INTERVIEW: Turkish filmmaker Orkide Unsur

“I like to surprise the audience and make them reconsider ordinary or familiar subjects which they are used to seeing in their daily lives.”

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Orkide Ünsür is an award-winning indie filmmaker from Istanbul, Turkey. She has worked as a TV reporter, assistant director, assistant producer, script writer, director and producer for national TV channels and production companies.  She has also directed promotional films as a freelance director, made two short documentaries as co-producer and executive producer, and worked on short movies as a production coordinator, art director and actress.

Filmmaker Orkide Unsur (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker)

As producer, director & screenwriter, she made the short documentary COASTLANDERS 8 to 8  (2009)  which won the 3rd Best Documentary Award in the 8th Istanbul International Environmental Short Films Festival in Turkey, and she made the short experimental documentary Metruk (The Abandoned) (2010) which  won  the Indie Fest Award of Merit in La Jolla, California, USA. Her screenplay Sitophobia, which has won the WILDsound FALL/WINTER 2011 1-page Screenplay Contest at the WILDsound Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, will be made into a film by Canadian filmmakers in 2012.

Orkide Ünsür is in the process of looking for funds for her latest short fiction screenplay, The Scarlet Awakening, and at the same time is working on her other film projects.

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Her Film: You are a screenwriter, director and producer who has worked in both television and film.  Can you describe the journey you’ve taken to become a filmmaker in terms of both training and personal/artistic motivations?

Orkide Unsur:  I have been passionately in love with cinema since the day my parents brought me to a movie theater. I was only two and a half years old. I was mesmerised by the screen…In my opinion, there is no such work which can give the same satisfaction of creating a new world as filmmaking.

I have been watching lots of movies and reading as much as I can about filmmaking since I can remember. I have always wanted to make films. Fortunately, working in TV gave me the chance to enter the industry. I’ve taken courses about on camera, interviewing and editing techniques. I worked as a reporter, assistant director/producer, script writer, producer and director for TV channels and production companies. My first short film experience was my brother’s school project. It was a short fiction film called “Journey to the End Of Life”. I was working as an assistant director on that project.

Learning the filmmaking process is an endless education; filmmakers have to train themselves continuously. I wish I had more opportunities since I have loads of projects which I would love to realize.

Still from Coastlanders 8 to 8 (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF: The logline for your latest project, Metruk, a short experimental documentary is “Condemned houses are like abandoned lovers” and the synopsis talks about themes of love and loss, passage of time and self-destruction.  With such a unique comparison of subjects, how do you approach the development of the story and what to visually represent on screen?

OU: I have always been attracted by the gothic souls of abandoned houses. I was very interested in playing with my friends around them when I was a child. We used to call them “Haunted Houses”. Although they scared me a bit, I loved them. I have wanted to film such abandoned houses. So, I have decided to film most of the abandoned houses which were in my present neighborhood. I considered it to be kind of a duty on my behalf to brighten the neighborhood and glorify something that has meaning as well as history. I guess some disappointments and sadnesses I have experienced in my private life gave the inspiration to me as a storyteller and they “pulled the trigger” to make me write my logline and produce Metruk at that time.

“Condemned houses are like abandoned lovers” was my road map and creative approach while I was making the film. I tried to observe them in their loneliness, sadness, and proudness. I also wanted to show their relationships and experiences with people, nature and animals. I didn’t create any fictional scenes or shots except my walk in front of the big wooden house.  We just followed our shooting plan as we enjoyed being eyewitnesses to some magic moments and lovely coincidences such as coming across a cut tail black cat, junkman or lonely mother and daughter.

I’d like to thank my cameraman/DOP Umut Can Sevindik again who collaborated with me very well and understood what I wanted. We also edited the film together. It was an enjoyable process.

Poster for the short film Metruk (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF:  Many of the films you have made are in the documentary genre.  What do you find most interesting and most challenging in presenting stories in a short format?  What attracts you to the documentary genre?

OU: I love fiction genre and feature length films as much as I love documentaries and short films. What attracts me to documentaries is recreating existence, reality, through my way of storytelling. I like to surprise the audience and make them reconsider ordinary or familiar subjects which they are used to seeing in their daily lives.

The documentaries I like to make are not about big issues such as wars or hungry children in Africa. I prefer to tell more specific, local, different or character-driven stories which give me the opportunity to use my artistic, emotional and experimental approaches as well as sense of humor (if the stories let me). And most importantly, for those kinds of documentaries, I need neither a big budget nor a large team.

Shooting the film Coastlanders 8 to 8. Burçin Ankara and Orkide Ünsür. (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

Short film is a genre that gives huge freedom to a director. It’s not only for students or emerging/young filmmakers, so I will always enjoy producing short movies. What I find most challenging with short films is being able to tell a story in a limited time. I find it alluring, indeed. Finding funds/sponsors as well as earning money is hard for shorts in general. Nowadays, I’m very excited about my latest project The Scarlet Awakening. It’s a short drama which combines domestic violence and flamenco music & dance. I have written the screenplay, found my main crew and actors. I’m in a process of finding financial support. I hope to bring it life as soon as possible.

In addition, it would be my pleasure to collaborate with other filmmakers, screenplay writers, producers, from not only Turkey but also around the world.

HF: This interview is the first in series I am working on this spring in order to share information about Turkish women filmmakers.  Can you talk a bit about your life as a woman filmmaker in Turkey and how you see women represented in the Turkish film industry?

OU: The general public has already pre-conceived ideas of film directors in their mind. If you ask the general public to make a drawing of somebody who works as a film director, their pre-conceived idea would be a man with beard, scarf, spectacles, a sort of bohemian character.

Although women filmmakers and writers, especially in the field of screenplay writing and directing for TV dramas, have been increasing in the Turkish film industry recently, there are not as many as people suppose. For instance, it is really hard to find women directors in the advertising sector.

As a short filmmaker, I would love to write & direct feature length films when the right time comes and when I find the opportunity. However, I wouldn’t prefer to be a new, or even older, filmmaker who has only been chasing her dreams or whose films are only being screened in some film festivals.  I’d like to make a film which reflects my vision, my artistic way as well as something that attracts many audiences across different platforms.  So it is important to find the balance and it’s really hard.

Still from short film Metruk (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF: What kind of audiences can you find within Turkey for film, either shorts, documentaries or feature-length films?  Is it reasonable to expect that you can license your work to television broadcasters, find DVD or online distribution agreements, or secure theatrical distribution?

OU: In Turkey, I don’t think we can mention independent filmmaking and self-distribution in real terms for feature length films, only for some shorts and documentaries. Turkish short filmmakers find their audiences mostly via festivals, special screenings or via the internet.  If they are lucky enough, their works may be broadcasted on a TV channel which shows short films and/or documentaries. However, TV channels do not pay for short films in any genre. There are some Turkish-oriented internet platforms which broadcast all genres of short films for free. I submitted my shorts to a UK-based VOD service and Metruk (The Abandoned) became the most popular short film among all the others within just five days. It was number one in the current Top 10 most-watched videos.

There are main professional distribution companies in Turkey and Turkish filmmakers mostly work with them for their theatrical or DVD distribution.  Among the other international and national VOD services and digital platforms, “Turkish Film Channel” is an online distributor especially for award-winning Turkish feature length films.

Shooting Metruk (The Abandoned). Orkide Ünsür with Umut Can Sevindik. (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF:   I have read in several news articles that Turkey has more working women filmmakers than Hollywood, though I have also been told that there are still woefully few women working in the Turkish film industry.  What do you see as the main challenges for Turkish women who work, or want to work, within their own country’s film industry?  

OU:  Filmmaking is still a male dominated field also in Turkey as well as all around the world. However, numbers of women filmmakers have been increasing in the Turkish film industry recently.

To quote from Sinemanin Disil Yuzu (by Semire Ruken Ozturk), “6,035 films were produced in the Turkish film industry between 1914-2002 and only 96 of them produced by women directors whose population is less than 25.  [Clarification: fewer than 25 women directors made the aforementioned 96 films.]  The first woman director in Turkey was Cahide Sonku who directed the film Vatan ve Namik Kemal as co-director in 1951. She was also the first star as a remarkable actress in Turkish Cinema.”  Antrakt Sinema [newspaper] (by Deniz Yavuz) states “seventy-three Turkish films were screened in movie theaters in Turkey in 2011” and seven of them directed by women.  Furthermore one of these films was a co-director project and three of them were women.

Besides experienced female directors such as Canan Gerede, Biket Ilhan, Tomris Giritlioglu, Handan Ipekci, and Yesim Ustaoglu, for the last 20 years, there have emerged some first or second time feature length filmmakers such as İlksen Basarir, Pelin Esmer, Belma Bas, Cigdem Vitrinel, and Belmin Soylemez recently.

The progress is good in Turkey yet we still need positive discrimination for women in the film industry. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean all the film projects by women have to be supported even if they are not good.  It’s not fair.  Finally, I would like to say that a “bad film” is a “bad film” whether directed by a woman or a man.


To connect with this filmmaker or to support her work, please check out these links:
Twitter: @orkideunsur 
Tacebook:  Orkide Ünsür (/Orkide.Unsur)
YouTube: orkideunsur
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post edited 4-27-2012

 

SPOTLIGHT: Small Small Thing

Writer-director Jessica Vale, with producer Nika Offenbac, are making a powerful documentary film called Small Small Thing about the epidemic of rape in Liberia, focusing on the story of a mother working for justice after her young daughter is raped.  Today, rape is the #1 crime in Liberia.  Vale and Offenbac (with co-producer Barnie Jones) have spent the last three years making this film which is currently in post-production and raising funds through Kickstarter.  Together, Vale and Offenbac are founders of the Take My Picture LLC production company in New York City dedicated to the pursuit of long form non-fiction works.

Trailer and Pitch:

SMALLSMALL THING

Crowdfunding through: Kickstarter

Campaign goal: $25,000

Days left on campaign:  Less than a day (28 hours / deadline April 8)

Logline

Caught between tribalism and democracy, a Liberian mother is at odds with her country after the brutal rape of her six-year old daughter.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of J. Vale)

About Olivia:

“As we were there, we had to navigate the same channels that she and her mother were also trying to navigate to find out their own answers.”

– Jessica Vale, director

“If this were to happen here in the United States, maybe she could get therapy.  There’s no such thing as therapy in Liberia…. [S]he represents thousands of little girls behind her that we haven’t met; we haven’t heard their stories.”

– Barnie Jones, co-producer

Synopsis

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in women’s issues. Yet according to U.N. statistics in 2012, rape is still the #1 crime in Liberia, and the majority of the victims are children.  Médecins Sans Frontières in Liberia reports their youngest survivor at 21 months old.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

Small Small Thing begins at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and urban center of this West African country.  Olivia is 9 years old, severely malnourished and handicapped. Her condition is life threatening. Believing her injuries to be the result of witchcraft, Olivia’s mother had been hiding her for years.  The doctors conclude her condition is the result of a brutal rape that took place when Olivia was 7 years old. When pressured to reveal her rapist, Olivia names her cousin.

Olivia's mother Bendu (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

This diagnosis has severe consequences. Originally from deep in the Liberian jungle, Olivia and her mother are shunned from their tribe for seeking outside help.  They are left stranded in Monrovia at the mercy of President Sirleaf’s government, facing the most difficult decision of all. What price are they willing to pay for justice?

Photo courtesy of J. Vale

Credits

Jessica Vale (Writer/Director)
Nika Offenbac and Jessica Vale (Producers)
Barnie Jones (Co-producer)

Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:

Facebook: /SmallSmallThing

Twitter: @Smallsmallfilm

Website:  www.smallsmallthing.com
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Do you have a film you are trying to finance that you would like to feature here?  Send us an email with a website and social media page(s) for your film.

INTERVIEW: Cassandra Hollis, director of “A Praying Grandmother”

BIOGRAPHY

Filmmaker Cassandra Hollis

Cassandra Hollis has directed, produced and written eight films, many of which are award-winning. The award-winning SAG film, The Altar, is airing now through 2013 on the TCT television network in the U.S. and airing on television networks in the U.K. and  South Africa. Her three-part film series about the Underground Railroad, Mattie, Johnny and Smooth White Stones: Parts I, II, & III, was selected for inclusion in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program and distributed in schools, universities and libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada. In June, Mattie: Part III will screen at the 2012 Harriet Tubman Underground Conference in Cambridge, Maryland. Currently, she is co-producing a feature film with Gospel great, Helen Baylor, based on Ms. Baylor’s life story, A Praying Grandmother: The Helen Baylor Story.
(Bio updated by Her Film 4-5-12.)


Her Film:  Can you talk a bit about your newest film and what drew you to this topic?  How did you reach out to the film’s subject, renowned gospel singer Helen Baylor?

Cassandra Hollis: Amazingly, this project “found” me. Ms. Baylor saw me on a local television talk show discussing my previous 8 films and she said the Lord told her I was “the one.” For years, she’d wanted to tell her life story in film but never felt right about the
timing nor about who she could entrust her story with. She said she told her husband that she wanted to contact me and before I left the station, I received a note that they had called.

Poster for A Praying Grandmother (Courtesy of C. Hollis)

HF:  In addition to you adapting Helen Baylor’s life story — published as No Greater Love (Vision Publishing 2007) — you are also working directly with her on the film and she appears with you in the pitch video on your website.  Can you describe the type of relationship you have and the challenges that also go along with this filmmaker/film subject dynamic?

CH:  Yes, she is the Co-Producer of the film and we have become like family during the process of bringing her story to life. As a filmmaker, working with her as I adapted her autobiography into the screenplay was unlike any writing experience I have ever had. Her
recall is amazing. She can describe details of some of the biggest triumphs and tragedies in her life. She even remembers details of furnishings, etc. It was rewarding to me as the screenwriter that when she read the screenplay, she said that not only did she feel like she
was reliving everything but that it seemed I was there as it happened.  It was great being able to just call her or send over questions as I worked on the script.

Some of the challenges in our filmmaker/film subject relationship include just maintaining the daily grind of what it takes to bring a project like this to the screen. We live in different states and she travels a great deal with her singing career so sometimes it may take a few days to get a response back when I needed it yesterday (smile). I am just so proud of her commitment to share her story so that someone else may be delivered and helped. We’re on the same page with the same vision for the film so ultimately it all works out well.

HF:  You’ve worked in television as on-air talent, as a producer and a director.  To what extent do you draw off of your early experiences in this arena to inform your filmmaking, especially in the context of narrative filmmaking when much of your past work has been journalistic?

CH:  What a great observation. I believe I draw a great deal from my journalistic roots and they readily inform my choices in subject matter. My films have addressed all sorts of social issues and ills, including homelessness, abortion, abstinence, centenarians,
Underground Railroad.. I have been able to address these issues within the context of narrative filmmaking and never been accused of making say a glorified documentary or glorified news story. So my films really just show the humanity behind whatever the issue may be. The issue is positioned as subtext largely because I’m not necessarily preaching about it. Nor am I necessarily taking a position. I just present it for audiences to choose whether they want to focus on it or stay focused on the characters and plot.

HF:  Every experience in life changes us somehow, and as filmmakers, we spend so much time dealing with a script, story structure, etc.  It is inevitable that these experiences change us as people and artists.  How has your experience making A Praying Grandmother changed you as a person and as a filmmaker?  What lessons have you learned in the process that you could share here?

CH:  As a filmmaker, making this film has helped me to grow as a producer as well as director. My previous projects involved smaller budgets and therefore, I had not experienced all of the details along the way that must be covered when bringing a project to the big screen. I knew what the steps were but had not done them. Experience is the best teacher. Because of this experience I am well equipped to do more films on a large scale. I believe it helped me take my vision to global status.

Grandmother Hudson, grandmother of Helen Baylor (Courtesy of C. Hollis)

Personally, I have even more compassion for people. To some degree, I’ve always wanted my films to help people. But, with this project I think lives will be saved. It has taken that mandate to a higher place for me. I really feel a sense of responsibility and urgency with all of the recent tragedies in the Entertainment industry. Helen was a rising R&B star plagued by her addictions to cocaine and all kinds of drugs. But she had a ‘praying grandmother’ who literally did not cease to pray for her. Someone needs to see that the power of prayer can really help pull a person from the depths. Someone needs to see that you can be delivered from drugs by the power of prayer. Prayer often becomes a cliche’ but Faith and prayer are powerful weapons. Someone needs to see that and get help. As I mentioned before, the film does not preach and is not super spiritual. It simply, elegantly and powerfully tells what happened to this amazing, annointed Gospel Great and how she lived to tell it!

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To learn more about this film or to connect with the filmmaker, please visit:

Website: www.holyhillproductions.com

Twitter: @HelenBaylorFilm and @cassandrahollis

Facebook: /cassandrahollis

LinkedIn: /CassandraHollis

Maria P. Williams: First African American Woman Film Producer

Maria P. Williams is a name that few film buffs and even film historians would know, but she is the earliest known African American woman film producer.  She has one film to her name, The Flames of Wrath (1923). Currently, only one frame of the film is known to exist, and it is housed in the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916-1977 in the Young Research Library at the University of California Los Angeles.

Maria P. Williams pictured at left                             with her husband, Jesse L. Williams

How would I know this?  Well, back in 2006 I took a U.S. film history course at Indiana University (South Bend) which helped to pique my interest in women filmmakers.  I ended up doing a presentation on Lois Weber (another fascinating and prolific filmmaker about whom much more is known), but through it all I was mostly interested in the names of women filmmakers which few people outside of academe might know.  Maria Priscilla Williams is one of those filmmakers.

She was based in Kansas City, Missouri, and worked with her husband, Jesse, in their film production company, the Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange.  Jesse was President and General Manager while Maria was Assistant Manager, Secretary and Treasurer.  I have spent several years researching Maria P. Williams.  I’ve utilized every electronic resource I can find; accessed (and purchased copies of) physical records through the Kansas City Public Library; communicated with film scholars such as Charles Musser at Yale, Jane Gaines who was at Duke at the time (and now at Columbia), Black women filmmaker expert Yvonne Welbon, and Charlene Regester at the University of North Carolina; bought a membership to Ancestry.com to access census forms and marriage and death records; even secured a reader’s card to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University (with some help from an Oxford contact).  I couldn’t find much, though.  Williams has haunted me for years, and she still remains a mystery.  Jane Gaines invited me to write a piece for the Women Film Pioneers Sourcebook back in 2006 (originally a physical book schedule to be published by the University of Illinois Press but now an exclusively online project at the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University).  The piece included four other Black women filmmakers from the silent and early sound era of American cinema, but Maria P. Williams stood out as someone I have always wanted to research more.

Dr. Yvonne Welbon dedicated her doctoral studies to researching and revealing African American women filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema up through the present day (this was back in the 1990’s).  She set up the Sisters In Cinema website as a resource and wrote not only her doctoral dissertation on this topic, but also made a documentary film called Sisters In Cinema in which she interviews a number of Black women filmmakers. (If you’re interested in reading her dissertation, you can find it through university interlibrary loan, and you can purchase her documentary through her website.)

I look forward to the day when I’m able to dedicate more time to furthering my research on Williams.  Until then, I remain a devoted admirer.  If you research silent era women filmmakers, or Black women filmmakers of the early cinema, (or are simply interested in this topic), please get in contact with me!

Come back next week to read my piece on Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, activist, scholar, wife of Paul Robeson, and filmmaker in her own right.

Writing for women, seeking women filmmakers for collaboration

Persephone Vandegrift is a writer who is looking to collaborate with women directors, producers, etc., to make movies about women.  Read on to find out more about Persephone and her work.

Would you like to collaborate with her?  Check out her contact information below and take action, and follow her on twitter @PersephWrites and @AllThngsHidden.

 

Who are you?

Persephone Vandegrift.

What do you do?

I write stage-plays, film scripts, short stories and odes.  Not always in that order.

What compels you to write what you do?

The Arts has always been a beacon for me. They are the best way I know to express who I am and the journey I am on in this lifetime. Writing is my way of understanding that journey and the journeys of others around me – whether it’s their past, present or future. It is a innate need, like being thirsty and knowing water will quench it – writing satiates my curiosity for everything – people, objects, history, the unexplainable, psychological, the forgotten, and the infamous. Once I get a germ of an idea, I won’t rest until my head has figured how to explain it through writing.

Someone asked me recently what it was like to be inside my head while I was writing or developing an idea and the only way I could describe it was that it was like languishing on a warm tropical beach, but at the same time being dangled over the edge of the Grand Canyon by my heels.  Writing, for me, is also like being an archaeologist – what will I uncover if I dig – right – here.  I write to understand things I don’t know, and to put those things I do know to the test.

What types of stories do you pursue?

Usually they pursue me. Seriously, they find me, pin me down, smack me in the face, pull my hair, tie my shoes together, make me walk into poles, pick up the wrong book, smile at the wrong person, talk to the right person, make me leave in the middle of social functions, really this list would never end. The stories that come out are stories that need to be told when and how they want it. It could be one from thousands of years ago or it could be from this morning.

I have learned (the hard way, see list above for more info) to stop telling them when it’s ‘a good time’ for them to show themselves, and ceased dictating to them ‘how’ they are going to be written.

The stories that draw me in first are ones that have been lost, ignored or are uncomfortable to talk about. Mythology and history play key roles, but there are plenty of heroines and heroes being created every day whose stories go unheard.

But more to the point, as a woman, I write ‘for’ women.  That is and has always been my goal – to write more roles for women in the theatre and film industry. But above all, the story will dictate the gender of the characters.  I just like the majority of them to be women because I am one, and it makes it easier for me to understand my gender, and if I don’t, it gives me a great opportunity to try.

What are you working on now?

I just finished two feature scripts, the first, Death of a Mortal Woman, is a historical biopic about a Roman widow trying to secure a legacy for her family in the face of empirical machinations, political corruption, and eventually her own death. The second, The Curse of Mercy Wood, is a supernatural chiller with a little historical thrown in (because I can’t help it) about a young girl who, while visiting her grandparents, inadvertently becomes a participant in a centuries-old ghost story in order to solve the mystery behind it.

I would love a woman director for either. I have several short scripts and plays. I also like to write for specific people or if someone has a particular character in mind, to build a script around it. I just did that with a recent project and I loved the challenge of it. My other short script, All Things Hidden, won a Certificate of Excellence in 2011 and is set to shoot this spring in Seattle. All Things Hidden was inspired by my experience growing up around domestic violence and the ramifications that experience can have on one’s life.  It also explores the process of how we overcome those experiences, or ‘morph’ out of them, and what does it take to do that? What do we have to put ourselves through in order to transcend our past?

I am working on a children’s fairy series (books), developing a TV pilot, and outlining two feature scripts, a rom/com/dram & a fantasy, which means there’s a lot of post-it notes and pieces of paper to sort through…tomorrow.

What are you looking for?

I am looking for women directors, producers, etc. who are interested in scripts written by women, like myself.  I am always open to writing for people or with people, short scripts or features.  I honestly do spend my waking hours writing,  researching new writing outlets, and networking to try to find women directors/producers. Nowadays a woman in this industry has to pretty much do everything; direct, produce, shoot, market, act, write. It makes it a bit more difficult to get noticed when one really only wants to write. But, I know they are out there, and hopefully looking for me too. I’m not giving up.

 

Contact details:

Persephone Vandegrift

vandepk77 at hotmail.com

www.persephonevandegrift.webs.com