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A fine-boned, soft-voiced woman of 38, who looks 10 years younger, the Turkish filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu joins the ranks of the most promising international art-house directors with her second feature, Journey to the Sun, currently playing at Cinema Village. The film begins in tumultuous Istanbul and ends in rural southeastern Turkey, a region devastated both by natural disasters and the ongoing persecution of the Kurds. Its hero, a young man from a western province, loses everything when he is wrongly suspected of involvement in the Kurdish underground. Eventually he finds himself traveling alone across Turkey, carrying home for burial the body of his friend, a Kurdish militant.
Ustaoglu made her first film, a Super-8 short, while she was at university studying architecture. Finding film to be closer to her childhood passion for storytelling, she joined a cinema club when she moved to Istanbul after graduation. “We were just a few people who wanted to make an alternative cinema,” she says. “We put out a magazine, organized some filmmaking courses and a short-film festival.” In this environment, Ustaoglu took still photographs, wrote movie criticism, and directed several more short films and a 35mm feature called Traces (1994).
Made with nonprofessional actors and founded on an organic relationship between character and place, her work is part of a burgeoning worldwide wave of neorealist filmmaking. “All my films start with an intense desire to look at human beings in a particular environment,” Ustaoglu explains. “I put all my emotions into the script.” She counts Tarkovsky as her strongest influence, and says she’s also inspired by Bergman (specifically for “his humanist psychology”) and the new Iranian and Asian cinema.
Journey to the Sun grew out of her interest in Kurdish identity and culture. She found most of her actors at a small Kurdish center in Istanbul and rehearsed with them for a year before shooting, incorporating dialogue and details from their improvisations. Newroz Baz, who plays Mehmet, the hero of the film, was 18 when Ustaoglu met him. “He was going through a search for his own identity that was similar to what his character experiences in the film.”
Ustaoglu says that the structure of the film grew out of the geography of the city itself. “I started with a very naive character who comes to Istanbul, where all the problems of Turkey exist in microcosm. He gradually comes face to face with these problems and his discoveries take him to the edge of the circle—the outskirts of the city—and from there, he begins his journey alone. On the way to bury his friend, he discovers reality. At the end, all we need to see is the close-up of his face and the image of the countryside through his eyes. At that point, we know he has grown up, he’s ready to take responsibility and carry on. He can survive anywhere because he has found his own identity. He doesn’t take the identity of his Kurdish friend. He finds his own.”
Ustaoglu is already location-scouting and casting her next film, which is set in the town where she grew up, close to the Russian border on the Black Sea: “It’s about an old woman who, for 50 years, has had a hidden life, and one day it explodes.”