Director unlu on his film’s +18 rating: They can just ban my next film

Turkish filmmaker Onur unlu is known for his idiosyncratic films whose storylines often border on the surreal. His 2007 debut feature “Polis” (Police), a crime-comedy starring Haluk Bilginer, and last year’s “sen Aydinlatirsin Geceyi” (Thou Gild’st the Even), a fantasy-drama about a group of seemingly ordinary people in a small town who actually possess superpowers, are among his most notable efforts.

His latest offering, “Itirazim Var” (Let’s sin), in which an extraordinary imam (played by serkan Keskin) embarks on an adventure to solve a murder committed at his mosque, is not an exception to the director’s distinctive style. What is exceptional about the film though is that it has been rated +18 by the Turkish film classification board.

The commission’s decision had both moviegoers and the film’s makers perplexed as “there is no apparent reason for an +18 rating in the storyline,” according to critics. The director’s team has already appealed the rating and unlu is hopeful that the board will revise its decision (In fact, just before this article went to press on Friday, unlu announced on Twitter that the rating was revised to +15 following their appeal).

“Itirazim Var,” whose title literally translates to “I Object,” just last week got a best director nod from the national feature film competition jury of this year’s Istanbul Film Festival.

unlu, who bills himself as a director whose work is “either extremely loved or just hated,” has at least 22 more features planned, and “Itirazim Var” is only the third among his plan for 10 crime flicks.

The 41-year-old film director, screenwriter, poet and occasional drummer speaks about his new film and the +18 rating in a recent interview with sunday’s Zaman at his Istanbul office.

In “Itirazim Var,” Keskin portrays an unconventional imam most people in Turkey are not used to seeing either in their daily lives or on the big screen.

I never thought, “Okay, now I will [write] a good imam.” This film is not a documentary on an imam’s life, nor is it a promotional video about imams. … As far as I can tell, imams were often clichéd, cardboard characters in Turkish movies up until now; they were being made fun of.

But I did not set out saying, “All right Turkish cinema, that’s enough, you cannot treat imams that way!” I was just trying to tell a story, I had the character of an imam in my mind, and it was this imam.

Were you shocked with the +18 rating for your film?

I do hope that that problem will soon be solved. We have already appealed the rating and sooner or later common sense will prevail. My friends in the film industry have been very supportive; they even wore “Itirazim Var” badges during the closing ceremony of the Istanbul Film Festival. But the main problem here is not just to get the rating for this film to be revised [to] +13; the point is that [we need to make sure] these kinds of restrictions will not be imposed that easily again [and that] the [film rating] regulation is improved. If all this trouble is going to help us achieve [this] in the end, I can only be glad.

The +18 rating has made moviegoers curious as to what they will see in the theater and often audiences leave the cinema saying, “so what?” Doesn’t that bother you?

[The rating] has created an ugly prejudice. People look at the film’s poster and think, “What could be in it?” And of course, when they watch it, they see there’s nothing [wicked] in it. I am right in this matter, but I won’t let that turn me into an unkind person. … Common sense always wins and I’m waiting for that to happen. I’m so [in the] right that no matter what I say, it will be a waste [of words].

This film is another example of your trademark style of films that have something to say. And it is the third of your planned 10 crime flicks.

Well, I would have preferred another topic of discussion: such as the things the imam character does in the film. serkan portrays the character so truthfully that in the end of the film we forgive everything he does, even if we did not approve of them at first. The man is so likeable, so honest and so well-meaning. And this guarantees us that the film is well-meaning too. If the characters in a film are believable, everything else in that film is believable. This is also true for “Itirazim Var.” The audience liked the film as a crime feature and they also liked its [moral] stance.

In the film, the main character utters a sentence where he voices his relief for “losing yet again.” Do you like characters that are great losers?

I like trying to protect one’s dignity rather than great losers or characters that lose big time. What’s important is keeping one’s position. In the end, there are millions of people in this world who die without achieving their dreams, there are millions without hope, and there’s this preconception that the audience does not want to see that misery on the big screen. It’s not that I especially want my characters to suffer, but each character I write represents a concept.

It is actually possible to make money in the film business, but you prefer to take risks. You sometimes face harsh criticism and sometimes fail at the box office. You also took risks in your TV work, mainly “Leyla ile Mecnun.” Would you agree?

People [could not quite grasp] my work at first, but when I insisted on not changing my style more people began to get it right. “Leyla ile Mecnun” actually helped more people to understand my [style]. People either loved it extremely or hated it. The characters [on the show] exist because I exist. I always did stuff that I’d love to watch. And now this has become a cult style in cinema. And that style does have a fan base.

The kind of audiences that watched “Leyla ile Mecnun” or were fans of “Behzat C.” were labeled as the generation that started last year’s Gezi Park protests. Do you see such a parallel?

Yes, more or less. Most of those people were also among those protesting at Gezi. But just like the spontaneous nature of [the] Gezi Park protests, those people also took part in the protests spontaneously.

They are the smarter people in this country. And my work in one way or another [speaks to] that kind of an audience. But saying that my work was effective in triggering the protests would be preposterous.

The common denominator for the people protesting in Gezi was that they actually had nothing in common: so many people from so many different political views came together in those protests. … The common ground there was something above politics: It was about lifestyles. When you cannot identify something sociologically, you try to take shortcuts; that’s how the fascist mind works.

The fascist mind makes a definition and builds a rhetoric using that definition. For instance, it talks about [how] the “50 percent hardly stayed at home.” … Gezi is a complicated subject matter sociologically. It was hard for them [the government] to analyze it immediately.

And because they had difficulty understanding it, they used definitions that already existed [to figure out what was going on]. so they blamed “Leyla ile Mecnun.” They blamed comic magazines.

It seems there’s a process of retaliation going on and the +18 rating for “Itirazim Var” looks like the film is a casualty of that process.

Yes. … And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end soon. I hear about certain kinds of lists [blacklists] too. But I really don’t care about those things, so much so that I don’t even know how to describe how it makes me feel. I just don’t give a damn.

so they think they can tame me by rating my film +18? Do they think I’ll go, “Hmm, I should not do this and that in my next film so I don’t get +18”? Well, people like me instead think, “I hope they ban the next one.”

Returning to the imam character, perhaps the fact that he is being talked about so much has something to do with the troubles we as a nation are having with normalization. I mean, if you wrote the same role as a grocer, would it still be talked about?

What I fear the most is that this film is attributed a meaning other than what I intended. I am not a political figure and neither does my film have politics as its starting point. The +18 rating politicized the film, however it is actually not a film that is possible to become a topic of political discussion.

The imam is an everyman who might be standing anywhere [in the political spectrum]. But he’s surrounded by so much wickedness in the story that he becomes a political figure in the eyes of the audience.