ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News
The day before young Turkish actress Selen Uçer won the Best Actress award at last month's prestigious Adana film festival, a male reporter attempted to shame her during an interview, objecting to her vivid sex scenes in the film “Ara.” With the film receiving far more positive reviews than negative, the interviewer's response to her performance shows the tension where traditional Turkey gives way to modern reality.
Cameras rolled in an interview with local channel Çukurova TV, and the actress stood alone before the lights. The reporter asked in an angry tone, “Aren't you ashamed?” She replied, “The director tells a story and tells everything openly.”
“We do it, okay, we don't need to see it,” the reporter said, cutting her off.
Uçer took a deep breath when asked about the live interview later. “They want to make me like them. But all they can do is yell at it… It's just ****” she told the Turkish Daily News, referring to her character Gül's five sex scenes in the ***** including the opening scene. “It is a very small part of the role,” she said.
“There is still a very narrow-minded segment of society that will not try to understand,” she said. “I grew up not understanding [this part of] Turkish culture. This is my sorrow.” Uçer said she used to feel freer than she does today in parts of her hometown, Istanbul, such as Uskudar. She said with the Islamic-rooted ruling party in power, people felt entitled to judge those less observant of the faith. “They think they have the right to comment on what I do and how I dress.”
When you tell the truth it becomes controversial, “Ara” (Between) writer and director, Ümit Ünal, told the TDN. He has worked with talented actors on critically acclaimed films such as “Istanbul Tales” (2005) and “9” (2002) -- the official Turkish entry for the 2003 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He said most of the time he can sense when even good actors are acting. “But Selen's performance was completely natural. She's really in it,” he told the TDN. “She's not like theater actresses who can be strict in their work. She's much more open.”
Breaking with reality
The sincerity in Uçer's role overturns the idealized women of traditional Turkish ***** such as the one-dimensional female love interest or the self-sacrificing mother. Her character leads a messy, contemporary sex life in which there are no heroes and people are both good and bad.
Nevertheless, Uçer offered the perspective that the character she played in this breakout role, for all its vigor, was a character existing between two men, even between two different sexual orientations, rather than a woman developing in her own right. “Playing this role was important and it was a hard part,” she said. You can combat any stereotype by putting something different in the dialogue, talking with the writer and director about how to make the role more natural, she explained. “I don't want to do what's been done.”
That revolutionary spirit is at work in today's Turkish cinema, which Uçer said is moving forward, with actors and directors unafraid to take risks and reveal truths. “Festivals are good for cinema and for our profession,” she said. “I hope the new generation will benefit from this type of exposure. People in Turkey didn't grow up with this; now they will.”
A trained actress with a Masters in Fine Arts in acting from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Uçer said her experience in the United States taught her many things about acting and life. A graduate of the Chemistry Department at Bosporus University, she was also a member of the conservatory there, where she acted and sang. Uçer is confident about her future, whatever it brings. “I might quit acting and sing, or meet a man and sell tomatoes.”
Material hangover in ‘Ara'
When writing and directing “Ara” (Between), Ümit Ünal created characters in their thirties whose sense of identity was shaped by an era that began with Prime Minister Turgut Özal in the 1980s. Given the deceit and materialism that define his four characters over a decade, Ünal places the viewer in a soulless hangover of the post-1980 coup decades, when culture and intellect were admonished as threatening to social order and economic potential.
“The country sort of jumped a class,” Ünal said. “It became better in material terms, but we lost a sense of the real stuff that connects us to life.” He said that in many ways he was like the disconnected characters in the ***** but that writing and filmmaking provided ways to cultivate his spirit. Many other young people had a difficult time finding creative outlets in the 1980s and 1990s, after the 1980 coup purged universities of many top professors, causing deep losses in the arts and in academic rigor. “Some people don't want to accept seeing themselves on the screen,” he said, but many others have told him that they can relate to the characters.
In addition to the Best Actress award, “Ara” won awards for best screenplay and best editing at the Adana Golden Boll Film Festival last month. The movie also won a Special Jury Prize and Best Actor award at the Istanbul International Film Festival this spring. Following its release in the spring, “Ara” will be available on DVD later this year.