LOCARNO, Switzerland –– Certain crepuscular, panoramic compositions in the opening sequence of Tarik Aktas’ feature debut, “Dead Horse Nebula,” may put arthouse enthusiasts in mind of the work of his decorated countryman, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, particularly the latter’s neo-noir opus, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011). Aktas’s film, however, soon opts for a divergent path. Born in Germany but based in Istanbul, the director was trained in photography and video and made short films, experimental works, and multimedia exhibitions before making his first feature, playing in the festival’s Filmmakers of the Present program.
The film begins with a small boy inspecting the cadaver of a dead horse in a field. From there, it follows the same character as an adult through a series of scenes centered on encounters between humans and the natural world. As the film progresses in its elliptical journey, Aktas develops a philosophical rumination on the unity and transience of life.
Aktas spoke to Variety about memory, animals, and the particulars of his creative process.
How did you arrive at the image of the dead horse? How did this lead to the rest of the narrative?
The dead horse image is maybe the only one that I wrote purely from my imagination. It’s based on a completely different incident, inspired by a feeling of despair, followed by acceptance and then relief. I was drinking with friends at a bar; they were having a discussion about ecology, technology, politics and so on. They were artists, activists, academics, white collar workers, and engineers. People from different backgrounds. The conversation was going nowhere so that at a point I was carried away and found myself thinking of the dead horse. Actually, it was more like a reverie or daydream, a vivid image of a memory I actually never had.
What can you tell us about the film’s setting? How did you choose this particular village?
It’s my mothers’ family village where I spent most of the summer holidays when I was a kid. Wandering around the village, going with my grandfather to the fields to help him. It’s such a beautiful and fertile ground, it offered me everything you see in the film. It provided the texture of the film. I knew everything I needed for this film could be found in the elements that were already there. I just spent a couple of days in the car checking out the village to make sure I remembered it correctly.
The movie feels very rooted in concrete memories. To what degree is it based upon your own personal experience?
As I mentioned, the first part is not my memory, at least not as it’s seen in the film. After I had the dead horse, however, I knew how to proceed regarding the narrative structure. The rest happened very intuitively, and the writing process was very short. I interwove my own memories with those of other people I know. At this point, I’m no longer sure which of the memories belong to me, and which were told to me by others.
What is your approach to filming scenes rooted in memory?
I appreciate it very much if someone sincerely tells me a memory out of nowhere at some point during the day. And it will have a lasting effect if it involves complementary audio and visual elements, so I tried to use this as a technique when I was constructing these scenes. I think that this approach is also closely aligned with human nature. When we remember something that has a strong effect on us, we don’t just remember the incident. We remember also the elements that accompanied the incident: the sounds, the smells, a rhythm, a movement. This is the texture of the memory.
The film begins in childhood and culminates when the hero is an adult. How do the protagonist’s childhood memories affect him as an adult?
The protagonist observes the childhood incident with awe and astonishment, nothing more. Since he is just a kid, he has no grasp of what is happening. He is moved by the movements, the vehicles, and the hustle as a kid is moved at an amusement park. When he is grown up he becomes more attuned to the very core of the things that are happening. Concepts like vitality, materiality, the differences and similarities between human, animal and nature start to become tangible for him.
Animals play an important role in the film. How do you see the relationship between animals and humans?
Up to a certain point I see no difference between the two. Both sides have their own limitations caused by their respective natures. We also can include plants in this question because I feel the same way towards them too. I believe that this idea is quite clear during the forest sequence. I see the species as different states of matter, much like water can exist as liquid, solid, or gas. One of the reasons I made this film is to answer this question.
Can you tell us about how you went about working with animal performers?
It’s well known that it is very difficult to work with animals. It’s not only difficult because of the effort it requires, but also from an ethical point of view. I first interacted alone with the animals we wanted to film. I tried to communicate with them individually, much as I did with every human on the crew. This made things a bit easier. Of course not a single creature was harmed during the production of the film; but since you just can’t directly ask them if they want to participate, I tried to provide a peaceful environment for them.
You studied photography and video. How did you’re fine arts background influence your direction of the film?
I was already active producing video art and taking photos before I started studying it formally. That said, during a few courses, mostly related to contemporary cinema or modern art, I was exposed to some work that really inspired me as a young person. The first thing I learnt during this period is that freedom leads to authenticity.
There’s an understated threat of violence throughout the film. What can you tell us about this suspense?
Violence is a very different experience for someone living in a city than it is for someone who lives in a rural village. This is a topic that really deserves to be discussed in detail because it will reveal much about the respective philosophies of both sides, even if these happen to be largely unconscious. The suspense you mention is a feeling I wanted to create in order to make the film a more lively experience. Anything can happen at any time.
Is there anything that you think international audiences should understand about Turkish cinema today?
I really can’t speak for Turkish cinema. Every film should be valued on it’s own merits.
What does it mean to you for your film to be playing at Locarno?
Since I first finished the treatment, my producer Günes Sekeroglu and I had Locarno in our minds and hearts for the premiere. As you can imagine we are very happy.