Turkish director Nisan Dag, who is a Columbia Film School Graduate, made a splash at Slamdance and other fests in 2015 with debut feature “Across the Sea,” a relationship drama that she co-directed. Her followup “When I’m Done Dying,” directed solo this time, delves into the world of hip-hop subculture in Istanbul’s slums where the cheap and deadly drug known as bonzai gets in the way of a 19-year-old aspiring rapper’s musical ambitions as well as his love affair with an older affluent DJ.
“When I’m Done Dying,” made in collaboration with rapper Da Poet (Ozan Erdogan), who is one of the top beat makers in Turkey, is being sold internationally by Magnolia Pictures. It will world premiere on Saturday at Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, which is taking place as physical event. Variety spoke exclusively to Nisan Dag about the challenges of bringing this bold tale to the screen. Excerpts from the conversation.
What drew you to Istanbul’s hip hop scene?
I was born and raised in Ankara, which is the capital of Turkey, but is a smaller town in an isolated and sort of a sterile world.
After graduating from New York I moved to Istanbul. My first job was directing a doc about Turkish rap for MTV which opened up my perspective to the reality of today’s modern Turkey. I basically realized that I was living in a bubble. Throughout the process of making the documentary this whole bubble popped. I met characters that I would not have crossed paths with normally in my daily life. I was also really taken by this (Istanbul) slum with a hip-hop subculture. After doing the doc I started teaching there and I befriended kids from the neighborhood…In Istanbul I didn’t feel welcome in my own social group so I just ended up spending two years there teaching and hanging out. In doing so I came across the plague of this bonsai drug that is very cheap and that was very shocking for me to see. After meeting people who are addicted to this drug I wanted to inspire them to hold on to their passion.
It’s interesting that you have an American, Jessica Caldwell, as your main producer.
I met Jessica at Columbia, she produced my shorts and we are also good friends, so it somehow happened naturally…I’m also very inspired by U.S. indie cinema and I have an American cinematographer, John Wakayama Carey, whom I also met at Columbia and also worked on my first feature. I think we bring that U.S. indie spirit also into the energy of the production.
The film features a character who is gay, which is a sensitive issue in Turkey where a Netflix TV show recently got canceled due to a gay character. Are you concerned about this?
This is something that has been concerning me for quite a while. Not just personally, for my own film, but for all Turkish filmmakers. Censorship has been increasing in the past years. Film festivals used to have more freedom, and the government does ask people to take scenes out of their films. When I was writing and shooting this film the issue with Netflix had not happened yet. Still I would not have stepped back from telling this story, because this character, even though secondary, is a very important part of the story for me. It could happen that they ask me to remove scenes, and I hope it does not. But of course I would chose not to take this character out of the film.
How did you get Da Poet on board and what did the collaboration entail?
After shooting the documentary I got really involved in rap music and Da Poet was one of my favorites, I loved his music. So when I decided to make the film he was the first person I had in my mind and I was very happy that he accepted. He actually studied cinema, so he has a special interest in film. We started collaborating in 2017. Making this film has also involved some music production. I didn’t initially realize how difficult it is to put together a beat-maker and a lyricist. But I feel that’s something that turned out really well, especially thanks to Da Poet. This film is not a musical. But I used the lyrics to add layers and depth to the world of the characters so that we really delve into life in the neighborhood.