We awarded July’s edition of Film of the Month to The Mandarin Tree, and we’ve managed to exchange a few words with the director, Cengiz Akaygün.
JL: Congratulations on your win, Cengiz. We decided to award the top prize to your film due to the combination of vividness, symbolism and optimism – a combination which certainly worked out.
Cengiz: Thank you very much! We feel very honored.
JL: You grew up in Turkey before moving to Germany. How did this experience affect your worldview, and how has it defined you as a filmmaker?
Cengiz: Filmmaking has definitely broaden my worldview. That’s my motivation to move forward. It is very exciting for me to explore different worlds, where I can create everything I need to tell a story. You can bring characters to life and you can let the audience experience for themself who is right and who is wrong. I always like to hold a mirror to people. Especially to myself.
I was 8 years old, when I came to Germany. My life in Turkey had a lot of influences to me as a filmmaker. While growing up I started to realize all the injustice that had happen to my family. We had to hid our real identity for so long, because in the 80’s and 90’s it was forbidden to speak Kurdish and you could not say that you are a Kurd. So I never had an officially identity in Turkey, even now living in Europe.
I think, that’s why I have a sensitivity for political and social issues. That drives me at the moment. There are enough filmmakers who just want to entertain. I want that combined with issues that matters. We live in a world where we need enlightenment more than ever. For people of privileged countries it’s often difficult to see all that. That’s why I want to conjure the truth on a movie screen.
JL: The main story arc in your film revolves around the unjust persecution of Kurdish people in Turkey. For those who are not familiar with this topic, can you explain the matter a little? Is it worse nowadays than it was before?
Cengiz: The characters in the movie are mostly Kurds. The father in prison, his family and many of the visitors. I wanted to tell a story that works on an universal level. So if somebody around the world sees the film and did not know about the subject of the Kurds, they would still feel concerned. Because the universal theme of freedom is told. My goal is to affect people in their emotions, hoping that they start to solidarize with others. We cannot look the other way when the neighbor’s house is burning.
The Kurds have been oppressed, persecuted and murdered for decades. Unfortunately, today it is no different, while everything happens in front of the world community. Turkey can simply invade Syria and wage a war against the Kurds. At the same time the Kurds are fighting against radical Islamists in the Middle East. Kurdish politicians are in Turkish jails for no reason. People who critically express themselves in social media are in jail. But that did not happen only in the period of Erdogan. This oppression has been around for hundred years in Turkey. As long as the law exists in the Turkish constitution, that all other ethnic groups are not accepted, anyone after Erdogan will also have the opportunity to do the same. And the Kurds will never experience justice. Atatürk has laid the foundation for this one hundred years ago.
JL: What was the main inspiration point for your film?
Cengiz: I’ve read about a folk tale from Uruguay, where a little girl visits her father in prison during the times of dictatorship. She has also drawn a picture of birds for her father, that got confiscated by a prison guard. As you can see it’s possible to be touched and inspired by a South American Folk tale es a Kurd. The desire for freedom connects us all.
JL: I’m curious, did you start writing the screenplay with the symbolic value of the tree already in mind? Or did you only have the main topic, and the metaphor came by later?
Cengiz: The metaphor of the tree was already in the folk tale. I have changed the orange tree into a mandarin tree because I have a strong personal relation from my childhood to mandarins, beyond their incredible taste and scent. The challenge was to tell the story in a cinematic way. Instead of whispering the secret to her father, the girl in our film makes a clever plan for her father to discover for himself.
It was important for us that the father has lure the bird out of the tree. This shows the special bond between father and daughter. With that they are collapsing the prison walls and let all thoughts run free. No one can take the power of imagination from us.
JL: The ending was beautiful and simply perfect, in my opinion. Was it the only ending your wrote, or did you select it among other alternatives?
Cengiz: We have actually planned an animated bird for the ending. The same bird from the drawing of the daughter. But in the editing process I realized, that it’s stronger for our theme of “freedom starts with imagination” to let the audience imagine the bird in their own minds.
JL: You won both Director of the Month and Screenwriter of the Month (along with Duc-Thi Bui) – congratulations! Which aspect of filmmaking do you enjoy more – writing or directing?
Cengiz: Thank you! I like both aspects because both aspects are important for the storytelling. The screenplay is the plan for the movie. Without a plan even the best director isn’t able to do anything. My focus is currently in the work as a director, but I have a lot of respect for screenwriting.
JL: You’re currently working on a feature length script – how much of a different experience is that compared to writing a short?
Cengiz: I see myself as a creative and the emotional writer. I have many ideas for the plot and can empathize quickly. At the moment I am writing with Duc-Thi Bui, with whom I have worked on “The Mandarin Tree”, on our first feature film “The Five Stones”. I’m still learning a lot about writing techniques. Things that I might unconsciously have done right before on my short films. Now I try to be more aware of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it with my feature film.
In a short film you have to touch the audience in a very short time. In a feature film you have to keep the attention of the audience for 90 minutes. It’s a longer journey with more tasks and challenges. Comparing to a short film it’s is a marathon. You need a longer breath.
JL: Do you plan to also direct ‘Mira & The Ghost from the Beach’, or are you merely writing it?
Cengiz: Besides writing the screenplay I will direct the feature film in collaboration with Duc-Thi Bui. We have built a strong creative partnership over the last years. I had brought the original idea for the film and he immediately liked because of his family’s background as Boat People from Vietnam. That inspired and motivated him to write the Screenplay together.The story of our film is about a refugee family told from a perspective of a little Kurdish girl from Germany, who befriends with the youngest son at a vacation resort in Turkey.
JL: Thanks so much for your time, Cengiz. I hope we’ll get the chance to view more of your work soon.
Cengiz: I hope so, too. Thank you for the inspiring questions.