty as anyone on that count.
Yeah, sure, sure. There are too. In film criticism and also among filmmakers too. I put the trauma word in the synopsis but I’m not sure if it’s reflecting the whole thing.
Yeah, I feel like you’re a very visual filmmaker. I think that’s a really big part of both of the works. I’m curious as to how you think about framing these landscapes that intersect quite a lot with the sociopolitical sphere, while maintaining these more substantial elements. In Meteors, you express that in such a visually interesting way and I’m wondering if you always intended to make the film like that or if it developed in that way?
I believe that the process of making it to bring that… when you talk about… for example, curfew, we cannot name one city. It’s about the region, which is made by many cities and towns and villages. It’s the region of the film. The southeast in Turkey.
I always believed that when you do a film about that, you shouldn’t step into content politics. So when you go there and if you go look long enough, you can see there’s this strange thing about the landscape and visual aspect of the cities. Which, I decided to go that approach because I didn’t want to make a political statement about the current issues. Let’s say when someone saw it from South America, I want them to find something to relate to with the characters, with the landscape or the country. That’s why the beginning I decided to go that approach because the visual elements you mentioned, it helps you a lot with narrative itself, I believe. This is how you reflect on humanitarian issues too. You don’t have to get closer to people all the time. You can just look at the city or landscape or architecture or general atmosphere of part of this.
Or farmed fields. We also used other people’s images. When you look at them, there’s just something sometimes people are shooting, including myself. Something very banal and ordinary. Then you find that something really magical happens. I thought it’s cinema… that’s why it’s visual a lot because we made this movie with very… it was really urgent. There was an immediacy to it. We had to do things very quickly, that’s why we decided to collect other people’s images.
There was a really short period of time that we could spend in the region. Then, there was a curfew again. It was all closed to filmmakers and media and everybody. That visual aspect… we had to do it that way, actually, and it helps a lot in a narrative.
Yeah, it’s interesting thinking about how you had to capture that in a short period of time. Beyond that, how you initially decided to go to the region to focus on that… What was it initially: you wanted to make a film in that region about that, or you were there and it happened, or you wanted to work with the landscape in that region?
I already know the region. I visited there many times. When I was assistant director and I was working on different projects, so I already knew the area. The first time we visited, we couldn’t get in.
Oh, that’s good.
Then the first time we visited the area or the region, we couldn’t get in. Then the idea of asking other people for some images and we started watching to see what was going on.
Then we started following every week about what’s going on and then we put some kind of fictional elements to it. We decided to shoot them and recollect all of them so it’s kind of a collage approach. Collage?
Collage approach to it. I know the region very well so my main actress Ebru Ojen, who you see in the film, the protagonist. She’s from that region, she also knows it very well. She’s spent years over there. It helps her a lot. The idea comes from when we start, we wanted to do a really feminine film, because it’s a really male dominated area. I wanted to see women and children, not the men a lot.
When you talk with the guys they always had this male dominance. But the woman characters and the woman is really powerful there. They’re in the centre of it, politically or personally.
When I start a project, I want to be open as much as I can because when the elements start to effect the film, you should let it go. Humans end up battling the wrong or incorrect way. You should open all of these elements to effect how the film is going to be. I wanted to make a dark film, of course, I want to make a really atmospheric film but these elements you mention… they will all bring themselves actually at some point.
It was interesting watching because I’ve seen a lot of images from the region before without ever having seen it in such detail from so many different objective views collecting all of that different footage. Is it the statue of Nemrut?
With the head? I’ve seen that image so many times but seeing how that all kind of…
The thing about the Nemrut image is that it’s in the northern border of the Kurdish district, it’s Adiyaman. I visited there when I was younger a lot and I know these Gods… it’s dating back to pagan times.
Maybe we don’t have these kind of religious beliefs anymore but I felt that there was this curfew and human cruelty was going on over there. I really like the idea that gods started to throw stones at people to stop things. Nemrut of the Gods, the statue it was actually… the severed head over there… I really like the psychedelic tone to it. There’s this real spiritual aspect of that mountain and it belongs to the Kurdish psyche and even some of the words come from those times.
I felt that this spirit at the end we should go to Nemrut and see the Gods. So many elders and people in the community were taught that this stone was sent by Gods to start the war. I really like this idea even though I don’t believe it.
Yeah, I think it–
In a filming universe I believe it works.
I think as well, even if it’s not something that you personally believe in as a statue it still has all of the history and experiences attached to it. It carries this gravity even just the image of it being in the film.
For example there’s this statue over there and there’s this really small detail that’s showing the times of the lunar circle and the film starts when it actually tells the process of the lunar circle. When I saw that in Nemrut I said, “Okay, this is the …” Everything fits together very well.
With Nemrut there’s a spiritual side to it, which I really, really like. I believe it works because when people stop talking to each other, I think the old place and the whole spiritual forces will intervene. I was talking with Lorenzo and I told him too, “I’m at your mercy. I don’t believe these kind of supernatural things.”
In a filming universe, it worked.
I feel like overall the whole film feels very cohesive and comes together in quite an incredible way. I feel it’s a very concise but powerful piece that manages to unite all these different pieces of found footage… like art footage you collect today. I’m curious as to how that editing process, how you thought about bringing it all together and arranging it so the film would flow in the way it goes.
Yeah. We’d start and then we stopped and then we’d start and then we stopped. Then we decided to shoot some sequences with the actress and then we start recording some noises. At the same time, which was the most important part I think, there were these interviews, which are not made by me but by colleagues of us, they’ve done it. We start collecting those images too, first of all to understand what’s going on.
I believe in the community of filmmaking, half of the job – I don’t call it a documentary film, by the way – but if you’re working in that ethic, it’s paramount that you should be in the right place and the right time with your camera. It’s half of the film, actually. We are seeing some films and they are just there with their camera and nothing else is going on. This is the most important part. Then we start to watch stock footage and other people’s images and collect them all up together.
It was a shooting and editing goal… it went together, actually. We didn’t shoot and collect all those images and then run through everything. It was all going together.
It was expensive. There was too much energy… but it worked.
Talking about how expensive it is… I spoke to a Turkish producer two years ago and she was talking about how there was a lot of public funding. She produced a lot of Ceylan’s films–
Yes. I spoke to her in Brisbane, in Australia.
She was really helpful with this film.
Right, she helped?
She helped with the idea basically. She was just watching it and she gave her input.
She seems like a influential figure in Turkish cinema.
Yeah, she is. I like her a lot.
She mentioned then that there was a lot of funding going into Turkish cinema now. I was wondering if that is still the case or whether it was difficult to get the film–
It’s getting difficult. It’s obvious it’s getting difficult. Especially with this kind of film. Not that it has a political side of it, it’s just too experimental for them. They cannot imagine how it’s going to look. Maybe right now it could get easier for me because I have Colony and Meteors that I could show them. The kind of approach I will go this way or that way or opposite way but at that time, when I was doing Colony, I had state funding. With this one I didn’t because I just wanted to do with my friends alone. I didn’t want to prepare the paperwork. I just had this little amount of money and I go with that. It’s getting difficult but it’s getting difficult with other countries too, I believe.
Yeah. I remember comparing with Zeynep and even in comparison I feel Australia will have less funding and it will be less easy to make films in Australia these days.
Yes, and I always tell my colleagues and filmmakers in Turkey or some other country, we have to find other ways to do or finalise projects. Going to the government… if they gave you money, that’s great but if they don’t… let’s say there was this other jury and they don’t give you any money but it always changes. You never know if you’re going to have money with your next project.
My approach is to change this approach… just call your mates and finish the film off or… prepare your stuff economically and if you do these kind of risky projects… I didn’t cost to do any government money, actually. I believed that they won’t get it and I can’t blame them if they don’t get it because it’s such a different kind of narrative to it. It’s very fragmented, you know.
I feel like even the biggest names in Turkish cinema that are considered art house in some capacity, like Ceylan, there’s still a big narrative structure. I feel it would be a lot easier to be a filmmaker like him and show it to…
Sure. He had hard times too, I believe. I don’t know with him personally, but I’m sure he had hard times too in the beginning. When you have projects like, three or four projects you could prove yourself and then the funding can get easier and easier. I believe it will be harder for filmmakers in a few years because some of the film screens from our favourite festivals, they don’t have no commercial start side to it. They have no chance with this. Maybe we should change the idea of our habits to screening or distributing or funding the films.
It’s not the case of money. It’s also the case of freedom, I guess. Let’s say you had a project and you cannot describe it on paper but you know how it is going to look very well. If we all find new approaches to filmmaking, it will get more free and this is what I believe.
Sometimes we are stuck with the idea of money a lot. That makes us a bit more professional. Sometimes I have the feeling we talk about money a lot. We had this HD camera in our hands and we could do… I’m not a pessimist about funding in my country or any other countries. Maybe this is a good thing. Getting less and less funding. If you want to make a film, you will do it in the end.
It was definitely something I was talking about with a friend the other day who does a lot of work in music. I was kind of comparing how a musician these days would do a lot in their own bedroom.
They can do it all so cheaply. Even in arthouse or experimental film festivals there’s so much networking that has to go into building a film. It becomes such a… Even the most independent-looking films, when the credits come there are still twenty names–
Exactly. Music is a great example of that. Sometimes you are listening to this musician and you find out, “Oh my God, he or she just made it in her bedroom.” It’s great. It brings you freedom. You don’t have to pay all of these costs. Maybe the art itself became overly expensive, I believe. I always gave my colleagues the example of Iran. They have this funding problem. They had this really limited amount… They had really beautiful films in terms of film language and narrative. This proves that we shouldn’t start with the idea of, “Okay, I’m going to this country, I need government funding and…”
This is bullshit.
Yeah, there’s always going to be, I guess.
It’s always going to be there.
In terms of this film screening in Turkey, when I was watching it I wondered if this film was going to be able to screen in Turkey, just because of the political situation. I noticed it is still playing at the Istanbul Film Festival.
I will try my chance like any other filmmaker, I guess. It’s the best way to push. It’s not easy to explain I guess but I definitely want to show it in Turkey and any other country. It’s important for me to reach an audience. I will try my chance with the Istanbul Film Festival, too. I want to believe that every film should get screened in their net of countries. It’s a great chance that it will be premiered here first. It will have, of course, a lot with the next screening schedules but I will definitely try my best…. maybe next year?
They liked it but we don’t know. I have no control over it. If we could screen it that’s great. If we can’t, okay then. We will try other places.
Yeah, I wish you the best of luck with it all–
Thank you, thank you.
I think it’s quite a special film.
Thank you very much.