Emre Yeksan's The Gulf (Körfez)
by Vassilis Economou, cineuropa,
The Gulf: There’s something rotten in the state of Turkey
“We live in a period of slow decay, and the smell won’t go away any time soon.”
VENICE 2017: After a lengthy development process, Emre Yeksan’s feature debut, The Gulf, has been premiered in the International Critics’ Week; Cineuropa talked to him about it.
Through an allegorical, dystopian story, debutant Emre Yeksan raises awareness of a possible catastrophic event, while making a clear social comment on his homeland.
32-year-old Erkan moves back to his family’s upper-middle class house in Izmir, after a year of misery caused by unemployment and a bitter divorce. Having no plans for the future, he befriends a group of loafers. His aimless drift takes an unexpected turn, when a terrible smell that comes from the gulf starts to spread over the city.
After spending four years in development with the film, Turkish director and scriptwriter Emre Yeksan has presented his debut feature, The Gulf, in the 32nd International Film Critics’ Week competition of the 74th Venice International Film Festival. Before that, he worked as a producer in Paris, and after his return to Istanbul, he directed a short film entitled Aziz (2014) as well as forming part of the directing team behind the short documentary Welcome Lenin! (2016). The Gulf has been presented at multiple acclaimed development workshops and co-production markets, and is now taking part in the competition of the 32nd International Film Critics’ Week at the 74th Venice Film Festival.
The Gulf is a journey back to one’s roots. The story, written with local writer Ahmet Büke, is partially based on Yeksan’s personal experience of returning to Izmir, also his hometown, when he had to undertake a similar personal journey of self-discovery. The smell was a real-life problem in the Gulf of Izmir several years ago, but the film goes beyond this local dimension. It is always emphasised that this story is happening in Turkey, but actually this almost dystopian tale could be unfolding anywhere. An environmental disaster or another world war are constant threats playing on everyone’s minds. Although it is not clear how anyone can face up to these threats, some will simply try to flee, while others may feel more perplexed, as is the case with Selim.
|Emre Yeksan • Director|
(© Leonardo Kurtz / International Critics' Week)
An indolent hero can truly represent a social minority that is trying to confront what is happening now in Turkey. Before his aimless walks, Selim feels as though he is under house arrest; he apathetically observes the speculations regarding the causes of the accident, and he avoids participating in the imposed panic driven by media propaganda. When everyone around him goes to extreme measures, Selim appears to be the stoic fool of the town. Or is he the true rebel who decides to eliminate the smell through his own perspective? No clear answer is needed, as The Gulf succeeds in being a universal story that is not limited to the current events that Turkey is going through. There is one clear message, though: the smell is not easy to get rid of, and even though the city is now in a state of emergency, there is a modicum of hope that someone can fight it.
The Gulf is a Turkish-German-Greek co-production by Anna Maria Aslanoğlu (Istos Film), Asli Filiz (Bir Film), Dirk Engelhardt (Kundschafter Filmproduktion) and Maria Drandaki (Homemade Films).
Cineuropa talked to the director about the allegorical aspect of the movie and his personal background.
Cineuropa: What made you want to narrate this story, which seems so abstract but also so real at the same time?
Emre Yeksan: Although I like realism in cinema, I feel a little overwhelmed by the dominance of it in contemporary filmmaking. Even the most fantastic, unrealistic subject can be presented with a realistic, documentary-like approach. We are so used to watching lives run their course in front of us, as if watching the news or online live streams. Then I decided to make a stylistic separation between cinema as representation and cinema as reality, and use both in comparison. But even though the style of The Gulf may seem alienating or abstract, I wanted the story to remain as realistic as possible. I thought it might be the right way of moving from the singular experience of a character to a broader resonance with the lives of the viewers.
How did you come up with the idea of the smell? Is there any allegory behind it?
The smell doesn’t symbolise just one thing, like it would traditionally in an allegorical work; it is inspired by reality itself. There was an unbearable smell in the Gulf of Izmir when I was a child, and it made life quite difficult during the summer. The basin was cleaned in the early 2000s. I remembered that smell almost every time I went to visit my parents in Izmir. Scent is a powerful trigger of memories; it is hard to forget the smell of things. So one day, a question came up: what if the smell comes back suddenly, and more potent than ever?
What attracted me to this idea of smell was that it may become a catastrophe, but without any imminent dramatic consequences – it’s not strong enough to become a life-changing event. It’s because I think we live in a period of slow decay, so I can say that the smell will not go away any time soon. It was always there, anyway. And it may become less strong over time, or people may get used to it, but it is there to stay. Escaping from it doesn’t solve the problem. We should find ways to create a new life, a better world. So it’s not too late; perhaps we’re just in time.
Izmir is also your hometown; are there any autobiographical elements in your film?
Yes, there are. As I said, the smell itself is an important part of my memory from my childhood. On the other hand, the main character Selim’s state of mind is very similar to mine at the time when the first components of the story took shape in my mind, back in 2008. I was back in Izmir, staying with my parents, a little lost in life and not so willing to make an effort to change things. This feeling created the basis for Selim, and I had to push it even further to make him unforgivingly passive. Some of my friends, who have seen the film, were surprised to see so much of me in this character.