I first met Asli Ozge when we both showed our debut features at the Istanbul Film Festival in 2003. Since then Ozge has become one of Turkish cinema’s brightest young stars. Her award-winning film Koprudekiler (Men on the Bridge) is currently playing MoMA, after an intensely successful run on the international festival circuit and distribution around the world. It’s a remarkable hybrid of documentary and narrative, following the lives of several men who work on a bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul. We seem them both in their work and in their private lives – creating an intoxicatingly intimate atmosphere that nevertheless has broader resonances. Because, ultimately, we’re watching not just three men’s lives on one bridge, but an entire nation’s in-between existence -- one perched between East and West. Ozge was in town recently, and I sat down with her to discuss her new film, her unique method of working, and the Turkish film landscape in general.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
My father lives on the Asian side of Istanbul, and I live on the European side, so I often have to cross the Bosphorus Bridge. I was sitting in the dolmus on the bridge one day. And we were sitting in traffic – as you know, the traffic is horrible in Istanbul – and I started to take pictures of the street hawkers and other people around me. I started to think about how the traffic jam on the bridge is a little like people’s lives – everything is very hectic, but things move really slowly, inch by inch.
It’s a microcosm, in a way.
Exactly. Plus it was interesting as a symbol, not just for people’s lives but for the whole country. For example, in Turkey we want to become part of the European Union, and we’re supposedly moving -- very slowly -- towards this imaginary border, which may actually be unreachable. All these ideas came together and I realized, it’s a perfect location. You have everything there on the bridge.
It’s also interesting that the Turkish title of the film, Koprudekiler, means “Those on the bridge,” since we don’t really have gender in the Turkish language. Which sounds more symbolic, too, than simply Men on the Bridge, which sounds more specific.
Of course the idea of being on a bridge is something very symbolic in Turkish, too. And to be honest with you, I was open to the idea of having women in the film, but I just didn’t find any of them working on the bridge.
Did you write the story first, or did you find the characters first?
I wrote the concept first. I was thinking of the bridge, and the European side, the Asian side, and this idea of it as a symbol. And I thought that this is something that really affects mostly young people -- this chaos here and the uncertain future of Turkey will affect that generation, for the most part, and those after them. So, armed with that concept and those ideas, I went and tried to find the characters. I like to put boundaries on myself. So I thought, the story should take place on the Bosphorus Bridge, at least as a starting point. Who’s working on this bridge? Street hawkers, the dolmus drivers, the police. These parallel lives which don’t really touch each other, except maybe once.
How did you find these people?I went to the bridge and we talked to the first two policemen that we saw. One of them was very interesting. I kept meeting him, and I found he had a lot of interesting contradictions in his life. But the police didn’t give us any permissions, even though we tried for a year. Then I met this guy’s brother, who wasn’t a police officer but had tried to become one – he had been rejected from the police academy. And I thought, I’d been rejected too, in a way, since they refused me permission. I told him I’d give him a chance to become a policeman for once. So we trained him. We had him work out at the fitness studio. His brother was his coach. He taught him how to act like a cop – how to stand like a cop, how to talk. He stood next to his brother on the bridge, in police costume, and really absorbed what he was doing. We even changed his hair color a little bit.
What about the other characters?
I was riding the dolmus a lot, and one day I saw one that had a German flag on it. And since I live part of the time in Germany, I was interested in learning more about him. So we followed him and caught up with him. I was impressed by his wife as well. And I became fascinated by the owner of this dolmus, his wife, his house, the colors in his house, the idea of their moving to a new apartment. Moving somewhere new interests me, as you know from my first film, A Little Bit of April. I like this idea of being in between places. As for the street hawker, I was actually going to do that with someone else, but his wife got sick and he couldn’t do it. Then we found Fikret – he had longer hair, he was standing there with roses in his hands and with earrings, and we weren’t even sure what he was doing. “Is he selling, or is he waiting for his girlfriend?” But we met him. It took a long time to get close to him and for the people around him to get used to us. He’s from a place where they really look suspiciously on strangers.
Since the actors are essentially playing themselves, how much input did they have into their own stories?
I told them I’m not interested in their own stories. I’m only interested in the things I’ve seen them do that have inspired me to write my own stories for them. I told them, “I’m not making a documentary, but I will give you a chance to act in the film -- the way you are, the way you talk, your ideas. But the story line will be the one I’ve written.” And they said fine, because it would be fun for them. In a way it takes the pressure off them. But I definitely incorporated aspects of their lives. For example, the first time I met Fikret, he said he really just wants to sell flowers. He didn’t want any other job. I was surprised. He said, “They don’t really treat me well and at least when I’m selling flowers I can wake up late, I’m free, I’m independent.” So that became part of his story, him getting rejected from other jobs, that sort of thing.
As a director, did you have to work with each actor differently?
Yes, because Murat, the cop, for example, wasn’t acting as himself. He was both a non-professional and also playing someone else’s part, so his job was the hardest. And I was always trying to surprise them, so they wouldn’t exactly know what was going on. For example, the girls that Murat is meeting for dates: I was actually writing to the girls -- they were actresses -- and I was telling them what to say and do. Murat didn’t know who he was meeting, but he did know his lines. So it doesn’t matter what the girl says, but he knew that he was going to impress them with the view from the bridge, that sort of thing. Also, I was talking to them through the take. With all of the actors in the film, actually. Even the fight between Cemile and Umut, for example, at home, at the end of the film, it’s like there were three of us. I was telling them what to say, in their fight! Non-professional actors don’t really have timing. They don’t know when to just stop and listen to the other person in the scene. You have to somehow get there as a director. So it was actually good for me to be talking between their lines. Because then, when we took my voice out of the scenes, there’d be these gaps, which made it seem like they were thinking about what to say next. And that served the scene very well.
Do you always do this, or was it just on this film?
Always! I even do it with professional actors. Most of them don’t like it; they hate it. Some find it humiliating. But it’s important, because I can control the timing, plus the camera. You want to incorporate what’s happening in the scene, but you also don’t want the scene to go on forever, so I feel like I can manage that better, because I’m outside of the scene.
You’re part of a new generation of Turkish filmmakers that includes everyone from Nuri Bilge Ceylan to the late Seyfi Teoman. Do these filmmakers have a lot of contact with each other in Turkey, any support groups? Are they conscious of themselves as a movement?
Definitely. There is a movement called Yeni Sinema Hareketi (New Cinema Movement), and I’m a member of it as well. A lot of the younger filmmakers and producers, like Pelin Esmer, are involved in it. The biggest problem in Turkey right now is distribution. Even when a film is successful at festivals, the audience numbers when it gets released can be really bad. So, we’re thinking of alternative ways of distribution. Also, the Turkish Cultural Ministry, and the way they support the films, is one of our big issues. For example, there’s a rule that says that if you get support for a film from them, you can’t apply again as a producer for three years. And that’s very difficult for producers. So, we are working on making some changes, trying to make some proposals. We’ll also mobilize for other issues. When Jafar Panahi was in prison, we collected signatures. But maybe the most important thing is that we share information with each other: If there is a market that people should know about, or a festival they should know about, we’ll share that information. We’re not competitive, or secretive. Previous generations of filmmakers were much more competitive and separate from each other. For us, this collaborative effort is very important.