Interview with Özer Kiziltan, Director of "Takva"

Crisis of Faith in Modern Turkey

The film "Takva" – the first by Özer Kiziltan – deals with a controversial issue. But it still became a commercial and critical success. Amin Farzanefar spoke to the director about Dervish orders and other Muslim topics in Turkish cinema

​​Your film shows us a "fundamentalist" who doesn't live at all like a radical, but he still finds it hard to fit in to the wider society. Is this the first film on this topic in Turkey?

Özer Kiziltan: There are many films about Muslim topics in Turkish cinema but no-one has ever filmed inside a mosque or within a religious order before. So-called "white cinema" has produced a few Muslim propaganda films. And there have been many films which attack the Dervishes and make fun of Islam, like for example "Vurun kahpeyi". We wanted to take a more conciliatory approach.

And how did you come up with the film's plot?

Kiziltan: The father of our screenwriter Önder Cakar was an atheist until he was 55 years old, and then he became a very pious Muslim. We worked on the film for about five years, the screenplay was rewritten around twenty times and six new versions were written. Each time there were new ideas, new characters and new actors.

Özer Kiziltan (photo: Berlinale)
Özer Kiziltan

​​"Takva" seems to be very realistic – for example the Sufi ritual, the so-called "Dhikr," which looks as if it comes out of a documentary. How far are there documentary elements in the film?

Kiziltan: Everything is supposed to be close to the reality of life in the order. And that was above all the result of intensive research and many conversations with people. In the case of the "Dhikr," I must say that we had both actors as well as real strictly religious Dervishes, whose friends also took part.

Was there any criticism of the project on the side of the order?

Kiziltan: The Dervishes helped us a great deal throughout the process of making the film because the film deals with their own problems, and they identified with the screenplay. They believe that nothing in this world can really touch you or damage you, so it was no problem for them to work with us on the film. They saw positive aspects in it and had no criticisms.

How far did working on the film have an influence on the Dervishes themselves? Were they able to understand the issues you were getting at?

Kiziltan: You can't ask them that directly. But they are questioning themselves currently whether they should continue to live such a purely spiritual life, or whether they should move towards greater worldliness. That is really an issue for them.

"Takva" means "asceticism." And sexual need drives the main character to madness in the end. Should Muharrem live even more abstemiously, or should he accept his desires?

​​Kiziltan: There are many reasons why Muharrem goes mad. He wants to be a good man, close to God, but there are the temptations of money and politics – and the daughter of the Sheikh. It's a complicated puzzle, a tragic story, and many Muslims feel sympathy for Muharrem.

From time to time one hears enlightened Turks say things like, "We come from Istanbul, such things don't happen round here." Do they really have such a distance from the religious traditions of the country?

Kiziltan: The history of Istanbul is a mirror of the history of this religious order. In Istanbul there are 2,500 religious houses, in the whole of Turkey there are 25,000 and even members of the government belong to them. They are represented throughout society.

The division between religion and the modern is not that deep then?

Kiziltan: I myself am an atheist, I don't believe in God, but Dervishes and religious people have worked with me. So I can't see a division. Many of our modern atheists have religious parents. We're not that far away from each other. And the Sheikh of the order we worked with has just seen the film and complimented me on it only a few minutes ago.

This film would not have worked if you hadn't had such an extraordinary actor as Erkan Can involved. Was it hard to cast the role? And how is it that he gets into the role so deeply?

​​Kiziltan: He had five years to prepare himself for the role. And as a well-known actor he was irreplaceable for us. From the beginning it was clear that Erkan Can would be part of the team. He belongs to our group "Yeni Sinemacilar," and has already been in five films which I've directed. He'll be in our 150th film too.

You won nine prizes in Antalya, and then after that your film became a surprise hit with the Turkish public. "Takva" has just played at the International Berlinale in Germany. How do you explain such a success?

Kiziltan: To be honest, that's a question I ask myself.

How did you come to work with Fatih Akin who's the co-producer of this film?

Kiziltan: I got to know Fatih many years ago at the Antalya Film Festival, and we are now friends. We have very similar ideas about cinema, and when we found the story for "Takva," we agreed very quickly to work together on it.

On that point: has anything changed in the nature of German-Turkish cooperation in film since Fatih Akin's film "Head-On"?

Kiziltan: Our friendship goes back a long way before "Head-On" – all the way back to Serif Gören, who co-produced several films in Germany. We know many directors who live here. Fatih Akin himself has just made a new film in Turkey, and we helped him with that. You can do lots of things together. It doesn't matter whether you live in Germany or Canada.

Interview: Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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