Sarajevo: Turkish Filmmaker Semih Kaplanoğlu on the Dystopian Human Condition of ‘Grain’

Grain Semih Kaplanoglu Sarajevo
Courtesy of Kaplan Film Production

Turkish filmmaker Semih Kaplanoğlu, who won the Golden Bear in Berlin for his 2010 film “Honey,” opens the Sarajevo Film Festival with the world premiere of “Grain.” The contemplative sci-fi drama is set in an apocalyptic future in which drought, starvation, the refugee crisis, genetic modification of crops, and human arrogance have ravaged the planet.

In advance of the film’s premiere, Kaplanoğlu spoke to Variety about the film, which stars Jean-Marc Barr and Ermin Bravo.

What drove you to tell this story?

After completing “Honey,” I had the opportunity of engaging in a long journey to myriad and sundry regions and continents. One of the things I realized during this hiatus was that there is absolutely no difference between the people who live in those countries we traditionally believe to be the most developed, and those that are from the poorest and most “undeveloped.” I also grew to understand that man is – and has always been – the same: the same as in the past, as he is now, and will be in the future. I saw that merely possessing more knowledge, more technological advances, or the ability to lead more comfortable lives does not make us more of a person. Arrogance, egotism, and ambition are all the same: everywhere and in each era. While living in Mecca during a hajj interval, I saw the people who had flocked here from every corner of the world to perform the sacred rites at the Kaaba. These hundreds of thousands of pilgrims included rich and poor from every ethnic group and race. It was this experience that led me to begin to form the story of “Grain.” This huge crowd of people had all come here with the same purpose: to face their own egos and their own weaknesses, and to be reborn in a cleansed state. The story of Erol [the main character] is how he too came to face his own ego and his assumptions as to what he knew to be true. To do this he had to find someone that could lead him on this journey, one in which he would be first demolished as a person and then re-forged. All the hardships that can befall a person internally, now also befall the travelers externally: drought, hunger, wars, refugees, genetic modifications. I hold that the internal and the external are intertwined and that we cannot fix that which is happening around us until we first fix those onslaughts that are happening within us. “Grain” thus represents my attempt to convey that interconnection.

As in your past work, nature is presented here as something divine, something that connects us all. Do you see nature as being in constant threat by modern civilization?

Yes, I truly believe that there is absolutely nothing in our universe that does not carry intrinsic sacred connotations. And it is for that reason that nature in its pure form holds as much value as any other component of the universe. The more that man distances himself from his own innate nature and from nature as a whole, the more distant he also becomes from all other living creatures. Because he has lost sight of his own unique nature, he also becomes blind to the true essence of humanity itself. Thus, every harm rendered to nature constitutes a blow against humanity.

There is a lot of religious symbolism in the film. The two main characters, searching for the salvation of mankind in the desert, are like prophets. To what extent do religious texts influence you as a filmmaker?

I have a deep interest in all religions. Islam affirms that all of the prophets that lived throughout history are true prophets. The Quran devotes a great deal of space to the Prophet Moses and includes many parables about him. The journey undertaken by Erol and Cemil in “Grain” is based on a parable from the “The Cave” (al-Kahf) Sura of the Quran. Through the ages this parable has been analyzed by many Islamic theologians, but in this film I have tried to use the interpretation of this surah as delineated both by Ibn-Arabi in his work, “Fusus al-Hikam” (The Seals of Wisdom), and that based on my own understanding. I believe that the text of these sacred books are not merely stories from the past, but continue to be relevant to the lives we live. Human truths, after all, can never be regarded as something that is relegated to past times.

Jean-Marc Barr and Ermin Bravo deliver powerful performances. How did you go about casting them?

From the very start I considered Jean-Marc Barr as the essential choice for the role of Erol. He is an actor whose work I have long been following. We hit it off from our very first meeting, and this harmony continued throughout the entire film-making process. I found him to be both highly disciplined and highly intuitive, and willing to do everything possible so as to achieve the best outcomes. Not only is he a very brave actor, he has also become an extremely close and irreplaceable friend. Finding an actor for the role of Cemil, however, became a long and protracted search effort, one that took us from Turkey to the Middle East and then to Palestine. But we finally found Ermin, with whom I was acquainted from his Bosnian films. I don’t think he found this process an easy one, but I am very satisfied with the end result of our work.

The film presents a very strange world with extremely different locations and a multi-ethnic cast. How did you end up selecting Detroit for the future city?

While I was still working on the script I decided to carry out a preliminary search for the kind of city that would work as a backdrop for the future as portrayed in the film. The sacred texts that I studied wrote of a city in ruins. I couldn’t obtain permission to shoot at Chernobyl. In 2012 the city of Detroit was the first to come to mind as a city that had fallen into ruin over time and that was eventually deserted. As I drove from New York City to Detroit I saw first hand some of the abandoned automobile factories and steel mills, and industrial sites that were in utter states of ruin. What I was especially searching for was a forefront city whose architecture reflected more classic examples than those with early Modernist lines and whose background was one of a disintegrating industrial region. I carried out the same kind of preliminary search in the Ruhr region of Germany where I found old steel mills and open mines. I then shot the film in certain locations of Detroit and its surroundings and in selected areas in Bonn, Bochum, Cologne, Wuppertal, and Düsseldorf. Shooting in these many different locations transformed the work into a kind of puzzle-solving venture, one whose creation of the desired atmosphere took a full two years to attain. There are two locations that I would especially like to note as they both caused some still-lingering regret. There was one scene that I really wanted to shoot at the desert location of the Burning Man Festival as I felt it would be perfect for the pagan dance sequence. I was, however, unable to receive permission to film there and so I ended up deleting this scene from the script. And then it was due to lack of funds that I was unable to shoot the scene of activists hiding in an old steel mill in a location I had chosen in Germany, so I shot that scene at the ruins of an antique city in Turkey. But that shoot was not satisfying so I ended up cutting it out as well.

The Wall plays a very significant role in the story – to what extent does it symbolize the world in which we are currently living?

Borders, both the kinds we see and those we don’t. We humans keep creating new and unbreachable borders. We build these walls, these borders, in the name of security, even though we are not even aware that what we are actually doing is building prisons for ourselves. And then we end up tearing down these walls and then building new ones. So long as we fail to finally destroy these walls, to breaching them, we will never be able to reach the treasures we carry within ourselves. These treasures are strewn about these broken down walls.

What kinds of challenges did you face on this production?

As you can probably guess, finding the money to fund a film of this kind is no easy task. At the beginning of the project, the biggest problem we faced was one of maintaining and sustaining the integrity, the coherence, of the world of a film that is shot on three different continents and in locations of varying climates and geographical make-ups. To achieve this I had to discipline myself, both in terms of my eyes and my heart. Logistics ended up being one of our biggest concerns. The 700 costumes created by our film’s production designer, Naz Erayda (with whom I have worked on my earlier films), along with all of the accessories, weapons, and other special objects, had to be packed in scores of huge crates and then moved from Istanbul to Detroit, from Detroit to Anatolia, and from there to Cologne in Germany. We managed to do this without damaging any of the contents. And naturally enough, working with American and German crews was also difficult in terms of learning how to work harmoniously with one another and working as cohesive teams. We managed to overcome all of these problems thanks to the tremendous efforts of our producer Nadir Örperli and our partner producers. Another difficulty was involved with remaining true to the original idea for five long years and to carry it here and there and do so without twisting it into something else, and finally to transform this idea into a film. For me this process of film making became a kind of rite of worship.

This is your first film in English – was it a very different process working in a different language?

Because I wanted the film to include a variety of races and different ethnic identities, I did my best to cast individuals originating from various world geographies and cultures. Despite this, for the film to succeed it was imperative that everyone had to speak a common language. And that is why I chose to film in English. It was this that drove me to shoot in English, and not any wish to produce an international or English work. This decision was driven by the need to ensure that the world I was creating was a faithful representation of a real and existing world. The fact that English is not my native language sometimes hampered my communication with the actors, but even when I am filming in Turkish, I never stick to the script or the dialogue, but rather follow the actors’ feelings, body language, and eye communications.

What made cinematographer Giles Nuttgens ideal for this project?

I was already acquainted with Giles Nuttgens from his work on the Deepha Mehta and David Mackenzie films. Even though these films were shot in very different geographical settings and also differed in terms of genre, when we look at the work he has done thus far we realize that he is a cinematographer who creates a very fine visual unity, one that stretches from the first frame to the last. The fact that Giles has long experience in working on films in India, in Hollywood, and in Europe was also an important factor for me. During our early correspondence relating to my ideas for “Grain,” it became clear that we share very similar views about film. Having the opportunity to share with Giles both the most difficult and most rewarding memories amassed during this long journey constitutes both a great joy and a rewarding experience for me.

Did you always intend to shoot the film in black and white?

Shooting in black and white represented the best way to integrate dissimilar spaces and atmospheres, differing climates and geographies. This idea came to me as I was in the midst of my sole journey to find and finalize locations. I also chose to shoot with negative film as this is the material I have used in my prior films and the one with which I am most familiar. I am convinced that I would not have been able to achieve the same tones with digital film. I should state however that to achieve certain visual effects I also shot certain scenes with color negative film.

The Sarajevo Film Festival runs Aug. 11-18.

This interview has been edited and condensed.