The final installment in Semih Kaplanoglu’s Yusuf Trilogy, Bal (Honey), was released in the UK last week. The Turkish playwright, film director and producer caught up with Soundbite to tell us all about his newest film and winner of The Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival:
Soundbite: The scenery in Bal is stunning; did it take long to find the location?
Semih Kaplanoglu: I was searching for untouched forests. In North-East Anatolia, between Rize and Artvin (cities) the last remaining rain forests of Europe exist. That region is also covered with high ranging mountains. The traditionally produced “black hive honey” is made from the endemic flowers in those forests and highlands of these mountains.
I tried my best to find a shooting place where the residents’ life style was authentic and more or less preserved. While modern life style is rapidly invading Anatolia, primarily with power plants and new highways, we managed to find an old school which hadn’t collapsed yet, an old house that hadn’t fallen victim to the concrete and some hand-made items.
SB: Is there any correlation between your story and that of the Jewish proverb of Jakob?
SK: The story of Prophet Yakup and Prophet Yusuf is not only mentioned in Torah but also in Holy Quran. The dreams take the lead role in the story of these father and son prophets.
SB: How did you coax such a mature performance from Bora Atlas, the seven year old lead in Bal?
SK: The fundamental issue was being able to establish a relationship with Bora. Are we able to talk to each other? Is he able to tell me what he has to say? Are we able to understand each other? Because then you pass a significant level. I tried to communicate with so many kids in Artvin. With some, one can communicate easily. With others, you can never have this.
The moment I started talking to Bora, I knew this could work. What was important was being able to explain to him that “the kid in the film is a different kid, and you are a different kid”. When we asked him “Do you have a friend who has difficulty in reading? Do you have a friend who has such problems?” he would start telling us in length. And when we told him “OK, act out what you just told us now”, he did it without any difficulty. Yet talking with him, being patient and regarding him as an actor, because he is, are also important. It has nothing to do with age. Once you communicate, Bora perfectly understands what you mean to say.
SB: He was very natural, what was his audition like?
SK: You cannot expect a 7 year old to behave according to some technical arguments particular to cinema, such as the camera’s place, lighting, direction, etc. So I told him only about emotions and that I expected just one thing from him. The appearance of that emotion on his face; whatever crosses his mind or is in his heart to become visible in his face, in his eyes, in his body. I waited for that innocent moment to appear.
SB: Did the actors playing father and son take part in any bonding exercises?
SK: No. Bora is a clever, emotional and sensitive child. He has the ability to empathize with others. He is very much aware of what he experiences in life. His relationship with his father was a key thing, and Bora has a similar relationship with his own father as Jakob and Yusuf do in Bal. His dad is a white goods repairman and he’d often Take Bora with him to repair appliances. Bora knew all the tools and parts necessary for repair. He knew at a very young age toiling for something and earning money in return.
That is why he behaved like a professional throughout the film. Because we were working with a child, we planned everything accordingly. We planned everything from bedtime to the meal times according to Bora. When he felt tired we took a break, when he said, “ok let’s start”, we started. When he said “I got bored let’s play soccer, we played soccer”.
SB: The relationship between mother and son develops from a very distant, almost untrusting connection to obvious warmth by the end. Did you find this difficult to convey?
SK: We tried to keep the shooting true to the script order [to facilitate this]. In Bal, Mother represents the tangible, practical and material life; the tasks, the objects, duties, division of labour. Meanwhile, father represented the intangible and metaphysical life; the ancient ways, knowledge and fast disappearing tradition. In his father’s absence, Yusuf was going to move from his father’s side to the mother’s.
We tried to create a similar contrast between the school, where he receives formal education, and nature, where Yusuf learns from his father while living and experiencing it first hand. Always keeping in mind that we are shooting the childhood of a poet, we tried to turn every moment Yusuf appears and exists in to a memory. We tried to come close to the inner life of a child who will replace the loss of his father with poetry.
SB: What experiences from your previous films have influenced this current work?
SK: I try to work with amateur actors and a young mobilized crew small in number. In the first two instalments of the Yusuf Trilogy, I worked with a young Director of Photography who was working in a feature film for the first time. I worked with a new DoP in Bal too. I always go through a very detailed pre-production and prepare storyboards, which I’ve found especially useful while shooting with animals and nature. I create places from scratch. I work in all stages of the film from sound design to post-production myself.
SB: Is there one place you would like to film but haven’t?
SK: I want to make a film in Istanbul about “nowness”; reflecting the spirit of the days we are living in, the spirit of the moment, a film that oozes that spirit.
SB: What was the last film that really inspired you?
SK: Bela Tarr’s Turin Horse.
SB: Do you have a director that consistently keeps you interested?
SK: There are directors that I can never turn away from such as Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray, Bergman.
Bal (Honey) is in selected cinemas now.