Turkish actor-filmmaker Onur Saylak’s feature debut as director, “Daha” (More), explores the impact of human smuggling on the life of Gaza (Hayat Van Eck), a teenage boy living in a small coastal town on the Aegean Sea. Saylak, who made his acting debut in Ozcan Alper’s critically acclaimed 2008 political drama “Autumn” (Sonbahar), spoke to Variety about his inspiration for the film, based on the novel by Hakan Gunday, and the effects of the ongoing refugee crisis, not only on Turkey, Europe and across the Atlantic, but also on the universal value of human life. “More” screens in competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, which runs June 30-July 8.
What was it about Hakan Gunday’s book that inspired you to adapt it for film?
The greatest illusion of today’s world is convincing ourselves that we know everything. For example, we think that we know so much about the immigration crisis that it is like a closed file. However, such a tragedy gains a new dimension and changes shape every passing day. The interesting side of the book “Daha” (More) is the point of view that tells the story. From this point of view, the same story might have been told in a concentration camp, because the basis of the story is the process of losing the value of human life.
In telling the story of a boy who is transformed by smuggling refugees, Gunday’s book deals with horrific subject matter. Did you have to make changes to the story to make it more suitable for cinema and also to make the main character more sympathetic?
As Hakan said about the “horrific subject matter” in the novel, “No fictional story is more horrific than the evening news.” I did not think that I needed to make a special effort to make the main character at the age of 14 be more sympathetic. What could be more sympathetic than a child? This is a character that resembles child soldiers. It is not the brutality of these children in the war that should be questioned, but rather why the Kalashnikovs are in the hands of the children in the first place.
Günday is also credited as a co-writer on the screenplay. How closely did you work with him on the film?
Writing a script together with the author of the book was a great gift for me. I think we are a team that understands and complements each other well. In working on our first feature-length project, we discussed each stage of the film.
What can “More” teach people about the refugee crisis, whose effects are not only being felt in Turkey and Europe but also in North America?
Monster populism emerges in crisis situations when democracies cannot respond to current problems. And populism can turn everything into a political tool, including people. This means that immigrants today are a political boost for Turkey and Europe, even for the U.S. It can be seen that it is a contract between two wholesaler merchants, if we look at the agreement to stop immigrants between Turkey and Europe. Human rights require individual cases, not wholesale approaches. The story of Gaza shows us how we can see these millions of people as inanimate beings. It shows how a person can destroy another person. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that today, in behaving in such a way to immigrants, in our own societies, we are also pitting ourselves against each other. And at the same time it shows how important the individual approach is to the immigrant crisis. That is, governments can set policies on the issue, but the film tells us that it is not a political decision whether or not to help a person. Nowadays, even opening the doors of our homes to people in difficult situations is unfortunately a revolutionary move.
To what extent did you come into contact with real refugees while making the film?
During shooting we encountered real immigrants and most of them were new to Turkey. Their experiences and what they shared add a lot in the sense of film realism.
How significant is the refugee smuggling business in Turkey?
When we look at Europol data, we see the existence of a wide range of industries, from terrorist organizations and the mafia to local criminal gangs and government officials. Smuggling in Turkey, which has borders with countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria, which are in constant crisis, is a fundamental enterprise, changing products only – sometimes smuggling drugs, sometimes cigarettes, sometimes people. Turkey’s east is full of war and hunger, and the west is in peace and relative prosperity. This means that it is impossible for human trafficking to grow in Turkey. Turkey is a corridor that is burning on one side and relatively serene on the other.