Interview with Semih Kaplanoglu

On the Enigmatic Beauty of Reality

Semih Kaplanoglu is one of the most prominent representatives of the new and internationally successful Turkish cinema. Amin Farzanefar spoke with him about his award-winning film "Bal – Honey" and the historical feeling of lost time in Turkey

Semih Kaplanoglu (photo: AP)
"I believe that reality is beautiful!" Semih Kaplanoglu with his Golden Bear trophy at the Berlinale 2010

​​ Kaplanoglu's film "Bal – Honey," winner of the Golden Bear, offers viewers a poetic cinema for the senses, where the soundtrack plays just as important a role as the magnificent camera work. The film follows the story of the seven-year-old Yusef, who gradually realizes that his father, a nature-loving beekeeper, is never going to return from the dark woods. "Bal" is the conclusion to his chronologically inverted trilogy about the poet Yusef. It also portrays the gradual disappearance of rural traditions in Turkey, a country invariably caught in the grips of modernization.

Your films are loaded with many, many puzzles in terms of their temporal sequence, chronology, and choice of images. Many praise your pacing and your style as highly poetic. Others regard it as affected and boring.

Semih Kaplanoglu: There is nothing wrong with a little boredom. As a whole, I am concerned with finding a rhythm between direction, camera, sound, etc. I strive to achieve a sense of harmony between all the elements that make up a film. This is in direct opposition to the speed of cinema, which is in fact dictated by the speed of modern-day life. By contrast, what is important to me is to find my own rhythm and my own pace.

​​ It seems that your characters don't share this sense of harmony and rhythm. In all three parts of the trilogy, they seem to be suffering from some kind of a lack or a loss. What is wrong with them?

Kaplanoglu: In the middle of the 19th century, Turkey entered a period of reform and modernization – the Tanzimat epoch. And even into the 1930s to the 1950s, Turkish literature and art expressed the feeling of a lost time. This feeling of not being at home in one's time has been carried over to the spatial plane. Now we find ourselves in a phase characterized by the feeling of a lost place. I don't mean concrete geographical locations, but much more the feeling of not knowing where one is anymore. I think this feeling has a lot to do with modernity and I attempt to reflect on this in my films.

For the Western public, at any rate, your stories are full of puzzling images, which are frequently interpreted as symbols. You counter that many of these images are simply rooted in local traditions with quite concrete origins.

Kaplanoglu: I am not a great fan of symbolic images. On the contrary, I attempt to incorporate into my films concrete details, places, and specific locations. The enigmatic element is mainly due to the fact that we so blindly trust our own perceptions, our own sense of sight. There are many varied levels of perception and it is worthwhile to take a closer look, because many of the things we encounter in reality are truly puzzling.

Of course, I also ask myself if certain details can be used as dramatic elements in order to spur on the narrative.

Therefore, whether you desire it or not, your images are interpreted symbolically?

Kaplanoglu: I want to make films that express various levels of meaning and that can be interpreted differently by different people according to their own lives, origins, or where they happen to live geographically. That is also one of the reasons why these films seem to be so enigmatic.

​​ When I screened "Yumurta" (the first film in the trilogy) in Iran, some members of the audience approached me and they said, "The scene where Yusef spends the whole night trying to catch the dog is, of course, a reference to Rumi's Masnavi. You have portrayed the conflict between the ego and the soul in a wonderfully poetic manner. Just as for Rumi, the dog represents man's ego and the young man is the soul!" I had to disappoint them. I depicted a story about a young man and a dog exactly as it once happened to me. But I did like this interpretation, because as a film director I am also influenced by Rumi's worldview.

Your trilogy also mirrors the social upheaval taking place in a rural district. Despite realistic and even precise ethnographic observations, you chose an "aesthetic of beauty" for your film. Why?

Kaplanoglu: I believe that reality is beautiful! And I grew up with poetry. In our culture, feelings are expressed with poetry – or at least they were until cinema came along. I was born into this tradition and for me it is only natural that a cinematic work should have a lyrical basic feeling.

​​ Your cinematic language appears to be influenced by international masters. Within Turkish cinema, you position yourself between Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Yesim Ustaoglu, and Reha Erdem. On the other hand, there are also influences outside the world of film.

Kaplanoglu: There are also a few important classic directors that I greatly admire, but they aren't among my main influences. Nonetheless, Metin Erksan and Ömer Lutfi Akkad should be mentioned. More important than all of this, though, is my preoccupation with roots and traditions, the traditional arts of the East. For centuries and up until just a few decades ago, there was a very strong Christian Orthodox tradition in Anatolia and, of course, an Islamic tradition. These are very important influences for me.

What is it like for someone who is deeply engrossed in such a fundamental humanistic or spiritual subject to suddenly become successful? Does success pose a danger to one's own principles – and how does one protect these principles?

Kaplanoglu: Well, I believe that we find ourselves in a sphere in which even the attempt to escape from vanity would still manifest itself as vanity. You can never truly escape. What I engage in is more of a search for seclusion, an encounter with nature, more to do with contemplation.

I believe that the most important thing is not to lose the original intention and the feeling that convinced me to make films. Success or failure should not influence you in changing your methods. There are other reasons, but not external ones.

Interview: Amin Farzanefar

© 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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