Originally published in Ink 19 on May 25, 2017
We saw over fourteen feature films at this year’s SEEFest (the South East European Film Festival) in Los Angeles, but the film that most impressed us was My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari), the debut feature from Turkish director Kivanç Sezer. Inspired by a workplace accident that claimed the life of a university student in the director’s native Turkey, Sezer’s film draws attention to the issue of poor worker safety that has become a crisis because of unregulated subcontracting practices in the high profit market of constructing new homes in high rise buildings that meet updated earthquake codes emerging after the destruction caused by the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul and the 2011 earthquake in Van, along with the ongoing concern of the impact of expected future earthquakes. We sat down with Kivanç Sezer to discuss his feature in depth, specifically focusing on how his education in bioengineering impacted his creative process, his character development, as well as choices in how he depicted the different cultures that exist in contemporary Istanbul in his film. : After the screening at SEEFest of your debut feature, you stated that your intention for creating it was to draw attention to Turkey’s dubious distinction of leading Europe in worker-related fatalities. We know that some of these issues are due to an increase in construction because of the Turkish earthquakes in 2011 causing a severe homelessness situation. Has this already dire situation been exacerbated by Erdoğan’s decision to prioritize the building of an overpriced presidential palace? Was his action to disregard the crisis further inspiration for your need to create this film?
KS: The Van earthquake of 2011 actually did not affect the whole country. However, it had a very strong effect on the region and on our character, İbrahim, who is from there, but Istanbul was central to the script construction, and therefore it is the main setting for the film. Now, regarding the story, my main inspiration was a news article that I read in 2010 about a university student who was working on a construction site and was killed there. It deeply affected me, and this started my interest in the subject. After I began researching this incident, I began to realize that worker safety was a large problem that was not being covered by the news, and this situation is symptomatic of a system that does not give working class and poor people proper access to education, so they are forced to work these kind of jobs while attending school. The safety problems in many of these workplaces are well known, but the bosses are just concerned about their profits. When I started going to worksites to do research, it became apparent that the building industry is the driving force of the Turkish economy, but on the other side, the government does little to control the hazardous situations that many workers face every day. The government is just focused on the wealth that this industry brings in and little else, as there is high demand for the apartments that are being built, a demand that is not only coming from within Turkey, but also from Arab nations as well. Investors pump money into these projects and hire contractors who demand quick results. So, my main concern was to address this hyper-profit driven model and the resulting human stories within this growing but broken industry. As for Erdoğan’s palace, that is something else. It is a high profile example of the issue, but the safety problems going on all over Turkey are more dramatic. I am deeply concerned about these workers’ safety and wanted to make a film centered on them.
LF: Based on your film’s subject of building construction and your personal interest in workers’ stories, we would like to get a better understanding of your shift from engineering over into filmmaking. One of the things that I found interesting about your film is the way you put it in the context of fears of future earthquakes. In one scene, we see a couple interested in buying an apartment in this building because they want a space that is more structurally sound. Was part of your interest in human stories partially derived from your own decision to depart from engineering and to become a filmmaker? And, did your understanding of engineering lead you to focus in on this specific situation of construction dangers for the subject of your debut film? I ask this because, when you are a scientist or an engineer, scenarios happen a lot in the field where you create some sort of solution on paper, but you might not completely think of the impact of that solution on the people who have to build it.
KS: Let me add one additional point regarding the earthquake. Before the 2011 earthquake in Van, a very strong earthquake happened very close to Istanbul in 1999, and thousands of people died in the Marmara region. So after this incident, all construction regulations changed and adapted to prepare for an earthquake in Istanbul that the experts predict will occur in upcoming years and will cause thousands of death when it arrives. Coming to my education, yes, I do believe that my background in engineering had some influence on me in terms of this project, but my background is in bioengineering, so my work was mostly done in the laboratory. When I was studying, I appreciated the notion of optimization in engineering, and that, I do believe, affected me when I was creating my characters. In a way, I optimized my characters for the story. The story itself has a context and a backdrop, which in this case is construction, but it also has an internal aspect in it as well as drama, which both come from my heart and not my mind. My engineering background will always influence my mind in some way, but I am trying to find the stories that touch my heart, and then through my heart, I go to screenings to see audiences and hope that it reaches them in the same way. I put this husband and wife in the film because they are like many people who are looking for a place to live and who are afraid of the upcoming Istanbul earthquake, which they are sure will happen, and so they want to buy a new house which will be constructed properly. You see a predominance of the buildings that were constructed before the earthquake that were not built properly and were consequently damaged, and that is why this couple wants a flat in this new building. This couple is important to me as they are buyers, and they are the ones who will be paying for this apartment for ten or twenty years with a huge mortgage, so they are the ones who keep this system intact, and that is why they are going to be the focus of my second film of this trilogy. In the third film in the trilogy, I would like to then focus on the lives of the big bosses who make this building happen with all of the corruption and money that is involved. So, the connection will be from the earthquake to the construction and from the lower, middle, and upper class people involved.
GF: Hearing now about your plans to create a trilogy centered around this building, I cannot help but to be reminded of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, which you know adapts the biblical Ten Commandments in a modern context by playing out each one through the lives of the residents within one housing complex. Was this series an inspiration to you at all?
KS: Actually, Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy was my inspiration for these films in terms of overlapping stories in three different films. For instance, you see a character from White in Blue as an extra in the background, and then in White, that character you saw in Blue is now the focus, and that is what I want to do in my trilogy. That is why I show the couple who is looking to buy an apartment in My Father’s Wings, for they will be the subject of the second film, and in the second film you will see a glimpse of the big bosses who will then be at the center of the third film. There will be a lot of interactions between them, all of which I feel connects them, which is important, for in life, we are not usually aware of these connections. You are usually not aware of who built your house, or if someone died while they were building it, and it is that kind of alienation that keeps us going, and I think that cinema can break this kind of alienation and obliviousness that we have.
GF: An aspect of your film that we also found interesting was the depiction of faith between the character of Master İbrahim and Yusuf. İbrahim is an older family man, who is seen praying at the mosque, whereas Yusuf uses colloquialisms attached to faith, almost with a level of disdain, and seems to be more of a secular being. Can you discuss your intentions with the faith depiction within these two men? Is this simply a comment on these two different generations?
KS: Faith is an important element in the film, and for İbrahim, his is a pure religious faith. He goes to the mosque to pray, but he also gambles as part of his character. The bad things that he has done in the past are also part of him, but then he decides to quit doing bad things, but his dilemma still remains: his faith is not enough to make his life better, which drives him to the edge where he must confront his reality of needing money. This leads İbrahim to the decision to commit suicide so that he can receive compensation money from the company that hired him which he can leave to his family, and this, of course, is a sin. Yusuf on the other hand, has little religious faith and only believes in himself and his future, a future that he believes will bring him success as he will rise through the ranks and no longer be a worker, but perhaps a contractor himself with his own company someday. In a way, their perspectives on life connect these two characters, because, to me, they are the different sides of the same coin. They both are looking in different directions, but at the same goal and with the same level of self-sacrifice. I should also say that without the character of Yusuf, the film would be too grim, giving little hope to the audience to sustain them throughout. Yusuf is also important in adding a level of humor and a look into the younger generation in Turkey that hopes for a positive future. One critic remarked that Yusuf is actually the central character of the film, and not İbrahim, which I am fine with as I am aware that they are very close to one another, so to designate one or the other as a supporting actor was not that important. Establishing the unity between this uncle and nephew was more important to me.
LF: In terms of their unity, İbrahim and Yusuf are different when it comes to faith, but can you speak of the halay (dance traditions) that connect them and many of the characters to the region they are from?
KS: İbrahim and Yusuf are Kurdish, and the Kurdish people express a good amount of their feelings through the halay. In demonstration, people dance the halay; at a wedding, of course, they dance the halay, and even while they mourn, they dance the halay. It is very common, and during my preparation for the film, I watched a lot of videos of workers dancing at construction sites. To me, it is a sign of life because in the construction site — where it is so cold, where it is so grey — they need something to carry on, and for these characters, dancing the halay is the will for life.
GF: Understanding the importance of dance in the Kurdish culture increases the impact of the scene when Yusuf, after speaking to his friend about wanting to become a boss, breaks up the dance that the Kurdish workers are teaching the Uzbeks at the construction site. It says a great deal about what sacrifices he is willing to make in order to succeed.
LF: And, to that point, I love that you show the halay and its role in multiple moments throughout the film. One of my favorite scenes in My Father’s Wings is when you see Yusuf and his girlfriend dancing with a group of young people in the town square. Yusuf’s girlfriend, Nihal, is wearing a hijab, but you also see a mix of women who aren’t wearing a hijab and are dressed more in a western style.
KS: And that is what we have in Turkey. I think that many people who have never been there think that we all are still wearing fez hats like we did during the Ottoman Empire and that everyone wears a burqa or a hijab that covers everything but the eyes. In contemporary Turkey, the hijab is a common source of debate because, for many years, the secular people asserted that in schools and in public places the hijab should not be allowed. It has even sometimes been so much of an issue that students who wear hijabs have left the university. After Erdoğan came to power, the opposite began to occur, and now you see more women wearing hijabs in public. I have no problem with this either way, but this issue has two sides…The secular people sometime criticize me for depicting a woman wearing a hijab, and then the conservatives say that they like how I use the character because I show her fairly in that I don’t insult her or judge her in any way. The critics in Turkey liked the way that I framed the character of Nihal (Kubra Kip). It was her first film, and she does not wear a hijab in her personal life, but a lot of people thought that she wore it naturally. One conservative even joked and told her that she looked so natural in it that she should consider wearing it all of the time (laughs). She actually won three awards at three big festivals in Turkey for her performance.
GF: I am glad to hear that as she is wonderful with her character. One aspect of Nihal that I find interesting as well is that as she is a more conservative person, I would imagine that it would be difficult for her to date someone like Yusuf because of the more secular way that he chooses to live his life, but she never tries to proselytize him in any way. I think that for western audiences it is important to see a character like Nihal who is so open minded.
KS: It indeed was very important for me as well, and even though her character is only onscreen for fourteen minutes, she adds so much to the film. She is so open about how she feels that she, in turn, opens up Yusuf’s character.
LF: Lastly, beyond the building, we get some glimpses of the surrounding architecture, but for most of the film, the setting is extremely sparse. Is the focus on the building of this faceless development indicative of a movement to create new buildings with complete disregard for any history of the city of Istanbul or Turkey overall?
KS: I should say that the reason that I selected this particular place to shoot the film is because, when most international audiences see Istanbul, you usually see it depicted with a lot of older architecture, and we of course do have that, but in reality most of the population lives in the suburbs, and most of the buildings there are really designed in an inhuman way. I mean, how can people live normally on the fourteenth floor of a building, not being able to see any trees or having to look down to see people the size of ants? There are hundreds of blocks near Istanbul with buildings like the ones I show in my film. These buildings are also so very expensive, and given that so many people live so far from the city center, there are traffic jams everyday just to get to work. I wanted to show this side of Istanbul that you rarely see, and even though this district has its own culture, overall, it was not my goal to make a tourism video to sell Istanbul to the audience.
GF and LF: Thank you Kivanç for your time and for your film.