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Blazing a Bold Trail: Eylem Kaftan

Documentary filmmaker Eylem Kaftan, who has won numerous national and international awards with her feature film Keeping the Bees, shares her journey from independent film production in Türkiye to her own cinematic adventures.

Making films in Türkiye is a daring effort in itself. How do you view the role of independent artists in our country? What kind of price do independent artists pay to be free?

My courage comes from my profound love for cinema, despite all its challenges. Being an artist, anywhere in the world, means being exceptionally fragile. The limited support for artists in our country makes this endeavour even more challenging. Making independent cinema is like climbing or clawing your way up mountains. It’s a long and epic battle on all fronts. The economic aspect is undoubtedly the most significant challenge. Besides, you need to cross certain thresholds in the art scene to gain acceptance. But I feel extremely happy to do this job. If you have immense love for something, you appreciate all those battles. Nothing can buy the happiness you feel from the things you win through struggle. Courage is about not giving up despite all forces that tell you to stop, to back down, to admit defeat. The love you feel inside, despite insurmountable obstacles, gives you the courage to persist.

Your debut feature film Keeping the Bees is a courageous project in many aspects. It has many risk factors for someone making their first film. Your documentary Vendetta Song depicts a brave family reckoning while A Day, 365 Hours is about domestic abuse, which people are openly discussing in Türkiye. On one hand, I feel like these stories find you; on the other, they can turn into films because you’re you. How do you decide on your approach to the story as a director?

Let’s go back to courage. Fear is a significant weakness, but being able to manage fear is a great strength. People can be easily controlled through fear. An individual who crosses the threshold of fear knows no bounds. In cinema, fear is a fundamental element that nails the audience into their seats, and immerses them in the story without blinking. Keeping the Bees, Vendetta Song, and A Day, 365 Hours all contain strong elements of fear. In Keeping the Bees, there is a woman in an uninhabited, dark forest defending herself against predatory animals. In Vendetta Song, there is a woman who dares

to confront the murder suspects to solve her aunt’s murder. In A Day, 365 Hours, there are three women who, despite suffering abuse from their closest ones, risk their lives to seek justice. All these characters are actually afraid, but courage is not the absence of fear. It is doing what needs to be done despite fear. Conquer your fear. Take action. You will find justice. You will find love and meaning. But first, you must overcome your fear. It may not happen all at once, but through acting, you will become stronger. The more you confront, the more you will find yourself. As you become stronger, you will fear less.

One can say that our national cinema is in a crisis. While economic conditions obliterate the practice of producing new films, how do you find the motivation to create? Has it become a matter of stubbornness to continue producing?

Many filmmakers make significant sacrifices to realise their dreams. The pandemic, digital platforms, and economic crises have hit us hard. But when we look at history, we see that such periods have sometimes created opportunities for a new language and perspective. For example, the French New Wave Cinema was born of an economic crisis. A cinema that challenged the studio system emerged thanks to the use of handheld cameras, natural lighting, and a documentary aesthetic. Godard broke down cinema and created a new one. This cinema influenced and inspired filmmakers for generations. Art reflects the spirit of the times but also transcends it. I’m more motivated than ever. I’m currently working on three films simultaneously. A Day, 365 Hours has started its festival journey. My film about the famous Turkish painter Burhan Doğançay, Whispering Walls, is in the editing phase. I also have a project in the script stage titled A Real Woman. A Day, 365 Hours is visiting prestigious festivals despite being a film we made on a very small budget with our own means, shot only in six days. Budget is, of course, a big issue, but let’s not give up on making films just because of it. A good idea is more important than the budget. And, as you mentioned, a great deal of stubbornness!

A Day, 365 Hours invites everyone involved in this documentary to take responsibility, for the sake of its characters, based on real people. This also presents a major dilemma, as it could potentially lead to various problems. Was it this dilemma that made you decide not to use their real names? What kind of difficulties did you encounter during the film’s production?

Abuse is a topic where people talk behind closed doors, without making eye contact, whispering in each other’s ears. Those who live through it feel immense guilt and keep it to themselves, which makes them ill. Many young women may even take their own lives because of this. We feel shame and deny anything with a hint of sexuality.

The difficulties faced by the characters in the film, the struggles they put up with, and what they earn in the end because of these struggles showed me that they possess an inner strength that I rarely see in people. Nevertheless, because they are very young women, we decided not to use their real names. Changing their names in the documentary also meant that they had to sort of act out their lives, which allowed them to look at their traumas from a distance, alienate themselves from them, and give new meaning to the lives they had restructured. The most significant challenge I faced during the film’s production was making the right decisions concerning the sensitivity of the subject and the characters, to avoid making a mistake that could offend them. In the comments they are making to me now, they say that it was a rehabilitating and empowering process for them. Meeting with the audience, sharing the pains of other women who have experienced the same traumas, and inspiring them make them feel good about themselves.

The film premiered in Türkiye shortly after its world premiere at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Both you and the girls were on the stage after the screenings in both festivals. Is it possible to compare the reactions? Can the audience courageously have the same emotional confrontation with the film?

Sarajevo hosted the world premiere of our film. The audience showed great astonishment, and had a strong emotional response. They gave a standing ovation to the girls for minutes. For years, they had kept their darkest feelings hidden behind closed doors, and their darkest feelings had been turned into a story. It was shared with the family of humankind for the first time. All those dark feelings had now been brought into the light, and they had found resonance in other souls. The pain of those small children had been dispersed in the universe and healed, inspiring other souls. Someone in Sarajevo sent me a message. After watching the film, she found the courage to report the abuse she had suffered 20 years ago. She said it felt incredibly good, her mind was at ease, and the film had set her free. We received similar reactions at the Adana Altın Koza Film Festival. I have realised that this issue is more universal than we think, and audiences from different geographies react in similar ways. Of course, when we go to different places, I will have more chances to test this further.


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