Emin Alper is now two for two at major European festivals. His 2012 debut Beyond the Hill picked up the Caligari Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and his follow-up, Frenzy, has just this Saturday scooped the Special Jury Prize at Venice. It’s an impressive, and not undeserved start to his career.
Frenzy is an utterly terrifying film, a deep plunge into paranoia and madness from which there is no escape. Alper, who also wrote his sophomore effort, thrusts two brothers into a nightmare vision of Istanbul in which terrorists and the Government go at each other, trapping everyone else in-between. Explosions sound out with alarming regularity, sending emergency services scuttling across the city. With fear the overriding emotion, citizens are forced into an isolated existence, one that sees Kadir blackmailed into gathering intelligence for the security services, and his younger brother Ahmet retreating from his life, unwilling to trust anyone.
Given the dark world that seems to occupy his imagination, you’d be forgiven for thinking Emin might exhibit a little of this scary intensity himself. The opposite seemed to be the case when we joined him during a break in the festival. Relaxed and even happy, he discussed issues ranging from the madness he creates on screen to film financing and the value of festivals.
Where did the idea for Frenzy come from initially?
Emin Alper: The embryo of the story came to my mind at the beginning of the 2000’s. It was mostly because of the influence of the armed conflict between Kurdish guerrillas and the state, which was at its climax in the 90’s. This was an important inspiration. When I was a university student I was living in a shanty town which was very close to my university. It was the stronghold of leftist groups so those images were also influential. These sources combined with others somehow. The story then developed in my mind and in 2008/09 I wrote the first draft of the script.
What is your aim for the film?
EA: To show how the political atmosphere, such a conflictual atmosphere, can drive people into madness which at the end destructs them. I also present how we feel suffocated in such an atmosphere. And of course at the end these are personal stories for me. My aim was not only political. I also wanted to tell the story of two persons situated in a political atmosphere.
So it’s clearly a way to tackle political issues in Turkey?
EA: Yes, especially the polarised political atmosphere and the way the state tries to solve some serious problems in society. In Turkey we are really, especially the state, always implementing totalitarian measures to suppress the problem, not to solve it. One of the mains aims for me was to criticise this. You can see it in the film in this representation of the authoritarian structure. Look at the relationship between the protagonists and their superiors, like Kadir’s relationship with his police handler. These are typical authority figures who always try to solve the problem using rough measures.
Do you consider yourself to be a political director?
EA: I am a political guy and it influences my works but it doesn’t mean I will always do political things. My next project will probably not be political. I don’t think artists and filmmakers should highlight social problems all the time, it’s not a must, but we are living in the same society and cannot isolate ourselves from it. As we are influenced by the problems in this society, they sneak into our imaginations. I never think I should make a film about these problems. For example, I never think gays are not free in my country, I should make a film about this. It always comes naturally.
Your portrayal of Istanbul in the film makes it seem like a very nightmarish city. Is that how you see it now, or is it an extreme version?
EA: Of course it’s an extreme version but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any resonance with reality. In certain periods of time we feel like that. Unfortunately nowadays we are living these experiences in Turkey. In the last two days more than 30 soldiers were killed. There are a lot of street lynchings and a lot of turmoil. If you look at Turkey today, the film is really realistic. But of course I just wanted to create this feeling of tension and of a political atmosphere with extreme images and ideas, to create the atmosphere of terror in a desperate situation.
How do you think the film will be received in Turkey?
EA: I think it will be well-received, especially in a certain segment of society. Such kinds of films do not reach thousands of millions of people in Turkey. There is a potential of maybe 20,000 to 30,000 admissions and I hope they will like it. We made some test screenings in Turkey and we got really good responses. I think it will do well.
Are Turkish films popular domestically?
EA: Yes but blockbusters, not this kind of film. Blockbusters have great admissions, much more than American films. They have like one million, two million or three million admissions. Art cinema is not like that. Our admissions are much more modest apart from Ceylan [Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Palme d’Or winner in 2014 with Winter Sleep and Competition Jury member at Venice this year] but he became a trademark. Except him, the audience for art-house cinema is less than 30,000. The maximum we can reach for an art-house film is 30,000, maybe 40,000 people. My previous film reached 30,000, now our aim is 50,000.
You cast Mehmet Ozgur in both your films. How did you meet?
EA: In my first film it was a complete coincidence. I didn’t hold any auditions and was actually planning on giving the role to another guy. But just one week before shooting he cancelled and we suddenly found ourselves without an actor. Because of a reference from another actor I like, we met Mehmet and hired him for my first film. It was a complete surprise and coincidence but I liked him and liked his performance a lot. When I was writing this second script, I thought he should play Kadir, one of the main roles.
Is it a collaborative relationship? Does he work on the character with you?
EA: Yes, we did quite long rehearsals for three months before shooting. We talked and discussed the character. But I also trust his senses during the shooting, so I try to leave room for him to improvise. We had a good collaboration.
You’re competing in the main competition here at Venice. Are festivals important to your career?
EA: Festivals are very important. There are thousands of films being shot everywhere and it’s impossible for a film to reach an audience by itself, so festivals are very important platforms and mediums to facilitate the meeting of films and audiences. And if you get success somehow, of course it is a big step for your career because it makes shooting the next film easier in terms of financing.
So your prize in Berlin helped a lot?
EA: I wouldn’t say a lot. It’s always difficult. Even if you win, maybe not the Palme d’Or, but the Golden Lion, it can still be very hard. But it makes it easier.
How did you raise the money for this film?
EA: We have public funding. The Minister of Culture started funding films in 2005, so our initial money is from the state, but it’s not enough, it’s very low. It’s generally for low budget art-house films. We raised funds from other countries; from Doha, from Switzerland, from France and Eurimages.
So there’s no problem receiving public funding for a film critical of the Government?
EA: In that sense the Government is not so strict. It is difficult to understand the Turkish Government, when it is authoritarian and when it is not. Sometimes it surprises you. But in terms of funding films, we have an autonomous committee which decides. Because of that we can fund critical films as welSl. Also, for the present Government television is much more important, not art-house cinema. The situation is not getting better with television. The state becomes more and more clever. They support art-house cinema which doesn’t produce serious admissions in Turkey, but raises the profile of Turkey abroad. We benefit from this situation.
Would you like to work in television?
EA: No. If you watch a Turkish TV series, each episode is two hours and they are shot in one week. They work like crazy, almost 20 hours a day. People earn good money and I sometimes think I would want to do it but I realise I couldn’t. I would not be satisfied as I like more qualitative projects, and I would be working in terrible conditions. I would not do something like that.
You mentioned the value of festivals. Aside from helping raise financing, is winning awards a personal goal for you?
EA: For me the important thing is a lifelong career and a lifelong collection of films. This is much more important than singular prizes. Of course prizes make you happy but the important thing is to have a certain style – certain themes, a certain perspective – and be able to introduce that into the cinema. I would be very happy if I could leave a personal signature in world cinema. One single prize would not be so important. Tarkovsky has not won the Palme d’Or after all.
How would you define your signature?
EA: I don’t know. Paranoia and dream versus reality at the moment. We will see though.
Flickfeast would like to thank Emin for taking the time to speak to us. Our review of Frenzy from the 2015 Venice Film Festival can be found here.