Melisa Onel found that her international relations degree did not open many career paths and turned to the arts instead. She’s worked in theater, photography, documentaries short film and, increasingly, in features.
Her latest feature film “Suddenly,” which has its world premiere in Tokyo on Wednesday, has the accomplished feel of someone who has found their groove, but still has many things to say.
The film’s story is simple enough. It depicts a woman in her forties who takes an opportunity to discover more about herself, by deliberately choosing to go missing in her former hometown of Istanbul. In another director’s hands the same setup could be the vehicle for a thriller, an urban adventure, or a focus on the missing woman’s anxiety-struck family.
Instead, Onel’s telling puts the woman, Reyhan, played by Defne Kayalar, in almost every frame as she coolly walks away from her husband, discovers a surprising hiding place, and sets about finding new experiences. The trigger for Reyhan’s search for memories, new and old, is a sudden loss of smell, that Onel says she conceived as a plot device long before COVID did the same to millions of other people.
Onel spoke to Variety before the premiere.
You’ve done many things, but this is only your third movie. Why this one? Why now?
I was a photographer for about ten years. From the beginning of my twenties or thirties. And then I moved into film, somewhat late. Now, this seems to be my medium.
I still do photography as well, but I really like getting into every bit of detail of the film, research and getting to know people.
This element of losing one smell was not related to COVID, but rather the idea of losing the [normal] sense of your own body. I had lost the hearing in one of my ears. It is only when you lose something, you realize how important it is.
Smell has a lot to do with memories, with one’s sense of self. And it’s not very obvious from the outside. It’s not like losing one’s sight. It’s something very subtle. You lose it. It seems like it may not be a problem, but then there is something. The film tries to track back. We are looking at things in a certain way. It asks: ‘are we what we look like or is there more than beneath?’
In your writing about this film, you’ve said that it is also about agency and identity, womanhood, female desire and freedom. There’s an awful lot going on here. What is the actually at the core of what you’re trying to say?
All of that! But I could say that it’s about coming of age. That could be in your forties. It doesn’t have to be only during puberty. We go through the process of discovering oneself in different phases of life. And, as a woman, sometimes it’s not complete, because you have other obligations.
The main character, she’s finding her own place quite late in life. She takes off without knowing what is waiting for her, [without] the certainty of knowing what is next. We wanted to show that freedom of just flowing. And [to ask] if it’s possible to become something else, whether you first have to fulfil yourself as a person?
Did you have the script finished and everything in order before you found your lead actor? Or was there always a particular actor in mind? Was she part of the process?
No, she wasn’t. I found her quite late on. And I’m very happy that I found Defne Kayalar. We didn’t have an actress or actors in mind. We had a certain temperament. We were very lucky, I feel, now that the film is complete.
So, what is your writing process? This is not the first time you’ve worked with screenwriter Feride Cicekoglu. How does that work out?
This is our third film together, although the second one didn’t happen. We had some financing production issues. We kind of know each other’s visual language. We feel very much. The kind of communication that happens without talking Sometimes it happens between us. I find it very precious.
And you are part of the production too?
Yes, I have my own production company, Aniden Film. It’s a coproduction with Vigo Film and we have German and Serbian co producers.
The story starts after the protagonist’s return to Turkey from Hamburg. How does this film discuss German Turkish relations?
I would say that it is a framing device. There’s a notion of a Turkish person who lives in Germany. And it’s usually a certain type of people who had migrated in the 1970s. But our character is not like that. She’s an executive, working husband and wife. It’s a different representation. But I wouldn’t say there is something political.
Now that you’ve decided film is your medium, and that you are already working on another script, we should expect more from you?
I hope so. We started writing a dance film. I’m interested in exploring movement in cinematography. I like to explore things visually. The treatment is moving ahead and I guess at the beginning of 2023, we will have a script.
How has the Turkish film industry been affected by the two things that have been dominant for the last two or three years in the film industry: Streaming and COVID?
There has been a huge production boom after [COVID restrictions] came down. Maybe a little bit earlier than the rest of the world. Definitely earlier than in [East]Asia. Streaming is giving more opportunities to directors and production companies. But in my view, they don’t really bring about very different voices. So far there have been some really, really good shows. But generally speaking, it is quite mainstream, and it is [in line with] what is expected from Turkey.