16.6. Morning Discussion with Aslı Özge

Sunday’s morning discussion was opened by Turkish film director Aslı Özge, who has made a name for herself internationally with works that blend documentary and fiction. Born in Istanbul, Özge remembers her first film being an erotic Arabic-language drama she saw at the age of six with her mother and aunt. She recalls the awkward atmosphere and the feeling of something forbidden.

When her mother fell ill with cancer, Özge would always watch a film on her way to the hospital. Movies became a powerful source of comfort that supported her during a difficult time. During these cinema visits, Özge began to nurture the idea of a career as a film director, seeing it as a way to process her mother’s illness.

In a family that consumed culture but had no creative professionals, Özge’s career choice was a slight surprise. She initially studied communications until she was accepted into film school.

“A director always has to prove something. It can be challenging at first,” Özge states.

Living an international life, Özge dreamed of moving abroad from a young age. “Turkey can be a politically and economically difficult country, so as teenagers, all my friends looked abroad,” she says.

Her trusted cinematographer and partner Emre Erkmen enticed her to join him in Germany when he was moving to study at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). After moving to Berlin, Özge began planning her first film. “I didn’t have much money, so my first project started mainly through networking and determination. I went to the head of the film school department and said that if they didn’t lend me the cameras, I would steal them. Only then did he agree,” Özge recounts.

Her first film, Ein bisschen April (2003), told the story of young people constantly moving from one apartment to another, searching for their place in a foreign country. The film was completed on a tight schedule and included a lot of improvisation. Unexpectedly, the film was picked up by German television, and doors to the German film industry began to open.

“Physically, I lived in Germany, but my thoughts were still in Istanbul. I wanted to address Turkish themes from Germany because it is still my home,” Özge says. She and her cinematographer Erkmen got the idea for the film Men on the Bridge (2009), set on the Bosphorus Bridge and depicting the economically precarious and often undocumented lives of young people. Erkmen played a crucial role in the project’s success.

“We are a team with Emre. He is the first person I discuss the script and filming with. He thinks through the camera. We are determined. We know that even if no one gives us money, we will still make the film.”

Özge is known for her directing methods and preference for amateur actors. “I don’t want to give the script to the actors too early, or I give each of them a different version of the text. This preserves the spontaneity and surprise in their interactions,” Özge explains.

Black Box (2023) is set in a residential courtyard that connects people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Making the film made Özge think about politics from a new perspective.

“Politics is present in our everyday lives. It affects all human relationships, yet we don’t talk about it. Black Box is a microcosm of society, and its conflicts are present throughout society.”

Her latest film, Faruk (2024), deals with the gentrification of Istanbul by closely following the life of her 96-year-old father. The demolition of her father’s home reflects the significant changes in Turkish society. Her father lives between two worlds, the memories of the old house, and the changing future ahead.

“Older people don’t think about death like we do. My father could hear about a neighbour’s death in the morning and sing by the television in the evening. The perspective on aging and death changes with age. Studying my father taught me to prepare for loss and aging,” Özge says.

Among her inspirations, Özge mentions Stanley Kubrick. “Every Kubrick film is perfect, but they are all completely different. I learned from him that I don’t have to stick to one style; I can be versatile.” On a desert island, she would take Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964).

Image: Susanna Pesonen