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Friday, May 5, 2006

The man in gray

Fatih Akin, at 33, made several good films before "Head On," but it was this more intense concoction that put him on the map, winning the top prize at 2004's Berlin Film Festival.

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Director Fatih Akin

Praised for bringing Germany a long overdue win at Berlin, and in Turkey as a victory for a Turkish filmmaker, Akin comes across as being of both countries and neither.

"I was brought up in a Turkish family living in Hamburg, so I lived sometimes between two worlds," the director says in an interview with The Japan Times. "This experience is something that I wanted to use for the film. I can understand both cultures."

The film's story came from Akin's own life, when, 10 years ago, "a good girlfriend of mine asked me if we could get married, so that she could get the opportunity to escape from her very traditional family background. Of course, as you probably know, I didn't marry her. But this incident inspired me for 'Head On.' "

Akin adds that "the characters within my films always have something to do with my life and my experiences." The director also compares his film to Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," noting how, whether it's Muslims or Catholics, there's always this generational conflict within immigrant communities.

A large part of the success of "Head On" can be traced to the potency of its leads. Casting main protagonist Cahit was easy; Akin had known Birol Unel for years, having cast him previously in "In July" (2002; also being released here this month). Commenting in an Indiewire interview, the director said he based much of the role on the actor himself: "I knew the way Birol speaks, I knew the way he moves, the way he dresses. It was so easy to write and create that [role] for Birol."

Akin then collaborated with Unel in auditioning actresses for the role of Sibel. "It was not easy to find a Turkish actress who was able and willing to go all the way with me through this story," says Akin, "especially because of the nude scenes. So we did a big street casting. At the end there were only five women left, and Sibel was the one who convinced us completely."

A newcomer to the film world, Sibel Kekilli dazzled the audiences at Berlin, that is, until the media picked up on her not-so-secret past as a hardcore porn actress in films like "Lollipops 16" and created a scandal. Akin, for his part, says, "Of course I knew what Sibel had worked on before. But, to tell you the truth, I couldn't care less."

In events mirroring a scene in the film, Kekilli's parents were so enraged they burned all the photos of their daughter. Kekilli's career has taken off, though, and she's been cast in several upcoming films, defying the conventional logic that it's impossible to cross over from porn to mainstream films (Chuck Norris notwithstanding).

Given that Turkish pop music and videos are filled with buxom bellydancer beauties and suggestive content, some may be surprised at the film's depiction of the Turkish community as mainly conservative. When Akin was asked if things weren't getting more liberal, he replied, "Well, it's difficult to say. I want to believe that the impulse of freedom is much stronger. But there are still a lot of conservative attitudes toward women and female sexuality. Before 'Head On' was released in Turkey, we had a lot of problems with people that didn't want this film to be shown at all. Some cinemas in Turkey refused to show it. But these threads just tell me that it is even more important to work on such a topic. 'Head On' is definitely a film with the most feminist viewpoint."

In "Head On," Akin mostly refuses any sort of easy definition, though. Sex, for instance, is shown as hedonistic pleasure, as brutal violence, and, only in the end, as love-making. Drugs are depicted as a form of release, as a source of pleasure and as a ticket to oblivion. And the family is a prison for Sibel in Germany, and redemption when she's back in Istanbul. "Life is just not black and white," Akin says. "So I don't want my films to be like that either. People are complex and so are my characters and themes."

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