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Film critic Yeşim Tabak penned this article for the catalogue of the 22th. Golden Boll International Film Festival where I was heading the jury of the National Films Competition.
Film critics love to make generalizations in order to refer to the sociology of a specific period or trends in cinema. This is the very reason why you won’t always find Ümit Ünal mentioned in pieces that summarize the recent history of Turkish cinema under particular movements. Quite simply, we don’t know where to place Ünal. We can’t easily pin him down or class him together with a group of other filmmakers. Although he came into our lives as a Yeşilçam screenwriter in the 1980s, we would be wrong, for example, to describe him as ‘an ambassador of the Yeşilçam tradition’. Similarly, it would be hard to identify him with the spirit of the 1980s. After all, it is the same person who resurfaces at the beginning of the 2000s as the director of 9, a feature both independent and experimental in terms of form, style and production setup. It was also the first Turkish film to be shot entirely in digital format.
Ümit Ünal is like a grown-up (because he can empathize) child in a country of adult children (seemingly serious on the outside but stuck in a narcissistic phase on the inside): he is prepared to experiment, to explore unknown avenues; he is a multitalented artist (who is actively involved in literature and illustration, as well as having dabbled with theatre and music) eager to follow his imagination and content to remain in a ‘state of becoming’ rather than conform to a rigid schema. Despite this eternally youthful outlook, we see even in Teyzem (My Aunt), which he wrote when he was just 21, and in his other best films a screenwriter aware of the complexity of feelings. My Aunt won Ünal a place in the hearts of the Turkish public at the point where art house and commercial cinema overlap. With heart wrenching authenticity, the drama builds a world from tragicomic manifestations of halfway modernization, from individualization thwarted by hypocritical social morality, womanhood disabled by neighbourhood pressures, and the amalgam of ‘best friend / half mother/ lover of sorts’ that defines the aunt-nephew relationship. The film brought to light a wound that we knew was there, but hadn’t named.
The success of My Aunt gave Ünal the chance to gain experience as the writer (or co-writer) of numerous films in the twilight years of the Yeşilçam era during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even more significantly, it allowed him to work with masters of the older generation, such as Atıf Yılmaz, Şerif Gören and Ertem Eğilmez. The results include Milyarder (The Billionaire), Hayallerim, Aşkım ve Sen (My Dreams, My Love and You), Arkadaşım Şeytan (Devil, My Friend), Piano Piano Bacaksız (Piano Piano Kid), Amerikalı (The American) and Berlin in Berlin.
Yeşilçam’s masters were used to working fast with limited production budgets. They represent a kind of filmmaking that sometimes produced masterpieces, sometimes churned out commercial fare with only sparse pleasing qualities, and alternated between the idealistic artist and the humble labourer. One of the things Ünal gained from working with these masters was the need for practicality regarding the production process. Anyone who has worked on one of his film sets will confirm that when constrained by circumstances Ünal knows how to focus on a solution rather than take it out on his cast and crew. His career is quite unlike most others in the present-day Turkish film industry inasmuch as it follows a zigzagging path that has enabled him to take on different roles (as just screenwriter, just director or ‘auteur’, but also as a TV drama series or commercials director), and projects that are sometimes entirely personal, sometimes manifestly commercial. Another aspect in which Ünal shares common ground with the older generations is his ability to construct a classic narrative where events follow on from one another on the principle of action and reaction. Ümit Ünal is above all a storyteller. Rather than obsessively rework a theme, he produces all kinds of stories that demand very different production setups. If you try asking what is in the pipeline, you will find scores of astonishing projects awaiting the appropriate conditions, some of which may never be made.
Perhaps the most successful of Ünal’s many and varied projects are those films where his auteur presence is strong and the production is defined by a minimal cast and crew, limited locations and a low budget. The most obvious examples that come to mind are 9, in which he digs the dirt on the occasionally romanticized ‘traditional Turkish neighbourhood’, and then Ara and Nar (The Pomegranate), where he explores characters with desirable careers in the city who aspire to the bourgeoisie yet represent a state of ‘inbetweenness’ on the matter of modernization. These three pictures expose a sense of decay fuelled by social morality and anxieties about image; and they are fiercely critical. That said, Ünal’s concern is not to judge or be critical. He accepts his characters with their various flaws; he builds empathy with them, while not necessarily feeling the need to show sympathy. What the director really finds interesting and significant is how the flaws of the different characters interact, how they trigger one another off, and what kind of conundrums they create. Views concerning his other work as a director are various. But each of these films have added colour to Turkish cinema history in respect of the subject matter they deal with.
Gölgesizler (The Shadowless), an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Hasan Ali Toptaş, deals with the relationship between time and place in a surreal structure that roams the boundaries of the mind. The film also presents possibly the most courageous example of contemporary cinema in the formal sense. Understanding or not understanding the picture and liking or not liking it are issues that have been much discussed. Yet whichever way you decide, Ünal has created an atmosphere that is sure to be remembered. In Anlat İstanbul (Istanbul Tales), he adapts western fairy tales to present-day Istanbul and brings together a team of five directors, including himself. This is a film where he has the chance to combine being experimental with high-budget filmmaking and an all-star cast. Inspired by the fantastic B movies of 1970s and 1980s Turkish cinema, Kaptan Feza (Captain Feza) fits into the same unsophisticated B-movie mould itself. On the other hand, with Ses (The Voice), which was written by Uygar Şirin, Ünal successfully raises the bar of the Turkish thriller genre, which has all too often been condemned to cheap populism.
For Sofra Sırları (Secrets of Turkish Cuisine), which he will begin shooting next year, Ünal has cast Hülya Avşar, the diva of Turkish popular culture, in the role of a serial killer. Ünal’s career, like many of his characters, epitomizes different extremes and features many instances of ‘inbetweenness’. But it is also evidence of the very broad perception of the world that can go hand in hand with not being any single, clear-cut thing. Looking back on his 30-year background in cinema, you can’t help but look forward impatiently to his upcoming films.