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

 

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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

Shattering the glass ceiling (on Danish television)

 

“Borgen” is a Danish television series that is currently being broadcast on LinkTV in the United States (found on DirecTV channel 375 and Dish Network channel 9410). It had its east coast premiere on Saturday, October 29 and west coast premiere the following day.  The series is about a woman politician who through a series of scandals (of other politicans) as well as through her own tenacity and clarity of vision she displays at a huge debate a couple of days before the election, becomes Prime Minister of Denmark!  The character is “Birgitte Nyborg Christensen” and is played by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen.  “Borgen” runs for 10 episodes in season one, four of which were directed by Annette K. Olesen and two by Louise Friedberg.

Its intrigue is certainly as high as the smash hit “West Wing” which ran on NBC in the States for several years, and gives you a good insight into the behind the scenes dealings within Danish politics. It’s also the first series I’ve heard of with a woman leader of the government since Geena Davis’ “Commander in Chief” series in which she played “President MacKenzie Allen.”  It ran on ABC during the 2005-2006 television season.  “Borgen” (“Castle” in Danish) also sold at MIPCOM in Cannes recently to South America (including Brazil, specifically), Europe, Asia and Australia, plus, the show is being turned into a board game!

Check out LinkTV (the best channel in existence, if you ask me, and I’m a six+ year faithful viewer!) to catch the next episodes of “Borgen” which will air on Saturdays at 9:30pm (Eastern) and Sundays at 9:30pm (Pacific), or you can watch online at www.linktv.com/borgen.  I tweeted about the show a few times last week in the run-up to its Saturday premiere since I’ve seen it advertised on LinkTV since September and couldn’t wait to watch.  The American media seems to not be paying much attention to the show — yet, and I hope this changes, but there are a handful of reviews out there if you’re the kind of person who wants to read about it before seeing it!

TV Review: Borgen – “Decency in the Middle” (Blogcritics Video)

Politics at Play in ‘Borgen’ (Community Voices blog of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Borgen Premieres Saturday Night on LinkTV (Women and Hollywood)