An Interview with Suha Arin

Suha Arin (2001)

Q: What properties should documentary cinema and documentaries possess?

A: Firstly, documentary filmmaking above all else must take into account aesthetic concerns. Meaning that a documentary filmmaker must know the language of cinema very intimately.

Secondly, a documentary filmmaker needs to be creative. Of course because creativity is a God given gift, it may be not possible to find creative elements in every documentary made. The aim of a documentary maker is to capture truth and beauty. Even if he or she is not creative, they must know the language of cinema.

Thirdly, a documentary maker is part scientist and part artist. Therefore, the direction should be one that pursues both truth and beauty. Documentary is where science and art intersect; this is where substance really is. This is how it should be.

Fourthly, a documentary maker also has to be honest. About situations, facts, people, places and used materials, honesty is necessary. In no manner should the people, events, establishments and reality be tampered with. The audience should not be misled. When there is a difficult situation, it is permissible to change location or certain persons can be utilised to ease production, with the condition that these changes are clearly communicated. This can be stated at either the end, beginning or within the film. Simply put, it is important not to mislead people.

Lastly, documentary cinema, alongside all the points I have just made, should also carry a universal message. In other words, every documentary must present a global meaning. Every documentary should contain a message for all of humanity. If a documentary does not contain a universal message, then I would refrain from calling it a documentary.

Q: How do we define a documentary? How do we distinguish documentaries from other works?

A: If you like I’ll start with describing a new organisation set up this year. The 13th Ankara Film Festival will be held from November 30th – December 9th 2001. In the capacity of the festival the National Documentary Film Competition is being held. The aim of the competition is to promote the artistic development of documentary filmmakers. Due to this, certain restrictions have been placed and the requirements state that: "submitted documentary films must have creative and artistic attributes".

According to this, the competition is only open to "creative documentary cinema". Films produced outside of this description are not allowed to enter.

Now let us pay attention to the competition’s most important requirement: that the submitted films demonstrate "creative documentary cinema". So, the question "when is documentary filmmaking not creative?" needs to be asked. I have not actually got an answer for this. According to the "creative documentary cinema" requirement "non-creative documentary cinema" exists. From what I gather the festival committee meant the following:

Under the title of documentary, some works are presented to the public as documentaries when neither as a whole or as fragments do they really fit the definition. Would you like an example? There are many. I’ll give you a few examples to remind you. For example, our hans (commercial complexes), hamams (Turkish baths), kilims (Turkish carpets), caravanserais… What is the work being done here? A producer – director can find general information in the Britannica Encyclopaedia or Meydan Larousse. He or she will find information on subjects such as ibrik (long spouted water pitchers) or the technique of copper beating. The information will reveal where this craft occurs. By going to the city or town where copper beating is common, he or she will film the craftsmen while working and a couple of examples of the types of objects they produce. Add to this a descriptive narrative and music and there you have it a "documentary"! There are many examples similar to this one.

When the boundaries are like this, then everyone can be a documentary filmmaker and these types of films are labelled "documentary". From what I understand, the Ankara Film Festival and its selection committee are so tired of these types of "documentary" films that as a result they have had to come up with the term "creative documentary". The meaning implied from the word creative here is that the work displays, above all else, cinema qualities. So, in "creative" documentary films they are looking for the artistic elements that make cinema, cinema. It needs to carry aesthetic concerns. This aspect should always be sought after in documentary cinema.

I just mentioned earlier how documentary films should carry a universal message. This message, above all else should avoid containing any prejudice. For example, would it be possible to describe a film that claims, "Adolf Hitler was right about killing and committing genocide towards Jews" as a documentary? Regardless of how aesthetically pleasing the visuals and content or how persuasive the argument, the fact that this message is not universally accessible to everyone means that this film cannot be considered as a documentary.

This means that documentaries have a universal dimension and contain a global message. However, there are films made with aesthetic and cinematographic concerns with a complete narrative and that carry cinema qualities. These are shown under the label of "documentary" and are seen especially documentary channels such as National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. For example, we are watching the lives of lions. How they hunt, how they teach their offspring to hunt, what kind of social structure they have, when does the lioness leave her cubs to fend for themselves, how they share the prey and other scavengers who wait their turn, etc. We will watch the film to the end and have a pretty good time. And this is shown as a "documentary" but I don’t accept this kind of film to be a documentary. I divide films into two categories: "informative" and "documentary". A film about the life cycle of lions is an informative film. Because these types of films predominantly dispense information. A film about lions, and just lions, does not contain any universal message, it just provides information. From this film I can learn information such as the length of a lioness’ pregnancy, the age at which cubs separate from the lioness, their social structure is this and this, they teach their offspring to hunt in such and such a way.

But, I am watching another film on lions. However, the director of this film states that "Lions hunt only when they are hungry. Once they are satisfactorily nourished, they will not harm another animal." Here, the director has loaded this lion film with a universal message by drawing comparisons between humans and lions. The drawn conclusion is that lions to not possess limitless greed, when they have satisfied their needs they stop but mankind does not stop. In this respect humans are more savage than lions. With this kind of universal message loaded, the film goes from being only "informative" and becomes a "documentary". When watching television stations there are usual informative films. And very few of these can be described as documentaries because of the lack of a universal message.

Q: What exactly do you mean when you say ‘universal messages’, can you give some other examples?

A: To stand with hard work, respect towards craftsmanship, the richness of cultural heritage and its preservation, open-mindedness, peace and love, to live and want to live. To refrain or be against violence, killing and death. To stand with intelligence and intellect, which is also Kemalist by default and therefore to be a supporter of Atatürk. These examples and similar ones are universal messages. A film that contains any of the elements I have mentioned above is a documentary.

Those outside of this sphere may reflect the truth, present a new perspective, demonstrate aesthetic concerns, but as I said if there is no universal message in the work then it is informative and not a documentary. As I just stated now, according to my understanding, documentaries must retain a universal message.

Q: There is another subject that you show a great deal of interest in. Information reels and documentary films. Could you illustrate the difference between these two formats with examples?

A: Previously some have described commercial dramatic films shown at cinemas as "feature films". So, films with an acting cast and dramatic narrative of cinematic length were being labelled as "feature films". Films are categorized as "documentary" or "feature", as though documentaries do not have a feature! These days luckily, the term "feature film" is no longer used. Now they are referred to as "fictional" films. Other films are now referred to as "documentary" or "document films". However, the body of works referred to as "documentary" are without elements of fiction or imagination or symbolism is a type of approach to filmmaking. Another approach is that of "news films", this however is not the same thing as "news documentaries". As can be ascertained from its name "news films" is the capturing of scenes and situations that are possible to relive or recreate. Once this footage has worn out its contemporary relevance, all it is used for is archive material. And when we use this material within a contemporary context again, the work is referred to as "news films" or "document films".

There is an example in books on the history of cinema. In 1914, Fuat Uzkınay filmed the destruction of the Russian Ayastefanos statue in what is now Yeşilköy. This film is widely accepted as the first Turkish film, despite the fact that no one has seen the footage. It is believed that the film was made and subsequently lost. Until recently, this film was both thought as the first Turkish film and the first Turkish documentary. The "document film" or "news film" of Reşat Sultan’s visit to the Balkans is now widely accepted as the first Turkish film ever made. It was filmed by the Manaki brothers. Yet some circles insist on referring to both the Uzkınay and the Manaki’s films as documentaries. There are hundreds and thousands of news films being made today and more will be produced in the future. And we will insist on referring to these films as "document film" or "news film". These could be beneficial in the production of documentaries in the future. The information these news reels reveal can be re-interpreted when made into a documentary. Because the informative content of such footage is predominant to any aesthetic concerns. Once these films lose their contemporary relevance they are cast aside as archive material.

"Non-symbolic films" is a trend that has its roots in Soviet cinema and as a genre gain popularity in 1960s France. It was developed by Dzigo Vertov and labelled "Cinéma Vérité". This technique requires capturing the moment as it happens with the use of as few pieces of equipment as possible and without and stage direction. The unrehearsed nature of the performances that are captured on film and then edited into a narrative format is a kind of documentary that we call "Cinéma Vérité". The term "real cinema" denotes how much this technique is in a race against time. Aesthetic concerns tend to take a back seat. The director is predominantly concerned with capture the essence and content of the situation.

"Non-symbolic film" under the umbrella of documentary cinema still search to reveal the truth, however; aesthetic and visual considerations are just as important as content. In other words, documentary film, containing a universal message as well as aesthetic concerns and remaining loyal to documentary principals, provides a new perspective for understanding.

Q: Through a comparison of our society with western societies, how could we change people’s perspectives on television programs? With the myriad of pop culture and entertainment shows how would documentaries even get a chance at being aired?

A: Turkey is has not fully developed a literary culture formed from the written word. The oral culture is still strong within our society. A society that has not adopted a literary tradition is society that won’t read and that won’t write. These kinds of societies tend to be more inclined to watching television and have an attachment to radio, words and sounds. But they are also information hungry societies. In societies with a literary tradition, people obtain information from not only the television and radio but also newspapers. Almost every house will receive two paper and many magazines. Books are the most utilised source of information. Therefore, society with a literary tradition tends to watch television for entertainment purposes only. Because television is not an appropriate means of dispensing information. It is not like a book or a magazine. Due to this, these societies tends to predominantly watch television for entertainment.

Now our television producers are suggesting since it is like this in America and in Europe that the same must apply to us. No! If it functions like that for them, this indicates that it will not function in the same manner for us. Because television channel here have not been tasked with both providing entertainment and information. Channels should not just broadcast entertainment shows and in fact ought to change programming to make it more informative. Provide information to the people of this nation and enlighten them. Because in countries like Turkey, society is hungry for information and learning.

Q: If a documentary channel in Turkey was setup do you think it would attract many viewers? Would such a venture be financially viable?

A: The measurement method of rating is misleading. Why shouldn’t a channel that has identified the needs and values of an audience not be successful? Our society is one that is open to information and truth.

Why do people watch the Discovery Channel? Because the programming is based heavily on informative films. Our television executives fail to capitalize on this opportunity. They base their opinions on what is broadcast in America and Europe, which is most entertainment shows and following suit.

A television executive in recent days made a claim to establishing a channel that will broadcast documentaries. Not only will documentaries be aired but informative films also. Such a venture will exploit a niche in the sector and make a lot of money for its creators. In my opinion, those who want to invest should do so in this sector.

Q: Is it easy to make documentaries in Turkey? I ask because there are topics that are difficult to touch upon. There are some that are even considered to be taboo. Is it easy to overcome these? Can you describe some of the situations you came across as a director?

A: Of course. I want to illustrate my answer with an example. In 1974 I was making a film about Phrygians titled "The World of Midas". I completed all the filming ranging from Midas’ Valley to the Eskişehir-Afyon-Kütahya triangle and stretching to Gordion. The only footage missing was a section on the artefacts found at the Museum of Anatolian Civilization located in Ankara. I went to the museum and spoke with the director who told me to come back tomorrow. The next day I was told that the museum was shut for refurbishment and that I ought to try again in a week’s time. I reminded the staff of the complex equipment required for filming and that I would prefer to be given a certain date rather than incur costs for no result. A week later when I called the museum, I was told that it was "too busy" and that I "should not come." Despite official paperwork from the ministry required for the filming, I was obstructed from doing so for an entire year. Then I started to apply to the ministries for help. Even the Prime Minister heard of the situation. In the end, I was only able to complete the shooting with the intervention of the President. If a museum director or a cultural director or a general director has it in for you, you haven’t got a chance. In our country some people have this stubborn and incomprehensible stance.

I’ll give you another example. In 1990 I was making a documentary about the Hagia Sophia. At first I was denied permission due the scaffolding inside. I suggested to arranging the filming to only include areas where no scaffolding was visible and to this effect submitted an official letter. Eventually they agreed and I filmed the un-scaffolded half of the building. A year went by. I applied for filming permission again siting that the scaffolding had moved to the opposite side. I managed a year to film and complete that project.

To be a documentary filmmaker in Turkey, in the true sense, means blood, sweat and tears.

Q: How are documentaries received by the general public? Do they have any impact on our society and do they present any ways in which to steer public opinion?

A: As I have said before, when making a documentary one needs the precision of a scientist and the sensitivity of an artist. It must reflect beauty and truth. Should the work aim to change society is a matter open to debate. But, it should present the truth to the public. The documentary maker should wait to see what kind of responses the work receives. This is a natural need. In this aspect, documentary does serve a public function. Thus, a documentary filmmaker recognizes his or her public role. To put it politely, especially for us as a "developing nation" I could make very sterile, studio based films. Such films would not contribute anything. But I believe we should turn our gazes to our land and the people of this land. How many documentaries have you seen that deal with the daily lives of the elderly, of workers, of unionized workers, of the hardships they endure, of how social security was robbed from retired journalists, of how people suffer in hospital queues? Have you seen a documentary that deals with such subjects on television? I would be happy with viewing after midnight but it is not possible to watch such documentaries on television. Because the executives do not allow such material to be aired. As a documentary maker it is hard to find sponsorship. You have to make do with the subjects that do bring sponsorship. And even then the film will be air at 2 or 3 am.

What comes to mind with the term documentary? Our geographic and historic beauty, our culture, our Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. You are not permitted to make people think or question. You are going to present easily digestible cultural news to the audience. Then present some light entertainment and music and perhaps some different folkloric visuals. If there is any spare time after all this, in the middle of the night, your documentary will be aired. This is what is permitted. However when one tries to make a documentary addressing the social issues of Turkey, it is impossible to find funding. Let’s say you find the money, then there is the issue of finding a channel that will air the film. Even if it is aired, it may only reach three to five people due to the time of night it is shown at. I have made over 50 documentaries, half of which have never been viewed by an audience. I call those documentaries "the ships that never made it to the sea". Films that do not make it to the viewer are just like shipwrecks.

Q: We know that you are one of the foremost names in documentary filmmaking. In Turkey, who comes to mind as a filmmaker and produce and what have their achievements been?

A: The first people to introduce documentary film as a discipline in our country was Sabahattin Eyüboğlu and Mazhar Şevket İpşiroğlu. Both were teaching at Istanbul University in the 1960s when they decided to pursue this case. Although there are some examples from the 60s, most of the films are in fact are of the informative type.

Q: How do you find efforts of documentary filmmaking in Turkey? What are your thoughts on private television channels and TRT’s documentaries?

A: First off, private channel should be supportive of any documentary production efforts. But unfortunately such channels are not aware of documentary films. There are a few channels that are an exception and produce predominantly touristic and cultural films. Private television stations are always thinking of the commercial aspect of any venture. So what happens? To maximize revenue, programs are made on a shoestring budget with the most number of adverts possible. There are so many channels that there are not enough commercials to go around. Consequently, quality is sacrificed, cheaply made programmes are aired and ratings reports justifying the entire process.

Making a documentary is a costly affair. It is not possible to shoot an entire documentary in a studio. You have to travel the country or where necessary the world to obtain the right footage. Research needs to be conducted through a variety of mediums such as books and archives. This requires months to complete. But the montage of a cheap show can be completed in two nights and be ready to be aired. Live programmes shown every night can be broadcast with very little costs incurred. Therefore there is no concern towards serving the public. The only concern is maximizing revenue faster.

The TRT is governed by state authorities and is thus restricted in the type of content it can produce for viewing. Even if it is made, it will get stuck in the various control procedures. In 1985-86 I filmed a 10 part documentary series titled "As Euphrates Becomes A Lake". Due to the construction of the dam, people were abandoning their villages and I filmed this process alongside the workers of the dam, the nearby towns and interviewed the displaced people. The TRT refused to broadcast any part of the work. Although the TRT is most proactive in documentary airing and production, the kind of works commissioned by the TRT tends to be of an informative film type. I would not refer to those TRT films as documentaries. Documentaries carry special qualities, as you know.

June 14, 2001
MTV, Gayrettepe-Istanbul