Mu Tunc’s debut film about a young and disgruntled punk singer was first screened at !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival. We met up with the director to hear more about his influences and future projects.
Istanbul, Turkey - Mu Tunc is a 31-year old Istanbul native whose first feature film, Arada, competed at !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival. Prior to its Turkey-wide release on April 13, 2018, the film will be screened in Ankara and Izmir as part of the ongoing festival.
Set in the 1990s Istanbul on a single day, the film follows a young punk singer called Ozan and his girlfriend, Lara. Ozan is after a ticket out of the country for the greener pastures of California. Boasting an impressive and dynamic soundtrack, Arada is a semi-autobiographical film about following your dreams, as long as you know what they are.
You grew up in Istanbul in the 1990s. How much of the film is based on your own experience of the city?
Mu Tunc: The whole film is based on my experience of Istanbul. In fact not just my experience of Istanbul – it’s based on what my family and I have lived through. I was four to five years old between 1991 to 1992. But starting from then my memories are fresh because they were intense and I had an older brother who was into hardcore punk ... It affected my subconscious.
My father was a musician, too. He performed in the Turkish classical style [Turk sanat muzigi]. He didn’t just dabble, he put out albums in his youth in the 1970s and was very famous. He performed in Gulhane Park [in the historic district of Sultanahmet, Istanbul], performed alongside [the famous Turkish singer] Emel Sayin: my father Altan Tunc. But his career was over all of a sudden with the [1980 military] coup; after that he has to serve in the military. When he got back, he saw that his career was over. Those days were the time of the single TV channel, in fact he was on that TV channel, he was an artist who had been on TRT. But upon his return nobody remembered him because it had been up more than 15 months. That was a difficult period [for my father] because my older brother was born and all that. He ended up setting aside his career to pick it up some other time, to take on life’s burdens. I grew up watching my father never being able to go back to his career. That wasn’t easy, to tell you the truth. Because there is an artist in the house, a true artist, and he cannot, will not do what he should be doing. And he’s a father figure in such a dynamic.
Then there’s my older brother. What my brother was doing was so insane. You know the old saying, “Trying to sell escargot in a Muslim neighbourhood” [about people trying to do something that is sure to fail]? I think my older brother’s story is even crazier than that. Because in 1988-1989 this guy is interested in extreme music when there’s no such thing as the internet, no nothing in this country. And in such a place they play a hardcore show below our apartment in Merter [in the suburbs of Istanbul]. They set up bands, they invite people. It looks so easy when you look at it now, but [at the time] it was as insane as saying “I’m gonna go to Mars.”
These days people are wearing shredded jeans, designer clothes; when you look at it all these subcultures became a part of a commodity culture. They turned into a product. Fashion is based on this. But these ideas came from very difficult and emotional depths and people didn’t get to this aesthetic all that easily, just like that. The same goes for the world. But it was crazy seeing this in Turkey for me. I was going through an interesting time and was observing all this. I realised the masses [in Turkey] didn’t know about it. Nowadays everybody thinks they’re a part of a subculture based on some visuals they see. That’s not the case though. Culture is a much bigger subject. I realised everybody should know this, and I thought my own family’s tale was a very interesting one.
Would you consider Istanbul a capital of punk rock?
MT: I’m shooting a documentary right now, and was with people who started all this [in Turkey]. We were touching on all the details of how it all began and shooting video. They told me such crazy stories! They used to exchange [Turkish] punk bands’ cassette tapes with people in Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, that was their deal. And the main reason they made demos was so they would have a product they could offer in exchange.
There’s some people who say “C’mon, punk rock from Istanbul?!?” or they don’t believe there was ever hardcore or punk rock made here. They’re dismissive of their own country because they’ve always looked up to the West, exaggerating it in their heads. The truth is, the [musicians in Turkey] really played punk and hardcore music. They didn’t only play; for example there’s this band called Turmoil. They went as far as to make a split album with one of the most important hardcore punk bands in the world, Doom. Turmoil also had albums released in Belgium, in Mexico. Kids who were 14-15 years old! And they achieved this with mail order alone. There’s also bands like Radical Noise who put out albums overseas, split records again. Then there was Crunch in the 1990s, who released one of Turkey’s first hardcore albums from the Kod Muzik label, and Radical Noise on Hammer Muzik.
These are very unique examples. When you look at the United States around the same time you see it’s quite hard to make this kind of music, there’s a handful of albums. Now when you take a look there may be plenty but then production was limited. When you look at Turkey there are at least four to five albums or split records at the beginning of the 1990s. Not to mention demo recordings, there’s tons of those, people have so many. Perhaps some of these demos will surface after this film. People might be recording music in places we know nothing about, in Izmir, in Eskisehir, in Ankara. So to ask whether Istanbul was a punk city is a big question, one I think should be researched in universities. But yes, there was definitely a punk hardcore movement in Istanbul and it was composed of a handful of people.
In the scene taking place at the record store, many Turkish musicians are identified as predecessors to “punk” who wouldn’t necessarily be considered “punk” by the mainstream. What is your definition of “punk”, and who are the first punk musicians of Turkey?
MT: It’s very clear who Turkey’s first punk musicians are. First of all there’s this guy who went to London in the 1970s and who became familiar with this kind of music and the visuals that go with it: Tunay Akdeniz. When he gets back [to Turkey] he displays a punk rock attitude on his album cover and with this outfits. His music is not that punk rock but he has the attitude and is a very important figure. He’s the first person to introduce the concept to Turkey, Tumay Akdeniz and his band Cigrisimlar.
But real punk rock music came to Turkey with a band called Headbangers. That’s a key band. Afterwards there’s Moribund Youth (which later becomes Turmoil), Radical Noise, Violent Pop – my older brother Orkun Tunc’s band along with Tolga – and many others such as Tampon [a female fronted punk rock band]. These bands at the time go through a lot of name changes and such, so there’s no single band, no single name.
I care about that scene [in Arada] a lot. The scene at the cassette shop, the record shop. I shot the scene with the dream that there would be such a scene in Turkish film history because I grew up listening to conversations about music. But I had never seen such an intense conversation about music in any previous Turkish film, even though there’s a lot of it in American films. Especially contemporary independent American cinema which is based on conversation, such as [Kevin Smith’s slacker comedy] Clerks, or Woody Allen’s entire filmography. There’s Richard Linklater. All these guys, like Gus van Sant even. [In Turkish cinema] there are no discussions around culture, and I wanted to make a film that would allow it.
My aim was to show people that what we see as an alien culture, what we see as "the other," this punk culture, is not such a far-out genre, is more of an attitude and is based on a philosophy.
That’s why I gave examples from Turkish music history from the 1960s, 1950s, even the 1920s, trying to make people see that these people too were punks because of their lyrics or their attitudes. I wanted to compare David Bowie with a very important musician in Turkey [Zeki Muren, who is regarded as one of the best classical Turkish singers of all time] so people would see that it’s possible ... I can’t judge anybody. I wanted to put it out there so people would see and process and go “Oh, I never saw it that way before!” That’s why I shot that scene.
Arada is the first punk movie to come out of Turkey. How did you prepare for the film?
MT: Thank you for your compliment. That’s what’s being said about it. When I was shooting the film, I honestly had no idea that it would be the first punk movie out of Turkey. I didn’t set off with that in mind. In fact, I just wanted to reflect the subculture I felt a part of on the silver screen. Yet the film turned out to be a rarity that has such a theme or even contains the word “punk”! Because we hardly talk about punk [in Turkish cinema] even though it’s such an influence on music, fashion and film. For example some international articles refer to Christopher Nolan’s Batman [based on Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight] as a punk film. The punk genre is a significant one. You already know the primary international examples, such as Trainspotting [that chronicles the lives of lowlife friends in Scotland], 24 Hour Party People [about the legendary Hacienda club and Factory Records], or even [Derek Jarman’s] Jubilee that screened at the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival.
Going further back - and I think we should - there’s Elia Kazan’s film with Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, or James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause [directed by Nicholas Ray]. I see these as precursors to the punk genre.
To be honest one of my departure points for Arada was Rebel Without a Cause; I was very influenced by that film. I was interested in making an anti-hero film. Classical Turkish cinema is all about ingratiating a protagonist with the audience. In Arada, the protagonist is not necessarily on his best behaviour but his actions take you elsewhere. That’s key. When you look at the protagonist Ozan, he’s a pessimist. Usually a protagonist is not this pessimistic in Turkish cinema. He’s always, always positive. He’s always the one who shapes and steers things. In my film, it’s just the opposite. I did it on purpose; I wanted to make an anti-hero film, and dreamt that it would serve as an important example in Turkish film. I hope it does.
What would your advice be for someone who wants to leave their town? Do you want to leave yours?
MT: Right, I was questioning myself and going through a very emotional period when I shot this film. It used to be that I’d blame the city any time I felt like I failed and lost something. Any negative experiences, I blamed the city. Then I started questioning whether I should have a different outlook. Whether the problems stemmed not from the city itself but from people. Sometimes we conflate the two and come to ready-made conclusions. I felt the need to make this film because of these ready-made conclusions. It was a need for me. If I hadn’t made this film, I would’ve been a very unhappy person. I worked through a lot of my issues with this film. So I call this film my reason for existing.
In any social setting I come across people discussing staying or going. Personally, I’m interested in issues beyond this question, the issues that spark this debate ... Of course that’s where people start having trouble discussing issues because there begins a journey towards self-criticism. Sure we can blame our surroundings, we can blame people. But what are we doing? When I say we, I mean what am I doing as an individual? What am I doing to make this place better, make my hometown better? And I want to know how much this person has travelled around the world. I want to hear how many times this person has been to London, to Berlin or New York. I want to know how much time this person has spent there. Then and only then do I want to discuss the deductions they’ve made.
It’s easy to blame where you are. You can point at it, it’s a location. But could it be that your situation stems from your attitude? Like, if you keep a dirty home, you can’t expect to love your home. Why don’t you first clean your home? Then maybe the light coming through will be more pleasant, that corner, that corner you don’t like at all will turn out to be more interesting if you made an effort and put a nice armchair there … Or you play some music you like and your house will feel more like home. I don’t know, but like have you at least made some effort to love where you are first? Or to make it more beautiful? These, I think, are the questions we should ask.
What makes Istanbul appealing to you?
MT: This is something I’ve realised the more I travelled [out of Istanbul], not by staying in Istanbul. My biggest dream, something that’ll never happen, is to be so rich that I could get visas for everyone living in Istanbul. Everyone. And I would pay for their flights, hotels for a week, send them wherever they want to go. That’s when they’ll realise what they already have.
I’m not saying “It’s horrible there and wonderful here.” Sure, there can be bad things about this place, but that’s what cities are all about. Cities demand attention, ongoing attention. Too many people live concentrated in cities. Same problems exist in New York. People struggle there too. I mean in the 1970s people used to get killed on the streets in New York, and that’s how the I Love NY logo came about.
Istanbul, too, is a city that deserves constant attention and one of the main reasons that it does is that there are contradictions in this city. You think you have it pinned down but it eludes definition. Especially in an age when everything is preprogrammed, predetermined with technology, living in a city full of sudden happenings makes one so alive! Sure, [the unpredictability] can create great stress and anxiety on people. But the best way to relieve yourself is through friends. You can take care of it all when they’re good.
One of the most significant details about Istanbul for me is that it was home to three grand empires. There’s the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. All these have given an amazing depth to the city. You make like one, and not another, but they are all iconoclastic empires [tearing down existing traditions]. They’re very different. All these differences rub off on people living in this city. Seeing, appreciating and embracing these differences is a virtue. That’s what I want to see in people.
That’s why the city has so many layers. You don’t get that around the world. You go to many cities and you can define them. Istanbul is undefinable, and I think that’s magnificent. That’s why everybody, whatever they’re doing, be it art or some other profession, can define the city they’re in. There can’t be greater riches than your city letting you define it on your own terms. This really excites me.
Do you have a new project you’re working on? What are your plans?
MT: Indeed, I do. I started working on one of my dreams, making a documentary on punk and hardcore music … But one of my main goals is to make people love documentaries, because I owe everything to documentary film-making. The word belgesel [documentary] in Turkish is not a word that’s considered "sexy." It’s something that only a certain group of people show interest in and follow.
Yet the truth is documentary film-making is the essence of cinema. And you might find this absurd but documentary film-making began in Istanbul. The first historically documented recording in film history was shot in Yesilkoy. It depicts the demolition of a Russian memorial [anecdotally preceding Robert Flaherty's oft-cited 1922 documentary Nanook of the North by eight years, although no surviving copies exist].
I don’t like such an important city to be so indifferent to documentary film-making. One of my dreams is to make a film that will help change that. That’s what I’m working towards.
I’m also writing a novel. This is the first time I’ve mentioned this. I’ve been in a very interesting process to write this novel. I didn’t tell anyone I was working on one. But now it’s starting to come together and I started putting it down. Because I’ve lived through what I’m writing down. It’s autobiographical and an interesting story about a character and a world that I’m very excited about. It’s something else. It’s taking me somewhere else entirely, writing is.