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Violent Urban Transformation: Ali Vatansever on Saf

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By N. Buket Cengiz.

Ali Vatansever’s Saf (2018) was one of the outstanding films at the Human Rights in Cinema Competition at the 38th Istanbul Film Festival (2019). The film, which made its premiere at the 43rd Toronto Film Festival (2018), has received the Honorable Mention at the New Voices New Visions Award Section of the 30th Palm Springs International Film Festival in California (2019). It is the second film of Ali Vatansever, a young director who studied industrial design as an undergraduate and completed his graduate studies in cinema at Bilgi University in Istanbul and Rochester Institute of Technology in New York as a Fulbright scholar. He is currently a lecturer at the Media and Visual Arts department at Koç University in Istanbul. Vatansever’s debut was One Day or Another (El Yazısı, 2012), a modest film with a warm atmosphere set in a small Anatolian town. In his second film Vatansever is in a much tougher ground, in Fikirtepe, a logistically significant region in the Anatolia side of Istanbul where an ongoing massive urban transformation project drastically changes the lives of the inhabitants.

What made you decide shooting a film on the urban transformation crisis in Istanbul?

Initially my idea was to make a film about our relationship with soil, man’s miscommunication with nature, how a fertile element, in the hands of man, turns into a tool for creating borders and a sense of ownership. In the early drafts, the story was evolving around Kamil’s struggle to adapt to the city by becoming a dozer operator in a landfill site and relating to soil in a totally different manner. As I got involved in civic initiatives working on local issues, I had the chance to closely follow the rapid urban transformation in many regions in Istanbul. After visiting Fikirtepe and seeing how the massive transformation is affecting the mindset of people, I decided to re-write the story and concentrate on our inner transformation as the land around us transforms.

Fikirtepe is one of the places where the urban transformation crisis is experienced at its worst. What were your observations there? Were there aspects/stories you would like to include in your film but for some reason had to leave out?

Saf 03Honestly, during my first visit to Fikirtepe, I was expecting a community in resistance. It was dusk, there were massive construction sites, mostly deep large holes, with hundreds of trucks carrying the dirt away. There were literally no roads left, the air was so dusty. But within all this dystopian atmosphere I saw two women returning from grocery shopping, like a regular walk home. After some time in those years the communities turned from resistance into acceptance. And I wanted to explore this middle ground, this gray area between the resistance and submission. What made us change? Then I began to collect stories. And soon I figured out that there were as many stories of tragedy as stories of hope. Without understanding the both ends, one cannot grasp the system that puts the people into motion. Only then I was able to see pass my preconceptions. Instead of concentrating on stories in extremes, which are the main reason of our heavily polarized standpoint, I wanted to shed light on the everyday struggle of people and how they are surrounded with an uncertainty and pressure on many levels.

In fact, your film is about the refugee issue almost as much as about urban transformation. You have integrated the two issues with outstanding success owing to a very well written and clever script. Can you tell a little about the process, have you always thought about the two issues together?

I had no intentions as such. Once I began to focus on Fikirtepe, the refugee issue gradually found its way into the script. When Fikirtepe citizens left their homes, the leftover buildings were taken over by the refugees as temporary shelter. As one disadvantaged group leaves, another disadvantaged group takes over. You may think that those communities who share the same fate may connect and understand each other. Just the opposite happened. Leftover communities felt insecure. Soon the refugees began to serve as cheap labor which worsened the problem. Thus, for the script I faced a serious dilemma. I should either only concentrate on the issue of urban transformation and discuss an imaginary Fikirtepe or let the story evolve organically, true to the region. I picked the second path. I think the reason that the script can hold such complex issues together is that it is not about them at all. It is about our inner transformation. In my humble opinion, we are used to approach those problems as an external entity, but the real problem lies within people. Our daily fight against those supposedly external monsters evoke a monster within us.

Kamil’s transformation is at the center of the film. He transforms from a victim to a villain, but then he dies at that moment of transformation, so we almost never really see him as a villain. This twist gives the audience a space for contemplation.

For me humans operate in mysterious ways. I can only say that for me, in life no one is victim as no one is villain. You need villains when you need to create heroes. I don’t believe in heroes but people with dreams, hopes, conflicts, wounds and so forth. Certainly, Kamil transforms in the story. But its scope is left to the audience’s imagination. Like the film’s title suggests, was he a naïve and pure human being to start with? After a screening, someone from the audience said that Kamil was such a well-intended character. I think it’s the audience’s own well intention that made him read Kamil that way. Early in the story, Kamil helps a woman change her car-tire. Did Kamil do it because he wanted to help or to make money? I don’t know. But we designed every scene to be read in both ways. As I suggested earlier, we tend to view the world in blacks and whites. Life rather runs in between. I prefer all the shades of color, shades of grey.

Is there anything you would like to add about the correlation between the precariat/unemployed and refugees?

saf 02For the intellectuals, those are problems to contextualize and conceptualize. But for those facing them, it is another layer to the day-to-day struggle, to the extent they are inseparable. As Ammar said to Remziye, everyone is fighting for their bread. No one is to blame. But now Remziye holds the sword of justice. Should she believe Ammar or her husband Kamil?

Do you think the urban transformation and refugee issues will appear significantly in Turkish cinema in the coming years? Do you observe a revival of realist cinema recently? What would you say on that for Turkey and the world cinema in general?

For me, when you put life in frames, you don’t deal with reality anymore. Reality is out there. Go out and live it, live with it. I am only concerned with sincerity towards the subject matter. We are just filmmakers who raise questions about life, connect dots. We try to reflect on the spirit of the times. We have invaluable stories to tell from this region and I am happy to be surrounded with such talented filmmakers. As the world is more and more connected, I find it more meaningful to discuss a cinema aside from national identities. Stories grow locally but storytelling connects us globally.

Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer in culture and the arts, focusing on music and cinema. She holds a PhD in Turkish Studies from Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as a lecturer.

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