By N. Buket Cengiz.
I always despised nostalgia and joked about overly nostalgic people. But lately our whole country is inevitably trapped in a deep nostalgia.”
Love, Spells and All That (2019), the latest film of Ümit Ünal, an acclaimed director from Turkey who moved to Glasgow in 2020, has currently gained significant international acclaim receiving awards including Audience Award in Inside Out Toronto, Best Screenplay in Outfest LA, Best Film in Mostra Fire Barcelona, and Best Narrative Film in aGliff/ Prism in 2021, in addition to the Best Film award it received in 2020 in Istanbul Film Festival among various other national awards.
Born in 1965 in Turkey, Ünal wrote and directed nine feature films including Istanbul Tales (2004), Ara (2007), Gölgesizler (2008), The Voice (2010), The Pomegranate (2011), Serial Cook (2017). He has published five books: a collection of short stories, three novels and an autobiography. Themes related to class, as well as queer love, have often appeared in Ünal’s films, in one way or the other, and in his latest, he elaborates such themes where they intersect and reveal various facades of power dynamics in a class-based society. Together with this, Love, Spells and All That is an elegant love story rendered through a fascinating visual language.
In your film you take the melodrama cliché of the rich girl falling in love with the poor man and then, not only take it out of the heterosexual context and adapt to the homosexual one, but also play with its patterns, particularly in terms of conclusion/ending. With a rather modernist gesture you even make the ‘poor girl’ give a reference to the stereotype in the melodramatic old Turkish films… Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to this: can we say that in your film you rescue the theme from being a cliché and elaborate it as a topos?
In Turkey when you hear the phrase ‘Turkish Film’ you don’t automatically think of modern-day cinema produced in Turkey, but a certain genre of films that was made in 1960-70’s. Turkish film industry was at its height in those years and the films were incredibly popular, although most of them were copycats of the same old banal love stories, with their ultra-melodramatic style. Their treacly dialogues, pompous acting, poor production quality have been ridiculed and parodied many times but these films are still being watched eagerly on TV with a certain nostalgia of ‘good old days’. ‘Turkish film’ has turned into a phrase to indicate impossible coincidences, silly misunderstandings, awkward, tragi-comical situations. Although we joke and laugh about these old-fashioned films, they lie at the heart of our collective unconscious and every now and then you find someone saying: “This has turned into a Turkish film”.
What relates Love, Spells and all That to this tradition of melodrama is as little as my lead character’s joke in a scene: “Rich girl falls for the poor… girl”. When I was writing the screenplay, I realised that, my story, in a nutshell, sounds like one of those old films; and I wrote that bit of dialogue, comparing their love story with those melodramas. But a love story would never run like this in a melo from the 60’s. Two lesbian women would never be the lead characters anyway. And surely the writing/directing style of my film is nothing like “From Lips to The Heart” or “The Weeping”. But there is a very thin, neural link down there.
Place is a central element in your film. It is set in Büyükada, the largest of the tranquil Prince’s Islands. The island has an utterly distinct atmosphere: old mansions, no cars, yards in full blossom and stunning views of the Marmara Sea. It is a hideaway so close to Istanbul, just above an hour of a ferry ride, yet an entirely different universe. At the very opening scene of the film, we see Eren on the commuter ferry to the island with Istanbul in the background. Is this a love story inside or outside of Istanbul? As a director in whose work the city of Istanbul has had prominence, what would you tell us about that? Does the island’s peripheral position to Istanbul have a symbolic meaning in the story of the two lovers?
I’ve been living in Glasgow since January 2020, but before coming here I lived in Büyükada for five years, my “home” is still there. I imagined the story of this film and wrote the script when I was living there. The story couldn’t have taken place in a big city, I needed a small, limited place that you could leave and return. It could have been a distant small town in Anatolia. Büyükada is very close to the city but it is physically separate, life in there is very different from the rest of Istanbul. As you said it has a distinct aura, kind of frozen in time, because it is relatively ‘saved’ from the atrocious destruction and occupation of grey concrete blocks during the last 30-40 years in the rest of Istanbul. I looked at the old mansions, summer houses for the elites of the old times, and tried to imagine what stories they could have harboured. Questioning the injustice, inequalities has always been one of the main themes in my work. So, I dreamt of a story about two women getting even about a childhood love affair and the injustice around that. The injustice that eventually separated them, and destroyed the whole life of one of them, just because it was a ‘wrong’ kind of love. I thought the story could take place in one or two days with no flash-backs: Just two women walking around in an island where they spent their childhood, talking about their past, ghosts of the past, love and superstition. I go for long walks every day and I shaped the script during these walks, using my favourite locations of the island for each scene. After the film was launched, last summer I saw on Twitter a women’s collective was organising a picnic named after Love, Spells and All That. They were planning to walk the same route Eren and Reyhan took. That made me very happy.
Throughout the film you take your audience through layers of nostalgia. The setting itself is entirely nostalgic of course, a place where time seems to be frozen around a century ago; the story has nostalgia for the adolescent love at its center; and yet on another layer we have the two lovers’ own interest in the romanticism of the nostalgic: the love songs they used to sing together as teenagers actually belong to older generations, and Reyhan’s discourse in her love letters have an old-fashioned aura… Yet, through all that you manage not to let your film be a loud expression of nostalgia, you keep it in moderation. What was your stance on nostalgia, from the stage of writing the script to completing the shooting?
There is no end to nostalgia. We will always miss ‘good old days’ and if one could go back to those days they would find other people missing their own good old days. I always despised nostalgia and joked about overly nostalgic people. But lately our whole country is inevitably trapped in a deep nostalgia. In a short span of 20 years, secular, westernised Turks (which I include myself) saw every institution, every pillar of modern Turkey being destroyed methodically by an autocratic religious government. The country we have now is not the Turkey where we grew up. Judiciary system, education, media, art are levelled. The destruction was physical as well: cities, villages, forests, rivers, agriculture, natural habitat all got affected. So, I can understand people (the ones who are not accomplices to that destruction) feeling nostalgic now, because I feel very nostalgic as well. But when you tell a story you have to be a bit more coolheaded and in tight control, especially if the story is about the past. So, I tightened the reins on my nostalgic self.
Your film has a mesmerizing visual language. Can you tell us a bit about it in terms of the inspirations, references? We also know that you made this film with a small budget, did you have technical difficulties in realizing your visual goals due to financial constraints?
Films with LGBT+ themes usually fail in the box office in Turkey, so the producers don’t want to hear about stories with LGBTQ+ characters in it. On top of that there is an ever-increasing oppression from the government over LGBTQ+ people and organisations. When I was writing the script, I knew this had to be a very small production. Making Love, Spells and All That, having a woman character say: “I’m in love with you” to another woman, showing them talk, drink, make love was only possible out of the mainstream industry. This film had to be made on a shoestring budget. I designed the script accordingly. I made a ‘trailer’ video for the film with my two leading actors on a winter day on the island. Then I shared it through social media, looking for financial support. Various people called, but in the end we became producing partners with Tayfur Aydın and Fuat Volkan. We shot the film with a hand held DSLR camera with natural light (and existing street lights) we didn’t use artificial lights. We didn’t have lorries, generators, dollies, drones, etc. The whole crew including the actors was 12 people. We didn’t even hire any extras, the people you see in the background all through the film are real people. As a tiny moveable crew, we walked around almost invisibly and shot the scenes quietly in real settings. So, compared to overly stylised, meticulously illuminated and colour-corrected films and TV works, this film has a fresh, ‘sincere’ look. My guess is, apart from the content of the film, most of the audience liked it for just this sincerity alone. I owe a lot to my DOP Türksoy Golebeyi, he took risks that other DOP’s in his calibre wouldn’t take. Most people in film industry are obsessed with a technical fetishism. More than their story, they care about their cameras, lenses, lights and all kind of equipment. I’m not like that. The story I’m telling is the thing I care about most. Technical aspects are of course very important and they make or break your project. But you can tell a story with two sticks and couple of rocks and if it is a good story, people will still eagerly listen to it.
Can we hear a little bit about your upcoming projects?
I’ve been working on a new feature film project called “Mrs. Kara Goes to Glasgow” for the last year and half. I wrote the first draft in English after I moved to Glasgow. A friend introduced me to an independent producer here and she liked the screenplay. We started working on it together. It is a psychological drama/thriller about a Turkish woman, a retired English teacher, looking for her son in Glasgow, who came here to study but went missing. As her search deepens things get stranger and more surreal. A son once she considered a clever, decent, and hardworking boy now feels like a stranger with his own secrets. There will be one Turkish actress as the main character, and the rest of the cast will be Scottish. If everything goes well this will hopefully be my 10th feature film as a director and first film in English. I’m pretty excited.
N. Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and 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.