Ali Vatansever • Director of Saf
by Vittoria Scarpa, Cineuropa
“How do you stay human in such a difficult place, when you’re surrounded by monsters?”
How do you manage to stay pure when the world obliges you to take one side or the other?
Turkish director Ali Vatansever talks to us about his second film, Saf, which was screened at Bari’s Bif&st and which focuses our attention on a tricky moral dilemma.
Ali Vatansever • Director of Saf
Mass urbanisation, unemployment, Syrian refugees, family relationships... The themes tackled by Turkish filmmaker Ali Vatansever are many and varied in Saf, his second work after his multi-award-winning title, One Day or Another. This latest opus shines a light on the war raging on between disadvantaged inhabitants of the Fikirtepe district, the Asian zone of Istanbul, where the poorest communities are being driven out and a man like any other is forced to choose between good and bad.
Following its world premiere in Toronto, and its success a few days later at the Ankara Film Festival where it scooped awards for Best Director and Best Actor, the film was screened at Bari’s Bif&st, where we sat down with the filmmaker to discuss his latest work.
Cineuropa: Just going by the title, Saf, we know that it’s going to be a multifaceted film.
Ali Vatansever: The Turkish term “Saf” is untranslatable: it can mean “naive, ingenuous” or “a bit crazy”, but it can also mean “to take a position” and it is this interpretation which is at the heart of my film. Here, the protagonists are forced to take a position in every situation they find themselves in, and these positions will lead one of them to ruin and lead the other on a journey of self-discovery. The fundamental question was: how do you stay human in such a difficult place, when you’re surrounded by monsters? How do you manage to stay pure when the world obliges you to take one side or the other?
How does the film’s protagonist react to all this?
Kamil must decide whether to accept a job that doesn’t pay much, whether to sell his house, to side with his neighbours or to take a stand against them. And under the weight of all this pressure, he discovers the evil inside of him. This is how we’re forced to live our lives today: we expect everyone to have a clear position on each and every issue. This black and white view of the world is worrying for me and I try to explore it using real people with real problems.
The film is set in the Asian district of Istanbul, in Fikirtepe. What type of conflicts take place in this area?
Fikirtepe is an area of Istanbul with over 10 thousand inhabitants and which started out as a shantytown between the 1960s and 70s. Now it’s a very central zone, which is also expensive, and its people are being pushed out to make room for skyscrapers being built by state-run companies.
Thousands of people have already been displaced, thousands of houses have been demolished; only two isolated elderly people remain. The strange thing is that Syrian refugees have now decided to move into these abandoned buildings, accepting low-paid jobs, without any kind of security, and this has created an additional level of conflict.
One disadvantaged community leaves and another moves in. They share the same destiny, but they don’t join forces. So, starting with the physical transformation of the land itself, the film goes on to paint a wider picture of human relationships, relocation, immigration and work. It took four years to write the film; I myself witnessed all these radical changes taking place. It’s not just the geography that changes, but also people’s thinking. I wanted to show how people’s psychology can be influenced by their environment.
The film is split into two very distinct parts: in the first half we follow Kamil, in the second, his wife Remziye.
I wanted the audience to explore two different points of view. In the beginning, we see the area and the people through the eyes of Kamil; he and his wife disagree on various issues. In the second part, the point of view changes to that of Remziye, which allows the audience to understand all the prejudices that have been built up in the first hour of the film.
Looking at the same place and the same people from her perspective, you realise that there’s not just one version of the truth, as we were led to believe. When you step outside of your own little street and meet other people, you see that there are millions of colours, of nuances.
Kamil has good intentions, he tries to do the right thing to survive, but he also refuses to acknowledge the bad that’s inside of him; he blocks out his demons, his desires, but at a certain point they take over. Remziye, on the other hand, doesn’t deny her desires; she acknowledges her many motivations. She faces them head on and this is what keeps her afloat.
Stylistically, how did you choose to convey these two perspectives?
We asked ourselves how we could transport the audience into this area, how we could recreate this experience. My choice was to not cut any of the scenes. Especially those featuring Kamil; we travel through the space with him, we experience what he experiences.
I didn’t want to highlight anything in particular; there are no close ups capturing any great detail. I didn’t want to focus on the destruction of this area - for the people who live there it’s all so normal.
I also wanted to move fluidly between interiors and external areas: there’s not a great deal of difference between private and public spaces, that’s how it is there; they open your front door and walk right into your life. I wanted the audience to experience this too.
(Translated from Italian)
The Fikirtepe district of Istanbul. Urban transformation is sweeping away the poor communities and Syrian refugees take shelter in deserted buildings. Kamil and his wife Remziye risk losing their home. Unemployed for a long time, Kamil, has no choice but to secretly accept a job on a construction site. Not only is he taking the job from a Syrian refugee, he's also working for the company that's destroying the area next door.
Oppression and anxiety both in his neighborhood, where he fears discovery, and at work, where he's accepted the low wages paid to refugees, gradually transform him. When Kamil suddenly disappears, Remziye has to face the consequences of his actions, which do not fit the man she knows. But she will not give up.