The Turkish film “Ugly Duckling” by Ender Özkahraman, screening in the main competition at Antalya, takes on a hot-button issue from an unconventional angle, says the writer-director.
He knew he had found his way into the story of life among Kurds in the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi border regions when he came across a true account of roving doctors in the communities there who were not just focused on emergency aid.
There was a steady demand for plastic surgery, Özkahraman says, and not the kind necessitated by injuries from conflicts. “A doctor was giving women surgery to improve their noses,” the writer-director recalls. “And it was not just one woman – there were many.”
The surprising demand for nose jobs in a battle-torn area where food and electricity are major issues can be explained mainly by the stresses of war, Özkahraman believes.
In a place where life and health can slip away at any moment and the notion of normalcy is a memory, he says, “Your appearance becomes very important.”
In the case of its lead character, a young woman who dreams of nose surgery while her brothers are away fighting, the goal is also a useful distraction from the fears of daily life.
“Nose jobs were quite widespread in this area,” the director says.
Özkahraman realized he would encounter resistance when people in the Kurdish community learned of his film’s plot line, which many felt was trivializing the struggle of a people who have been marginalized and branded as terrorists by the Turkish state for years.
“When I told them the story of the film – that the main character in the film, the girl, made an issue out of her looks, her beauty, and she had a brother who was a guerilla in the mountains, people in the area were not happy.”
But slowly, Özkahraman says, he began to win over the actors and communities he worked with while filming in the region. “The father in the film, Kemal Seven, is not a professional actor. He is the father of a friend. We had a very intense period of rehearsals with him and as a result he acted in the film.”
He also rounded out the cast with Kurdish performers who were not living in the conflict zone in order to achieve some ability to work reliably.
“I wanted to have a heightened sense of reality in the film. I wanted people from the region to act in the film – but soon I realized that this wouldn’t be that easy. So I carried out the same research in Istanbul as well with friends in the Turkish community.”
Other challenges were even more pressing: “There were security concerns,” he admits, about shooting in authentic locations, yet the resourceful crew was able to work despite the challenges.
“Because of the current situation in Turkey I had certain difficulties obtaining permission when I was filming in that area.”
Real-life experiences of many Kurds formed important plot elements also, says Özkahraman: the way the nose operation is arranged secretly and the forced marriage threat facing the main character’s best friend, which drives her into combat.