The Armenian Genocide that started in 1915 remains a hugely controversial issue today. Nearly 100 years on, Turkey, and many other countries, do not officially recognise it as genocide. With very few films made about this event, The Cut, selected to compete in the main competition at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, steps into mostly uncharted territory. In it, Tahar Rahim’s character Nazaret witnesses family members dying and has his children taken away before setting out on a journey around the world to find them.
In the first of two interviews (see here for our interview with lead actor Tahar Rahim), Flickfeast joined Fatih Akin, a German director of Turkish descent, where he was discussing his motivations behind making the film, his love of westerns and the role of humour in bleak stories.
The Armenian Genocide is still a taboo subject in Turkish society and there have been very few films made about it. What do you hope to achieve with The Cut?
Fatih Akin: There are three films made about the topic. One is Armenian, one French/Armenian and the other Italian. No Turkish films. Making this, when Turks see it in the cinema – so it’s important that it’s shown in cinemas – they will see the scene where the camera pans from the character’s bloody face to his cross showing he’s a Christian. I want them to then identify that this person who has suffered is an Armenian.
Do you think the film will have an impact in Turkey?
FA: People in Turkey are my first audience. I tried to find simple, easy tools for them to empathise with the situation. The second group of people I have to convince are Armenians; in the diaspora, in Turkey and Armenia. I tried to make something to bridge the gap between them and had to pick a simple rhetoric to do this. I think it can help to do that.
And how will it be received in Germany, a country with its own history in the Genocide?
FA: I tried to make this an audience film as much as possible. It’s a father looking for his children across the world. That’s the way to sneak the audience into a picture addressing wider issues. A lot of people don’t know about the Genocide or the German role in it. The German role is not clear but more is coming to light. The Germans were allies with the Ottomans fighting against the British and French so it was very important to keep them on side. When a civil movement in Germany found out and tried to stop what was happening to the Armenians, the Kaiser said we do nothing to disturb our partner so they knew about it but we don’t know how much they were involved. It’s interesting for the German audience. It’s not just Turkey that doesn’t call it genocide either. The Americans don’t and neither do the Germans. They call it a tragedy but not genocide.
Religion often seems to be involved in wars and conflict. In The Cut, the main character meets people from several religions and battles with his own faith. Why did you include this?
FA: I wanted it to be an inner journey not just an outer one. I didn’t want it to be just about revenge and the trauma he’s gone through but it had to remain personal. Maybe it reflects my own religious travelling. I came from a strict religious Muslim family and it took 20 years for me to have doubts and even more to move on from them. I’m not an atheist though, I believe in spirituality. Spirituality centres my life and pulls away the weight of religious dogma. This trilogy (Love, Death and the Devil) is about transformation and I wanted the character’s journey to reflect it. Tahar has a similar view to me which helped us express what’s in our minds. Really the film tries to create empathy which is why it’s a personal film. I believe in live and let live.
There have been suggestions that you struggled to find Turkish actors for the film?
FA: That’s a misunderstanding. That wasn’t for this film but for another one about the Armenian journalist shot in 2007 (Hrant Dink). Dink thought it was up to Turks and Armenians to solve the problem, not the west, so if I were to make the film it would have to be a Turkish film financed and made in Turkey. I wrote a screenplay with an actor in mind but they said it was too difficult and would cause them trouble. I went to five guys in the end and they all said the same. I certainly didn’t want to get anyone in trouble so I dropped it. Maybe Dink’s death is too soon. I thought Instead of going back seven years I should go back 100 and not just involve Turkey but the whole world. I had no problems then and many of the actors in the film are Turkish.
Music plays a big role in The Cut. How did you decide on the soundtrack?
FA: I told him (composer Alexander Hacke) I wanted to do a western so we should do some psychedelic country. He showed me music by the band Earth and I said this is it. He also found one Armenian song as we thought we needed that, He took one lullaby all in D and managed to make a whole soundtrack out of it. The entire thing is in D.
We also said very early on that we didn’t want electronic music. Normally you’d expect electronic sounds but we wanted to go for a more classical old school sound.
You mentioned that you had the western genre in mind. What are your influences in this field?
FA: Definitely Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood films. The early Eastwood films – The Outlaw Josey Wales and before that High Plains Drifter in particular where he basically plays a ghost. In that film you really see the influence of Leone. There was the classic American western which Leone adapted into the spaghetti western. Clint took it back to America and I took it and tried to put it into a Mesopotamian setting. This is not a proper western although I would like to do one in the future.
What is it about the western genre that made you want to use it for The Cut?
FA: If you want to paint you need a frame. There are so many issues in this film that have been on my mind. There’s political, philosophical and personal stories that I had to tell so I needed a frame. I decided I needed a genre and the rules a genre brings. As I travelled around scouting locations I thought it looked like a western. I used to watch a lot of westerns growing up with my father. He called them cowboy films. This film is not dedicated to him but it has a lot to do with him. My first audience was my father and I wanted to work out how I could make the film to convince him.
You use a clip from a Chaplin film in The Cut and there seems to be a bit of a Charlie Chaplin connection at Venice this year with The Price of Fame also screening. Why did you choose to use The Kid?
FA: When I was researching costumes and design from that period, I watched a lot of films from the 1920s. It was initially a research tool but I noticed that Chaplin and Tahar look similar and when I watched The Kid, there are similarities as he has the child taken from him just like Tahar’s character in my film does. Cinema can change the world and bring different cultures together so I thought I could use that in the middle to act as a link in the film.
Speaking of Chaplin, there are still moments of humour in The Cut despite the bleak subject matter. What’s your opinion on sense of humour in your work?
FA: Very few moments! I remember speaking with someone about 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003) which I liked but they said it was too serious and should have had at least one joke. I kept thinking about this and I wouldn’t change 21 Grams but thought maybe I should do this in my work. For The Cut, I wrote three moments of laughter. I didn’t want any more.
This is the end of your Love, Death and the Devil trilogy that’s explored your Turkish roots. How would you describe that journey?
FA: All I’ll say is that I will not do films about Turkish things for the next 10 years. I can’t say for my whole life but it won’t be my next film or even the second next. Maybe the third but that would be a long way off.