ANTALYA, Turkey — Not long after her new movie, “Clair-Obscur,” world premiered in Toronto, an audience member asked the acclaimed Turkish helmer Yeşim Ustaoğlu how the powerful, provocative film would fare back home, at a time of growing conservatism in her country.
Sharing her concern with a packed house after a recent screening in Antalya, the director laughed and shrugged. “I’m showing it here tonight,” she said triumphantly.
Over the course of a career that saw her emerge two decades ago as part of a new wave of pioneering Turkish filmmakers, Ustaoğlu has been a pugnacious presence in local cinema, unafraid to use politically charged themes as the backdrop for her intense interpersonal dramas.
Her second, groundbreaking feature, “Journey to the Sun,” examined Turkey’s explosive Kurdish conflict through the tragic story of two friends; four years later, she explored the fate of Turkey’s Greek minority during World War I in “Waiting for the Clouds.” With her sixth feature, she uses the interwoven stories of two women from different social classes to raise questions about the limitations facing Turkish women today.
For Ustaoğlu, of course, “Clair-Obscur” isn’t simply an issue-based film. “It’s not just for women,” she insists. “It’s for everyone.” But at the story’s heart is a visceral evocation of Turkish womanhood and sexuality, told with a candor not commonly seen in local films.
The helmer might argue that’s precisely the point. Ustaoğlu has been outspoken throughout her career about what she sees as a reluctance by Turks to ask difficult questions about their society and the uglier chapters in their nation’s history. “It’s one of our traditions to try to hide everything,” she says.
Buried beneath the headlines of recent political unrest, for example, are the ghosts of the military coup in 1980, echoes of which rang out on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara this July after the army’s failed efforts to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That coup ushered in a brutally repressive decade, remembered by Ustaoğlu and other Turkish bizzers for how it sent the industry into a tailspin, with production all but collapsing throughout the ‘80s.
Ustaoğlu was among a generation – including such auteurs as Palme d’Or-winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, and Golden Bear-winner Semih Kaplanoğlu – who helped to bring it back from what she describes as “a dead period.” It wasn’t an easy road to travel. “We were completely alone,” she says. “And it was an analog period, too. It was an expensive time, difficult to get money.”
Yet to hear Ustaoğlu reminisce about that time is to imagine it, too, as her own journey to the sun. “It was also so free,” she says. “I did what I wanted.”
That freedom was due in part to a successful career as an architect, which provided the income she used to get her start as a filmmaker. Though she produced several award-winning shorts in the ‘80s, it wasn’t until the release of her second feature, “Journey to the Sun” (1999), that she broke through, premiering in Berlin to critical acclaim.
The movie’s frank depiction of Turkey’s suppression of ethnic minority Kurds, though, all but blacklisted “Journey” back home. “For three years, nobody touched [it],” she says. With local media and distributors effectively imposing a ban, Ustaoğlu and her partners literally took matters into their own hands, traveling around the country with eight prints of the film and convincing theater owners to screen it.
“Journey” was a sensation. “It was in the prisons. It was everywhere,” she says. Ustaoğlu would hear stories of audience members sneaking Super-8 cameras into theaters to record the movie. On the streets of Istanbul, a hawker’s rapturous sales pitch convinced her to buy a pirated copy herself.
As Ustaoğlu has solidified her reputation as one of the most important directors in Turkey today, her films still struggle to put a dent in the domestic box office. While her politically charged themes have certainly scared off distribs in the past, the helmer says it’s an even stronger indictment of Turkish exhibitors who refuse to give arthouse pics a chance in theaters.
Perhaps that makes B.O. success, when she finds it, even more rewarding. Her fifth feature, “Araf—Somewhere in Between,” was panned by Turkish critics and again turned down by distributors. But when it was finally released in 2012, the film – about a young woman in the countryside whose affair with a truck driver has terrible consequences – found support in unlikely places, winning over auds in small towns and conservative parts of Turkey.
Ustaoğlu admits, “The country can be surprising.”
Recently she’s been encouraged by a generation of young filmmakers who are being shaped by another tumultuous chapter in their nation’s checkered history. The stories they’re telling – about the Syrian refugees pouring into Turkey; about the ongoing crisis facing ethnic minority Kurds; about the clash between modernity and tradition in a country bending toward conservatism – are, she believes, a balm for their ailing nation.
“What helps us…is to discuss the troubles,” she says.
As for how those troubles will affect filmmakers in the years ahead, she won’t make any predictions. “For the future, I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think much about what’s going to happen, because I only believe if you want to do it, you can do it.”