Just moments into the opening sequence of Azra Deniz Okyay’s kinetic drama “Ghosts,” a voice crackles over a radio news bulletin, declaring: “Istanbul has turned into a war zone.” It’s a fittingly turbulent introduction to the writer-director’s feature debut, which charted a rough course to completion en route to winning the Grand Prize at Venice’s Critics’ Week this year.
Okyay began writing the script five years ago, struggling to raise financing until a breakthrough last year, when she met producer Dilek Aydın and scraped together the funds to start production. “We got like $70,000. It was nothing,” Okyay told Variety, with a laugh. “We decided to make it in a guerrilla way, a real punk way.”
“Ghosts” is set across a single day during a nationwide power surge, and follows four characters from different walks of life caught up in a web of drug trafficking in the ghettos of Istanbul. The film is produced by Aydın’s Heimatlos Films and co-produced by Marie-Pierre Macia and Claire Gadéa of MPM Film. MPM Premium is handling world sales.
Okyay said she was determined to make “Ghosts” as a testament to what she describes as “Istanbul’s lost generation,” and its resilience in the face of economic, cultural, and political uncertainty. “We made the film in 17 days with 30 different [locations],” she said. “It was a real hardcore movie to make.”
Variety spoke to Okyay ahead of the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which runs online Nov. 5-15, where “Ghosts” will screen in competition.
Five years ago, you started writing “Ghosts” as the story of four characters from different parts of Istanbul that would look at some of the challenges facing your generation. How did that story and those characters evolve, as Turkey changed as a country, and as you changed as a writer and filmmaker?
I began to see the big changes after 2010, because in 2010, Istanbul was really about art. Young people were opening galleries. People were really trying to come here as creators. It was like a new Berlin. And then, suddenly, these little places began to close. The city was changing a lot and we couldn’t find a way to survive—as an artist, as a young person, as a human. After [Turkey’s presidential elections in] 2014, things were really changing with the political situation. And also about ideology and democracy. I began to write, and I was seeing that what I was doing – in art and writing – was feeling like Jack Kerouac, of the Beat generation. I began to feel it was normal to write like that, being hyperactive, just trying to get my words on paper, and just saying, “We are trying to survive. We are disappearing. What are we? Are we ghosts?” So I began to write about that.
“Ghosts” was partly inspired by young women you met in the ghettos of Istanbul. Can you talk about how you got involved with them, and what role they played in your approach to this film?
In 2008, Sulukule was the oldest ghetto of Europe, and it was destroyed by the Turkish government. It was like 500 years old, and it was a really important cultural habitat. My father was an architect on the team that was trying to keep it safe, and it was destroyed. It was a really big emotional problem for us. We could see all [over] the country what was going on, a kind of collapse. I realized it kind of echoed what [the government] would do in the future.
A friend of mine was [working in Sulukule]. She was trying to get the children to read books, because they were not really going to school. They were trying to get an education. So I went there after this destruction, and I found a building where some kids were playing. And I decided I was going to show some films. The first day they were so hyperactive that they could not concentrate. And I showed them “Run Lola Run,” by Tom Tykwer. It was amazing. I really felt some strong emotion and courage from them. Because you’re so depressed when you’re trying to live in a country like this. Getting light from anywhere, from different cultures, is how I grew up. My grandmother, she’s from Greece, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. My father is from Turkmenistan. You always need to have a hybrid way to think. I am like that. I just got this light from them, and started writing about how to survive.
“Ghosts” is in many ways a story about female strength and solidarity, but it also exposes a lot of the vulnerabilities women face in Turkey—about sexuality, about their bodies. Was it difficult or risky for you to shoot on the streets of Istanbul?
When you’re shooting a movie like that in a country like this, you have to always be so protective with your team, and also so courageous and so disciplined. We were so hyperactive with my producer. Before coming to the set, we knew every step [of the shoot]. For this film, I needed to shut down all the electricity of the neighborhood. Normally, we get some papers, some rights to close. But I was like, “If one day before, there is a coup d’etat, how can we shut it down?” All the time, I was thinking about something. Always thinking five times more to find a solution if it was not working.
Did you have any specific challenges?
One of the most crazy things was, we get the rights to shoot from the municipality, from the country, from the neighborhood, from the policemen. One of the last scenes of the film, the place is burning, and I can just shoot this scene one time. But when I was going to start shooting this scene, suddenly my assistant called me and said, “Actually, we need to stop right now, because there are six tanks of policemen with 30 Kalashnikovs pointed toward us.” They thought it was a big riot in the neighborhood, and they thought that they were all terrorists and rioters that were going to burn the neighborhood. Because it was actually like that two years ago, and they put everybody in jail.
It was really crazy. And I was stopped. There were three guys, policemen, one of them was the leader of the counter-terrorism [unit] in Istanbul. Another was a police official. Like the three most important people of Istanbul thought it was a big riot. I just got out of the car and I was like, “Hi, I’m shooting a movie.” And the guy didn’t understand I was a director. Because I was a woman, he didn’t understand. It was like saying, “I’m an astronaut.” He didn’t understand what I was saying.
There is a lot of darkness—literal and metaphorical—in this film. But without giving anything away, I think it ends on a hopeful note. What gives you hope as a woman, as a filmmaker, or just as an ordinary citizen in Turkey today?
There’s the saying that in the darkest moment of the night, the light is coming. The last scene was really about improvisation in the moment. I didn’t have time for another scene. It’s really living like that in Turkey. If you can do something, it becomes a little miracle, and it’s so beautiful. This is the particular thing about living in Turkey. I adore my country, I adore how they are trying to find their own way. There is this darkness, we learned, but there is a light that can come from this darkness. And I’m sure that we will be an inspiration for other people, not just in Turkey. Also, this generation is so creative. There’s an expression in Turkey: “Soon the water is going to find its way.” It was really important to bring this film to the light to show how we are creative in this way.