Interview with Turkish writer-director Yesim Ustaoglu:
Historical Tragedy and Hidden Identity illuminated in Waiting for the Clouds
by Alissa Simon
Turkish writer-director Yesim Ustaoglou, whose acclaimed second feature Journey to the Sun (1999) dealt with the treatment of Kurds in contemporary Turkey, treats another taboo topic with Waiting for the Clouds. It highlights a little-known historical tragedy, the forced deportation of the Pontic Greeks from Turkey after World War I, and again after the founding of the Turkish Republic. "I have always been interested in the patchwork that actually makes up Turkish history and culture," says Ustaoglu. "When I first heard the stories of people like [my heroine] Ayshe in northeastern Turkey which I know very well, I felt this was a part of history which had remained in the dark for too long."
The Pontic Greeks settled in the Black Sea region some 3000 years ago. At the beginning of the 20th century, their communities were thriving, and boasted their own schools, theatre groups and newspapers. After WWI, Turkish nationalists took power and moved against minority populations such as the Armenians and Pontic Greeks. Forced into exile during the harsh winter of 1916, many died of hunger and exposure. In 1924, the rulers of Greece and Turkey agreed to repatriate ethnic Greeks and ethnic Turks, so another massive deportation took place. In Waiting for the Clouds, the character Ayshe survived the exodus of 1925 and Thanasis that of 1916.
Ustaoglu's script won the 2003 Sundance/NHK Filmmaker Award. It is based in part on the novella Tamama by Yorgios Andreadis, and also on extensive research. "I read many books," she says, "of history and of interviews written by Pontus historians and Turkish historians living outside of Turkey. I also found exiled people who are still alive and recorded their stories."
Ayshe was born as Eleni in the Turkish fishing village of Treblolu. She was only ten when she was forced to flee with her parents and younger siblings in the bitter snow and cold in a forced march along the Black Sea coast. The journey killed hundreds of "evacuees." Eleni and her five-year-old brother Niko saw their father branded a "rebel" and shot, and their mother and baby sister die of starvation and exposure. Eleni's strong will kept Niko and herself alive and moving, until a Turkish family discovered them in the snow. Eleni bonded with Selma, daughter of the Turkish family, and chose to remain with them while Niko joined other orphans in a barracks. When the order came for the orphans to sail to Greece, Eleni stayed with Selma's family, hiding her real identity.
For fifty years, Eleni/Ayshe has felt a terrible guilt over abandoning her brother. When her beloved Selma dies in 1975, the memories of her past life become overwhelming. She breaks down. Her memory of her language returns. But does she dare reveal her secrets? Outsiders are still regarded as infidels, particularly in this corner of northeastern Turkey where intolerance and suspicion reign supreme. In the 1970s, as in the 1920s, Turkish life was marked by great social and political upheaval. The Soviet Union was deemed a particular threat, and Turkish communists watched by the government.
Eight-year-old Mehmet observes Ayshe's difficulties. When a white haired stranger arrives in the fishing village, Mehmet thinks that his accent resembles Ayshe's. He introduces the two and for the first time in five decades, Ayshe discusses her past. The stranger is called Thanasis. His background is similar to Ayshe's. After being transported with other orphans to Greece, he joined the partisans during the war and was then forced into exile. He lived for a number of years in Russia. Now he has returned to Greece, settling in Thessaloniki. With the help of Thanasis, Eleni is ultimately able to confront her past.
Waiting for the Clouds was shot in the same harsh and beautiful locations where the story unfolds. The highland scenes took place in an encampment 3500 meters high with no electricity. Cast and crew carried their equipment along a narrow path and lived in the same conditions as the characters they portrayed. Given these challenges, the performance of the older actors is remarkable, particularly that of Ruchan Caliskur who plays Ayshe. She won the Best Actress prize at the 2004 Istanbul Film Festival. Ustaoglu notes, "I try to choose actors who feel the story very deeply or who have a similar background to the characters in my script. I spend a long time in the locations where I shoot and choose the actors from there. Most of the cast are non-professionals from northeastern Turkey. Others are Pontic Greeks from Thessaloniki. I try to make all the cast feel very close to each other. We have long rehearsal periods and examine the locations together before shooting. For all the non-professional cast, it was very easy to work in such locations, but the older cast from Istanbul and Thessaloniki took their time to be part of the area. They examined the living conditions and even the body language of those living there to be able to perform naturally. Everyone really wanted to be in this movie, and they were ready for all the difficulties which was important to me."
While preparing Waiting for the Clouds, Ustaoglu also made a documentary about another minority population living in the area. She says, "My documentary tells a story about the Laz people who are from a more Georgian and Caucasian origin. They kept their own language and culture, but also have so many struggles, especially the women. My story talks about these brave, strong women who are living in an amazing wild nature, but always keep their strange ways."
What does the future hold for this talented filmmaker? "I am developing two projects," she says. "Both will be contemporary stories focused on the problems of our youth: their wishes, hopes and struggles to change their lives."
Yesim Ustaoglu was born in 1960 near Kars, an area with a large Kurdish population, not far from Turkey's border with Armenia. She went to university in Trabzon, on the Black Sea, where she studied architecture. She worked for a number of years as an architect, designer and restoration expert, but was always interested in cinema. She used earnings from her architecture work to direct several short films that went on to win prizes. The Trace (1994), her debut feature, screened at numerous international festivals. Her next feature, Journey to the Sun, received the Blue Angel Award for Best European Film as well as the Peace Film Prize at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival and swept the Istanbul Festival, winning Best Film and Best Director. "I learned a lot when I was living in northeastern Turkey," she says. I listened to many stories from old people. I also studied the history of art and architecture. I was always interested in the mosaics of our history and culture. It's a pity that once nationalism takes hold, people start to ignore the rest of the cultural elements that belong to others."