AWFJ EDA Awards @ IDFA 2016 Filmmaker Interview: Asli Ozarslan on DIL LEYLA

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First time filmmaker Asli Özarslan’s insightful Dil Leyla is the story of the mayor of Cizre, a small town in the heart of the Kurdish resistance in Turkey. Imret Leyva is a woman and, at the age of 26, she is the youngest mayor in the country. What’s even more remarkable is that she’d left her village at the age of five, when her father, a Kurdish guerilla fighter, was killed, and she was sent to Germany to live with her aunt. She hadn’t been back to her village since then, but now that life in Cizre is more peaceful, she returns to try to help rebuild her hometown. She runs for office, sweeps to victory in the election and the citizens of Cizre welcome her back like a prodigal daughter. However, political tensions rise in the town as the Turkish parliamentary elections loom on the horizon, and the new mayor’s energetic approach to reforms is undermined by public uncertainty and fear. In view of these new tensions, Leyla’s childhood memories surface and she fears she will face the same fate as her father. In profiling Leyva as she struggles to find her way through these trying times, Ozarslan calls forth contemplation of the political situation in Turkey and of women’s influence in bettering the outlook.

Asli Özarslan was born in Berlin in 1986, and spent her childhood in Germany. From 2007 to 2011 she studied theater and media at the University of Bayreuth and philosophy at the Université Sorbonne IV in Paris. She has participated in film workshops in Israel and Turkey. 2012 she studied documentary directing at the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg. She has received several prestigious scholarships, including a grant from the Academy of Arts and, in 2016, a grant from the Cultural Academy Tarabya of the German Foreign Office. Dil Leyva is her diploma film.

AWFJ: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

Asli Özarslan: Almost two years ago I saw an article in a German newspaper about Leyla Imret. There was written that she is from Germany and the youngest mayor in Turkey. This informations catched my attention. My first question was: Why did she leave Germany and went to a fragile place like Cizre? It was or is still a hotspot of the kurdish resistance and it is at the border with Syria and Iraq.

AWFJ: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

AO: I learned how thin the line is between hope, dreams and despair. Leyla dreamed to build up parks and playgrounds for children. She wanted to blot out the traces of the war. The childhood, which she could not have there, she wanted to give this chance to the children now. I saw how the past can be repeated. How old wounds between two parties can burst very quickly. Through political interests the situation can change immediately. After all these military operations of the Turkish government I saw how Leyla had to age within a very short time. She had to push her first goals aside – but she found new goals. And did not give up.

I saw also how difficult it is to work as a kurdish politician in Turkey. Leyla as well as others became the target of hate campaigns. And she had to get through it. Even she was afraid she could not show it. She was always standing up. Even in very bad situations she sent messages of hope.

AWFJ: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

AO: You can not control things and you have to be ready to relocate again. When a place gets dangerous and you were never in a situation like that before you have to take quick decisions. Should we stay or not?
You have to take decisions and stay behind that. That sounds maybe easy but it is not at all. As we decide to break up our second shooting because of a bomb attack in a another kurdish city. I was always talking with my crew. Do we feel still safe here? This was the biggest challenge.

As we came back. I thought, when I talk with very experienced journalists, they will be able to tell me if I should go there again or not. No one could. Everyone had a different opinion. I had to learn to listen to myself on the one hand and to check the facts on the other. To balance everything was difficult. For the third shooting I decided to go alone. My crew supported me in that and gave me power to do so.

AWFJ: What were your biggest challenges?

AO: In a production process – you want to shoot and this is not possible -you have to find together with your crew a good solution. We talked a lot together to find a way how we can go forward. Especially as we had problems to reach Leyla as Cizre was surrounded by military. No one could go inside. Even calls were not possible. I did not know if she is even alive… That was the hardest moment for me. I met all these people there, we worked together and than they are in danger and there is nothing we can do. Only try to call and find a way to get a connection.

AWFJ: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

AO: For me it was important to have a young female DOP. It was a feeling as I was thinking with who I am going to work. Because our protagonist Leyla, me and my DOP Carina Neubohn are all at the same age. And to be a mayor in a male-dominated city and function must be tough. I think that gave us a good connection to her. My editor and my producer are female, too. They had a specific way how they looked at Leyla and this was an enrichment.
But I would not say that being a female give a distinct perspective. It depends on the topic.

AWFJ: What are your plans for the future?

AO: I want to work still on documentaries and looking always for topics. Or some themes find their way to me.

AWFJ: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

AO: There are a lot of films that inspired or influenced me. There are great Turkish film makers like Yilmaz Güney or Zeki Demirkubuz. They made films about people who are on the margins of society. And of course the Maysles brothers.I love direct cinema. They have a great talent to bring their protagonists close to the spectators in a very special way.

AWFJ: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

AO: You can do it! There is no reason to go back You can do it! There is no reason to go back as a woman!

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