Saturday, 31 December 2011

Turkish cinema was enjoying a Golden Age, every film released breaking new records. And one man wrote the scripts for almost all those memorable films: Safa Önal.

As Turkey’s ‘Hollywood', Yeşilçam has a special place in world cinema. Despite the passage of time, generational differences and all the technical developments in the field, its frequently watched productions retain their unique aura even years later. Their plots, characters, earnest dialogues, music and visual elements defy classification. Turkish cinema came into its own with Yeşilçam. In a period when movie theaters were filled to capacity, handsome actors and beautiful actresses became stars along with the films they played in. As the films were breaking all box-office records and the actors graced the silver screen with superb performances, the name of one scriptwriter who had dedicated his life to the cinema appeared at the bottom of almost every screenplay. Safa Önal, who first made his mark in Yeşilçam with ‘Bloody Money', shot in 1953, chalked up a record of his own with more than four-hundred filmscripts, a success achieved by no other screenwriter.

Safa Önal is one of the first names that comes to mind at the mention of Turkish cinema. Can you tell us about the years when you got into Yeşilçam?

To tell you the truth, a brief answer to that question is impossible, because it’s a long story. Let me say first of all that going into film as a profession had never crossed my mind. I had no such ideal or aspiration; I was merely an avid cinema-goer. It all began when I was thirteen and developed a passionate interest in writing. I was a voracious and insatiable reader. My first piece of writing appeared in a children’s magazine called ‘Bilmece’ in September 1945 and my short story writing developed rapidly. When I was nineteen my stories were appearing in the daily Milliyet four days a week. Later I started writing for ‘Hafta', Turkey’s highest circulation magazine of the time. When I returned from my stint in the army, I was editor of a magazine called ‘Yelpaze’ for eight years. In 1953, when I was put in charge of Yelpaze, a newspaper called ‘Yeni Sabah’ asked me to produce a script for a graphic novel. I worked on it one whole summer. When producer Hasan Kazankaya heard the story, he said it would make a good film and suggested introducing me to Orhon Murat Arıburnu, so I read the story to him as well. He listened impassively without interrupting. When I finished, he said, “Congratulations! I really liked that story and I want to turn it into a film. What do you think?” The next day I went to Duru Film Studios. I still remember the cool wheather: the color of the sun, the smell in the air... I was twenty-two years old and very excited about this new beginning. Not long after that I started working with Arıburnu on the film, and ‘Kanlı Para', with Ayhan Işık and Nedret Güvenç in the lead roles, was shot at the end of September. And that is how I came to be in the cinema.

You have written over four-hundred screenplays. You’re even in the Guinness Book of Records for most number of scripts made into movies. Had you ever imagined such a thing was possible?
We were talking about 1953; in those years the Guinness project was nowhere in the works. There were no rewards for art or individual success in those days. Obviously nothing of the sort even crossed my mind. I felt I had a mission, and I loved it. A life. How else can I put it? Not a 9 to 5 job in other words. Everything you do in the cinema is followed closely, imprinted on the memory, because pictures have an influence far beyond the movie theater. In modern culture, ways of doing things often become popular through the cinema.  Not only that, you have an obligation to avoid using slang, bad conversational style and repetition of words and to use proper and correct words that convey the richness of our language. All these things place a tremendous responsibility on you. Filming so many scripts naturally took a lot of work as well as bringing success, but I could never have imagined it would be like this.

Turkish cinema has made great strides in recent years. As someone who has witnessed the turning points in Turkish cinema firsthand, how you would access the situation today?

It’s extremely encouraging. I’ve been serving on the festival juries for years. Until a few years ago only a handful of films came to us to be judged. Today, when the cost of making a film has skyrocketed, a young generation of filmmakers willing to undergo a myriad of material and emotional hardships has emerged in the Turkish cinema. To give an example: for the first time in years it is possible now to put together a short list for the Antalya Golden  Orange Film Festival. In the old days very few films came directly before the jury; more than enough films are being produced now to warrant a pre-elimination. This also impacts favorably on movie-goers, and interest in Turkish cinema is growing accordingly. This is especially gratifying to those of us who have devoted our lives to the cinema. I heartily congratulate the young Turkish filmmakers on all their efforts to take Turkish cinema to greater heights.

‘Hicran Sokağı’ ('Separation Street'), a film for which you not only wrote the script but which you also directed, opened in Turkish movie theaters in December, bringing you back into circulation with movie-goers after a lengthy hiatus. How has it been received?

In terms of its cast, ‘Hicran Sokağı’ is a first in Turkish cinema; but I’m afraid it is also going to be a last. Apart from the good and bad reviews, let me say this about the film: it is a film about the history of the Turkish cinema. Many actors both male and female who lived through and created the Golden Age of Turkish cinema came together in this film for the first time. Bringing many actors and actresses like Türkan Şoray, Hülya Koçyiğit, Selda Alkor, Cüneyt Arkın, Tanju Gürsu, Engin Çağlar together with young actors was a great pleasure. Bülent Kayabaş had this to say about the film at a press conference: “These people, whom you’d have a hard time getting together even to take a photograph, much less shoot a film, came together for the first time for Safa, who is like a big brother to them.”  I was truly honored to hear that!

You teach at the Creative Writing Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Association as well as at the Müjdat Gezen Art Center. Do you have other ongoing projects?

The Film-San Foundation wants to open a screenwriters’ workshop and came to me with a proposal to set it up. I accepted gladly because I really love this kind of work. I have a film project, and at the moment I’m writing a new screenplay as well. I’m also working on two short stories. One of them is about a person who was buried under the rubble for four days after the Gölcük earthquake in 1999 and was rescued from death purely by chance. I’m also thinking of completing one or two of three scripts I’ve been asked to produce by July.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ucan Daireler Istanbulda -1955 - Starring Orhan Ercin and Zafer Onen - Film Review

Ucan Daireler Istanbulda or Flying Saucers Over Istanbul is a film that less then a year ago was thought to have been lost forever but miraculously it appeared out of nowhere and then screened on Turkish MTV. Furthermore according to some reliable sources, there are plans of a dvd release in the works by the Turkish cult dvd label Horizon International, which is a subsidiary label to the Fanatik video brand. Well let's get on with the movie review then.
Flying Saucers Over Istanbul was made in the year 1955 by director, writer and star Orhan Ercin. Orhan Ercin plays a character called Sapsal (Silly) who is one half of a bumbling comedy duo with the other half being Zafer Onen who plays a character called Kasar (named after the cheese with the same name?). The duo are similar in style to a Turkish version of Abbott and Costello or perhaps comparable to an early Martin and Lewis or maybe even a combination of the two.
Sapsal is the straight man who in appearance is a little bit like Metin Akpinar. Whilst on the other hand Kashar is a poor shell of a man who stutters and stammers consistently and fouls up everything the duo set out to accomplish. Kasar also wears a giant camera around his neck for more than half the film. The camera is a very laughable low-budget prop obviously made from cardboard with odds and ends stuck together and painted silver and black.
The film begins at a nightclub, where our two bumbling reporters are covering the club's opening night. On stage there's an attractive lady performing a belly dance number in front of a large white malformed statue of a naked man without a pippy. The club is run by a group of old and ugly women who are rich, retired and without husbands. They put on a rauchy belly dancing show staged nightly to attract unsuspecting males and potential husbands for the lonely old ladies to entice with their money and wealth into marriage or companionship.
Later, the reporters are at the headquarters of their newspaper where they try to smooth talk their boss' secretary. The editor walks in and gives them a talking down to, for not covering incidents of UFO sightings all across Istanbul instead of chasing skirts and hanging out at night clubs.
Afterwards, they follow up some leads and tresspass into the premises of a scientific research centre which has a giant telescope with very old white bearded scientists who are tracking the ufos with their scientific equipment. After the scientists leave, our boys take over the electronic equipment and unwittingly direct the flying saucer to land nearby. In flight the saucer resembles a giant round aluminium pie pan with fireworks and sparklers attached to it and guided presumably with some fishing line. The landed flying saucer's hatch opens and a giant box-like silver robot walks out. The robot is obviously made from cardbord and perhaps panels of wood spray painted to look like metal with a few light bulbs here and there. Next a bevvy of Amazonian like space ladies appear from the spacecraft. Some of them are attractive and some of them look like those tough women from a roller derby team. They carry laser pistols that glow at the tip when fired. Sapsal and Kasar are captured by the alien ladies who are in search of men to possibly repopulate their planet which turns out to be Mars.This flick is similar in plot to those American sci-fi comedy films like Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Cat Women From The Moon, Queen Of Outer Space, or the later Mars Needs Women but in reverse. Anyway, our dim-witted reporters are taken inside the flying saucer with Martian women vying for the two mens' affections. The two convince the space women that they can find male partners for them all by selling a youth elixir that the women have bought with them from Mars. Next, through a viewing monitor on board the spacecraft they see the goings on at the nightclub mentioned earlier. The television monitor is in fact a picture frame the movie camera shoots through to make it look like a screen. A very similar low-budget effect was used in the superhero film by Cetin Inanc called 'Iron Claw, The Pirate', which is currently available from Onar Films.

Meanwhile, Sapsal and Kasar are back at the lonely old ladies strip club, where there's more hi-jinx instore as their youth elixir is taken away from them after they sell it to nearly everyone in the club. They are branded as charlatans by the club's clientele and are attacked by an angry mob who demand their youth potion. To appease the mob, the two men promise to get more youth elixir from their suppliers onboard the flying saucer. The frustrated women onboard the spaceship feel betrayed when the misguided pair return without any male companions for them . The reporters are forced into a cubicle and are tortured with heavy doses of electricity. They are then freed by one of the female crew who turns her raygun on her unsuspecting shipmates by zapping them to sleep. The somewhat hard to follow story continues on with more dancing by Earthbound and Martian women alike, a musical number and some slapstick routines are also featured with Kasar losing his elixir cannister at the club and crawling under tables and causing mayhem. He also puts on a fake pair of glasses with a rubber nose and has a raki drink-off with one of the club's drinkers who is impervious to getting drunk. After all this, a Turkish Marilyn Monroe lookalike called 'Mirelle Monro' flirts with the men at the club and then does a wild dance routine on stage as she clones herself whilst dancing to an oriental jazz tune. Finally, the space maidens arrive at the club and freeze everyone with their laser pistols and take Sapsal and Kasar away with them to Mars in their flying saucer. The End.
About the Soundtrack of the Movie; most of the music is by the Metin Bukey Orchestra which includes the famous Turkish clarinet player Mustafa Kandirali. Also there's a  musical number by Nuran Ercin.
All in all, Flying Saucers Over Istanbul is not what you would call a great science-fiction classic but it's still an enjoyable film to watch. It has a bit of everything, ie. comedy (but not always funny), Ala-Turka and oriental music, belly dancing, semi-naked ladies and laughable primitive sci-fi effects. This film was obviously geared more towards Turkish men who wanted to see a bit of Turkish cheesecake, at a time when this sort of thing must've seemed a bit morally bankrupt. Nothing like this was filmed in Australia or in many other countries in 1955. One last thing, a collectable note pad has been made available recently with the original film poster of Ucan Daireler Istanbulda on it's cover.