Reality: Check

By Asu Aksoy

head-on-fatih-akin-1.jpgHead-On, 2004

Fatih Akin’s powerful new feature Head-On takes Turkish, and European, cinema in compelling new directions

Director Fatih Akin is the 30-year-old son of Turkish migrant parents, born in Hamburg, where he has lived all his life. He has been making films for the last decade, and, in 2004, his latest feature Head-On (Gegen Die Wand) became the first German film in 18 years to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film then went on to collect top prizes at the German Film Awards in 2004, and in December it was awarded the best European film prize at the 17th annual European Film Awards.

Akin comes out of the vibrant Turkish-German filmmaking culture that has been developing in Germany since the late 1980s. There is now a substantial body of films made by the children of Turkish ‘guestworkers’, reflecting the diversity and the dynamism of the Turkish-German scene. What is striking is how they are able to translate stories rooted in their particular experiences in Germany in such a way as to appeal to a much wider audience in Europe and beyond. Head-On is at once a subtle and a ‘head-on’ challenge to defensive cultural traditions, on the one hand, and to the anomie and indifference of modern societies, on the other. It revolves around two Turkish-German characters, Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). Cahit is a lost soul when he meets Sibel and Sibel is a young girl desperate to experience those things that her family forbids. Her rebellion is extreme and relentless to the point of pleading for a convenience marriage with a Turkish stranger, Cahit. The film is about how these two characters negotiate between different cultural orders, and in this process how they change. It has a very raw and authentic feel to it, uncompromising in the direction it takes.

Asu Aksoy: Until very recently, films with migration as a theme tended to focus on the problem of choice between two uncompromising cultures: on the one hand the migrants’ own ‘traditional’ cultures, and, on the other, the lifestyle and values of the modern societies they find themselves in. I am thinking of Yasemin by Hark Boehm, for instance, where Yasemin has to make a choice: it is either her parents (the Turkish guestworkers) or German society. Your film, Head-On, takes a different view, however. It is neither a story of victimisation nor a story of rejection of one culture for another. Your resolution of the conflict is very interesting. What do you think of the way you resolved it? &

Fatih Akin: Whatever I am doing, it is not a conscious process, I don’t sit down and think, this is how I’ll resolve the story. It just comes out, it must be in me, I don’t know. I don’t see myself as a victim. I don’t experience either myself, or life here, as something strange. There is this category, isn’t there, a pigeonhole called ‘migrant cinema’. I don’t do migrant cinema. I don’t accept this categorisation for my films. My films are not migrant films, they are my films. They don’t talk about migrancy, they talk about me and my life. It is me you are looking at and the way I see things. I would not portray myself as a victim, who would be unacceptable; I don’t feel like this at all. What I learned from my teachers is to tell what I know. But there is now confusion as to what to call my kind of film. Critics, the German media, want to put them into a category. A minority film? A migrant film? A German film? I think that there is some sort of a put down happening here. There is racism even in the left leaning German media, and they are not able to say this is a hundred-percent German film. What I say is this, this is a European film. Look, with the awards the film took, two communities, two nations, were happy, both the Germans and the Turks. Isn’t this what Europe is about? With one film you make more than one community of people happy.

head-on-fatih-akin-2.jpgHead-On, 2004 

AA: And you are not turning your back on parents or the culture completely in an act of disavowal or defiance, are you? I mean, in the film there is a search for compromise.

FA: There is that, and also there is a desire to discover things. Just like my characters in the film are discovering Turkey, Istanbul, I am at that point too. The film is taking place in hotels in Istanbul, at the airport, and in taxis. This is my environment in Istanbul. What I know in Istanbul, for the moment, is the hotels. This is why my characters spend time in these places. For me this is about discovering Istanbul. There is also the Germany I know. In the film, I show the Germany I know; this is how it’s like here. And yes, there is an attempt at a compromise. But, I wouldn’t say this compromise involves finding a solution in-between the two cultures; rather, it is about their mutual existence. In fact, isn’t this what Europe is about? Europe is in everybody’s thoughts these days. How can we all live together, tell our stories together?

AA: The way you talked about German society, symbolised in the figure of the hairdresser – or simply through its absence in the film – was, I thought, rather negative. The hairdresser did not inspire love really.

FA: There is a bit of arrogance in the film. This film is about the Turks living here, it isn’t the story of the others. It is not the story of the whites but, as in Spike Lee’s films, the story of the blacks. We didn’t want to look down on German society or anything like that. But, look, there’s no room for you in this story, this is what we wanted to come across. We did this consciously. In Solino I had the young girl as a German character. In Im Juli the main character is a German character. But in this one, we decided that we would have the story of the Turks, and that the others would not be able to understand what is going on between the Turkish characters. This is the position that the story takes, this is not my position. The story tries to create this sense that the others won’t be able to understand what is going on between these two characters.

AA: You mean the Germans won’t understand? 

FA: Well!

AA: What attracted you to Birol as a performer?

FA: I saw Birol for the first time on screen back in 1995. I really liked his performance and his looks. I then found out that he was Turkish by origin. Birol is not so different from Cahit, the character he is playing in the film, and I always find these kinds of people attractive. I don’t know why, it’s the outsider stuff. What made him even more attractive to me was that, not only is Birol an outsider, but he also comes from the same background as me. And you know, in our community we grow up with rules, traditions and morals as to how to behave and so forth. He too was raised within the same culture, but he seemed to have left all that behind. As if he didn’t care. And I felt very curious about this. How come he is so carefree? Birol is a bit older than me, and maybe the way he has chosen to be in life, might have been something that I could have chosen also.

AA: I thought the way you portrayed Sibel’s family was interesting. There is a great temptation to see the family as the source of all the problems, and many film commentators, indeed, jumped in too quickly with their stereotypical judgements about the repressiveness of traditional families. However, your treatment is more nuanced and it seemed to me to correspond more to the reality of how families cope and how they deal with difficult situations.

FA: Yes, this is what reality is like. Mothers, fathers, brothers, they’re not bad. I know that they are constantly portrayed as being bad, but this is not it. I don’t share a lot of their viewpoints, but I have respect for them. I wanted to show this respect really. That’s why I chose those characters.

AA: You have remarked many times how appreciative you were that your parents liked this film. Maybe what resonates with your parents, or people like them, is the way you end the film on a positive note. After all that they’ve been through, these two characters end up, not defeated, but, actually, as two individuals who can stand up for themselves and decide on their destiny.

FA: Yes, I didn’t want to kill them. I love my characters. I couldn’t have done any harm to them. Maybe their love does not survive, they don’t get together. But what is important is to survive and to carry on.

AA: When you did your first feature film, Short Sharp Shock (Kurz und Schmerzlos), you were talking about the influence of Boyz n the Hood-type American films. What have you been looking at since then? What has made an impact on your cinema?

FA: As you get more mature in your work, you cease to be influenced. I was younger then, and I was naïve. I needed to be influenced. Then I did Im Juli and Solino, and did a lot of work on other film projects. I would say that I drew a lot from Turkish cinema when I was doing Head-On. And there is Fassbinder. But, it is getting more important that I express myself, and I am open to everything. I follow everything, and if it helps me to broaden my mind, introduce to me new things, then, what more can one ask for? I am discovering Turkish cinema lately, and it’s good for my work. I have been slowly getting to the point of saying to myself that I need to develop my own style, and maybe for the first time I found this in Head-On, I don’t know.

Asu Aksoy is from Istanbul and is presently a research associate in the department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College.