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Interview with Golden Bear Director Fatih Akin

Head On (gegen die Wand) won the Golden Bear at Berlinale.
Let us hear the director speak about his film in a discussion with Feridun Zaimoglu
Feridun Zaimoglu is a leading Turkish-German author and painter. His novel 'Abschaum' was transposed to the big screen as 'Kanak Attak', which enjoyed a successful run in German theaters. Zaimoglu has made a name for himself as a cultural spokesman for Germany's Turkish population.

The synopsis:
'You can put an end to your life without killing yourself', whispers the doctor. And Cahit, 40, whose suicide attempt has brought him to the psychiatric clinic, knows what he means: by starting a new life. Yet the
anguish in his soul continues to cry out for drugs and alcohol to numb his pain. Sibel – young, pretty and, like Cahit, Turkish-German – loves life too much for a proper Muslim girl. To escape from the prison of her devout, conservative family, she fakes a suicide attempt. But it brings shame, not freedom; only marriage can save her. And so she begs Cahit to marry her. Reluctantly, he agrees. Perhaps to save her. Perhaps to do one meaningful thing in his life. They share an apartment, but little else. She savors her freedom; he has his occasional fling with his sometime girlfriend. Until love enters his life on tip-toes. As he falls in love with Sibel, he finds a new joy in life, the strength to go on. Sibel continues to see other men. Until she, too, realizes that she loves Cahit. But by now it is too late: an explosion of jealousy ends in a violent death. Cahit is sent to jail and
Sibel flees to Turkey. Her heart, her mind, her soul are still with Cahit – but for how long?

FZ: Let me say right off that I think your latest film, HEAD-ON, is truly fantastic. It really blew me away. It just wouldn't let me go, even though I saw it four times. How could a film like this come about, and what kind of crazy story is this anyway?

The film has accompanied me for a very long time now. I once had a Turkish girlfriend who asked me if I felt like entering into a sham marriage with her. I told her I wouldn't, but the idea never let go of me. I thought it would make a cool plot for a story. In the first concept I wrote years ago, it was a comedy. The point of departure is a classical comedy situation, with someone pulling the wool over someone else's eyes.

Then Birol Ünel entered my life. That was with 'Short Sharp Shock'. I was totally fascinated by the guy, like when you're spellbound by guys like Kurt Cobain, James Dean or Brando. Guys who destroy themselves, who are so brilliant and talented that nothing else matters to them in life. And on top of all that, here's a guy who's Turkish, who's got the same background as me, and he doesn't give a damn about tradition. That was a huge inspiration for the film. The third major element was Turkish cinema and the city of Istanbul. I began spending more and more time in Istanbul, I met people there, discovered the scene, the music and Turkish cinema.

They've produced masterpieces that no one knows here, where tragedy and comedy are so close to each other. Tragedy is much more painful when comedy runs through it. Then I also developed a fascination with all the Turkish girls you see around here. I find them much sexier than many German women. And I wanted to know how that worked, with tradition on one side and on the other

FZ: In many German movies the woman is like a cocktail cherry. You need her to tell a kind of love story. I had just the opposite impression in your film: that the woman is very strong. What I'd like to know is where this woman comes from? I think she's really excellent and gave the impression that she
wasn't just playing a role, but was really very, very present.?

It was a major undertaking to find Sibel Kekilli, who is also called Sibel in the film. To have to find a woman with the balls to stand up to the eccentric Birol, who has the same power as he does and whose acting skills are on a par with his.We were looking quite simply for the needle in the haystack. When we realized that we wouldn't find such an actress, we started looking for her on the street. Sibel was one of those whom we casted. I invited her along with 350 other candidates, and she's the one who made it. She had the balls to take on Birol, and the ambition to do it. Very early on she made a remark: 'If I do something, I do it right'. And I thought, sure, that's just talk, just posturing. Today I know it wasn't just talk. She did it right, very straight.
I always said that she was a godsend that's how I see her.

FZ: What I see is a crazy love story. But as soon as I say this, it's too little. It's just a phrase. The film is more than that. I asked myself why it pulls me in like that, why I feel like it's been intravenously injected. It isn't a coded film. Is it a love story, a Turkish movie, a punk film? It's a very authentic film.
Do you want to strengthen me in my opinion that in the face of all the misfortunes in the world, the only really big alternative is love?

Well, ultimately, it is a love movie, or part of the trilogy of love, death and the devil. Love not only as something constructive, but also as something destructive. It also involves death in the sense of a metamorphosis. It also deals with the devil, with the evil that's within us, the demon, desire, the shifting sands of good and evil.
The film is my interpretation of good and evil. Many people show us what is supposed to be good and bad, especially where religion is involved. So I asked myself when is something truly evil and when is something truly good. I think that love has a dark side as well as a bright side. And that the dark side of love can makes us very destructive.

At the beginning of the film, Birol is a dead man, a zombie. Later he's awakened to life when Sibel kisses him free that gives him enormous strength. But every form of energy that has something positive about it also has something negative, possessive. Wars have been fought for this. To me, war is always pointless. But I think that if there were some kind of meaningful war, then it would be love. This may sound corny and saccharine, but I really do believe it. Love is simply a force that comes toward you, and this film is about this force. And that's why it's a love story.

FZ: Let's get back to Istanbul. What does this city stand for? You mentioned earlier that you found it very exciting to film in this city. Does this have anything to do with the love story between the two protagonists, and if so, why?

Since so many personal things were treated in this film, it was always clear to me that I would shoot a large part of the film there. After all, Istanbul is taking a bigger and bigger place in my life. To me, it's the Holy City
and Babylon at the same time. It's a city full of contradictions, a wild place, a dangerous and very exhausting city. It is THE city for me. At all events, the ultimate setting for such a story.

FZ: The film has no happy end. How I would have loved to have the fairy-tale conclusion! They've suffered so much and still don't come together. He throws his life at her feet. And what does she do? Why doesn't she travel with him to his hometown, why does she stay with her family?

There must be about fifty different reasons why she doesn't go with him at the end. If she had gone, I think this wouldn't have been honest. The war is over for Sibel. She tried to find peace. She got her punishment, God punished her, but she survived. She's now someone who understands that maybe reason is healthier than passion. Sometimes maybe you have to accept compromises. Maybe it's not always right to follow passion.

FZ: It is a very spiritual, archaic film. What do they undergo? Is it hell? In order to truly live, do we really have to go through so many hells? What does her love look like, and how does it develop?

They both begin as an 'I' and fuse into a 'we'. This 'we' is ultimately destructive. But it is also constructive, since they no longer have this longing for death. They give each other strength mutually, but then they are
separated and become 'I's' once again. At the end, though, they are different 'I's' than at the beginning. This is development, this is life. An excerpt from their biography. I was chiefly concerned that the dramaturgy should result from the development of the characters. I did not want a classical arc of tension with the usual obstacles.We shot the film chronologically, which gave both of them time to develop, both as characters and as actors. When Sibel comes across as an insecure young woman at the beginning, then it's because she really is that in a way, and also because of uncertainty. But then she gains confidence with every day of shooting.
And this is also what happens to her character.

FZ: HEAD-ON is radical and highly infectious. It will stir up a lot of controversy in Germany, but I already see the critics declaring you insane. Why does it seem that all these German cultural pundits are so intimidated? Do you share this opinion with me, or do you think I'm exaggerating?

I'm trying to free myself from this as much as possible. I can't allow myself to care about how the reviews will be. There is a mentality here that I can't really identify with. It's the 'maybe' mentality in Germany. This is especially strong in the German film industry. I'm thirty, I've made four feature films and a lot of shorter ones. You can't do this with a 'maybe' attitude. You've just got to do it.

FZ: In closing, I'd like to ask you: what do you do after a film like this? I know you a little, and you're not the kind to disappear for weeks or months. What happens next?

HEAD-ON was the most exhausting film I've ever made. It's the first time that I didn't have a follow-up project, since I had put all my concentration and strength into this film. But there's a very pragmatic reason why I'm not taking a break now: I was broke after the film wrapped. So I began working right away on three or four new projects at the same time. In particular, I founded my own production company, Corazón International, and want to build up a decent structure for myself with this, since this structure means freedom,
also for my future productions. The next film that I will make will be a much smaller, more harmless one. I feel it's dangerous to try to top yourself after such a film. That will come when the time is ripe, or it won't come at all! But I shouldn't I can't rest on my laurels. That would be fatal.

FZ: Fatih Akin, thanks. That was really cool. Stay with us.

Fatih Akin Filmography (as a director)
1995 Sensin ... You’re the one! – Short Film
1996 Weed – Short Film
1997 Short Sharp Shock
2000 In July
2000 Wir haben vergessen zurückzukehren
2002 Solino
2003 Head-On

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