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Rocking Istanbul

Filmmaker Fatih Akin speaks with Daniel Bax about "Crossing the Bridge", his new film on Istanbul's music scene.

Tageszeitung: Mr. Akin, after the huge success of "Head On", instead of making a new feature film you have made a documentary about the music scene in Istanbul. Is that a cunning move to deflect the huge expectations people have of you?

Fatih Akin: No, it's a coincidence. The idea for "Crossing the Bridge" came during the filming of "Head On" when Alexander Hacke (the bassist from the Einstürzende Neubauten) was making recordings for the soundtrack with Selim Sesler's orchestra. They had no common language so they had to communicate through the music. I found that fascinating. I see "Crossing the Bridge" as a sort of supplement to "Gegen die Wand" ("Head On") because music played a key role in that film too.

Should "Crossing the Bridge" be seen as a sort of "making of"? The film does explain the background to the music.

Yes that's part of it. But as in all my films the focus of my interest is on particular characters. Lots of the characters in "Crossing the Bridge", like the street musicians or the rappers, could have stemmed from my feature films. The music is the main focus of the film, but we came at it through the people, not the instruments.

xxThe quarter Galata in Istanbul. © corazon / intervista

Why did you decide to make Alexander Hacke,
of all people, the bass player of the Einstürzenden Neubauten (more), the front man on your tour through Istanbul? He seems a bit like a tourist in a strange city.

I wanted to show how someone finds their way around a city – not someone that knows it inside out. I had the idea of a detective film in the back of my head while we were filming. That's why some scenes have a slight film noir element to them. A detective wandering through the alley ways between the houses. Istanbul is ideal for this.

But you always have this foreign perspective. Why didn't you play the guide yourself?

It was very important for me to have a musician. I have a lot in common with Alexander Hacke. The way he discovered the city is very similar to the way I discovered it for myself, bit by bit. And apart from that there's something very Western about him. The way he wanders through the streets he looks like a Viking sometimes, or a cowboy. I liked the image of a giant walking through a foreign city. He's a bit like The Dude in "The Big Lebowski".

xxAlexander Hacke, bassist of the Einstürzende Neubauten in front of the Büyük Londra Oteli. © corazon / intervista

The film also starts with a very Western sound, with rock and hip hop, and then goes deeper and deeper into Oriental sounds.

We chose this musical development deliberately. Starting with electronic music, rock and hip hop that the viewers are familiar with, we progressed gradually to the roots of this mixture, from globalised Istanbul to the people's identity. I know my German friends needed years before they find their way into Turkish music, and before they got used to it. The first association is generally: "What's all that caterwauling?" That's why we chose to structure the film this way. So when you hear Orhan Gencebay or Müzeyyen Senar at the end of the film, you're not so shocked.

xxOrient Expressions are among the hottest DJs in Istanbul. © Doublemoon Records

There's still a lot of material for 90 minutes.

I shot 150 hours of material and spent seven months cutting the film. And there I was thinking I could just casually knock off a little film on the side.

For most people, "Crossing the Bridge" will seem like an exhaustive panorama. But really it's just a small slice of what's happening in Istanbul.

Sure, people in Turkey ask us why we haven't included this or that musician. However German audiences will be almost overwhelmed with all the names and sounds. But it was this feeling of being pushed to the limit, of there being too much for your ears to cope with, that I wanted to convey. Because that's what the city's like.

xxMüzeyyen Senar is the Grande Dame of classical oriental salon music. / Rapper Ceza & Gang. © corazon / intervista

You could have chosen completely different musicians.

I had completely different names on the list. But it was difficult enough as it was to make the musicians enthusiastic about the project. Some of them asked who else was taking part. And then they'd say: Well if he's in it, I'm out. That was in the air the whole time. For example the percussionist Burhan Öcal told the press that the film was all about him – and immediately a load of other musicians pulled out. That could have blown the whole project. Now he's not even in it.

But the film ends with portraits of Orhan Gencebay, the high-priest of the Arabesque style and the pop diva Sezen Aksu, not just two of the biggest stars but your personal heroes too?

Of course personal taste plays a major role. We decided on Orhan Gencebay because he's got an almost mythical status. Apart from that we focussed on musical influences. When we asked the band Baba Zula who their influences were, their answer was unequivocal: Orhan Gencebay. Because he was the one who introduced the Saz (long-necked Anatolian lute) to the city. And Baba Zula are practically synonymous with the electric Saz.

xxSezen Aksu is considered THE voice of Istanbul. Alexander Hacke accompanies her with a semi-acoustic Gretsch-guitar. © corazon / intervista

Sezen Aksu was very aloof in the film– even more so than Orhan Gencebay who sits behind his desk as if it was a fortress. The scene with Aksu is very static. She didn't even grant you an interview. Why?

I asked her politely if she would give me an interview and she politely refused. So I didn't pursue it. But we nevertheless became very close friends. That was the most fantastic thing for me. After all, I'm still a fan of hers, and I've used her songs in all my films. In the meantime she's said I can use her songs any time, and she's even offered to write me a soundtrack. And on top of that she invited me to direct her next video.

xxFatih Akin during the shooting of "Crossing The Bridge - The Sound of Istanbul". © corazon / intervista

Very little of this close relationship comes over in the film. Did the Turkish stars want to preserve their status?

Definitely. Sezen Aksu is a queen, and every queen has her court. As soon as you've penetrated through all this, everything is very relaxed. But first you have to get there.

Aren't things similar with you now?

No. Of course with my company "Corazon" I've built up an infrastructure of people around me. You need this after a while if you're going to do all the things you want to. But I try to keep this separate from my private life. And I'm not a pop star.

But since "Head On" you're one of Germany's most important directors and everybody wants your opinion on every subject – from women's rights to Turkey's EU entry. Does this make you weigh you words more carefully?

Yes, although I really don't want to take on this responsibility. Who am I anyway? I'm a freak, I'm chaotic. I want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker.

ccSelim Sesler: Very few clarinettists are as adept with their instruments as the Roma Selim Sesler. © corazon / intervista

"Head On" anticipated the recent discussion about honour killings and forced marriages. How do you feel about this debate?

The good thing is that people are saying: here are people who need our help, and we have to do something for them. I think that what we can do is invest in education long-term. The higher the level of education, the lower the chances of this sort of thing happening. But it can't be changed overnight. It needs time and money. On the other hand there's the danger of over-generalisation. In other words branding them all as machos and peasants. This is a shortcut to racism. The debate balances along this tightrope. Why did this discussion not take place when Tevfik Baser's film "40 qm Deutschland" ("Forty Square Meters of Germany" from 1986) came out?

Why didn't it?

Because the film was quite simply ignored. But now? I presume it has a lot do with Turkey's EU entry.

xxOrhan Gencebay is one of the biggest stars in Turkey, the Elvis of "Arabesque-Music". © corazon / intervista

Your film had a huge resonance also among the German-Turkish community. Do you see yourself as a bringer of enlightenment?

Of all my films, that is certainly the one seen by the most German-Turks. This is simply because the film was shown in Turkey and Germany at the same time. All Turkish households get their information from Turkish television. They know exactly what films are running in Turkey and if the films happen to be on in Germany at the same time then they'll go and see them. That's parallel media society for you. We made use of this structure with "Head On" and it paid off. This is why "Crossing the Bridge" is running in Turkey now too.

To reach the Turks in Germany?

This is very important for me. My brothers and sisters in Germany who are so fond of outing themselves as Turks by hanging a crescent moon around their necks know almost nothing about Turkey today. They've never heard of the writer Orhan Pamuk or the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan or the band Baba Zula, and they know nothing at all about Turkish history. It's like black Americans who know nothing about their history. After all they don't learn it in school. So they should be interested in my film, because it shows what's happening in Turkey today. That's why it would be a shame if they never got wind of it.


The article originally appeared in German in the tageszeitung on June 9, 2005.

Daniel Bax is music editor of the tageszeitung.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european