Born in 1948 to a father from Kabylie in Algeria and a Gypsy mother, Tony Gatlif won international acclaim for his movies, including "Vengo," "Transylvania," and "Gadjo Dilo," that focus on and represent regional cultures. His latest film "Djam" tells the story of a young girl's journey between Lesbos, Istanbul and the Turkish-Greece border. The main character, Djam, travels from Lesbos to Istanbul to purchase a ship component for Kakourgos, a former sailor and a fan of Rembetiko music, who she calls uncle. The young woman meets the 18-year-old French Avril in Istanbul. Avril is a young woman who volunteers to help refugees without any money and not knowing a single soul in town. Generous, self-assured and free-spirited, Djam takes Avril into her arms on this journey full of music, new acquaintances, shared memories and hopes to Lesbos.
The master director was in Istanbul last week for the Turkish premiere of "Djam," and Daily Sabah interviewed him about his directing style, cinematography and his latest movie.
Toni Gatlif (L) and Zeynep Esra Istanbullu of Daily Sabah.
DAILY SABAH: How did you end up with the idea of shooting a movie between Lesbos and Istanbul?
Tony Gatlif: The idea was sparked from Rembetiko. It has been 30-35 years since I met Rembetiko and was inspired by the music of Rembetiko, which was born during the population exchange in 1922. While I was planning to produce a movie about the music of Rembetiko that focuses on the stories of those times and the exile, I had no idea I would find myself within a story of exile and migration that is happening now. It is a twist of fate that my desire and will coincided with what is happening in Syria and all the refugee flow. I found myself in the middle of immigration from Syria, while I was focusing on the forced population exchange between Turks and Greeks in the early 1920s.
D.S: Could you tell us about the hardships of shooting a movie that partly passes in the Greek and Turkish borders? Did you have any problems with logistics or permits?
T.G: We had no problems on the Turkish side of the border. Our producer in Turkey, Suzan Güverte, organized everything meticulously and on time. However, we encountered problems on the Greek side of the border. They did not allow me to shoot at the border with fences. As the Greek side is included in the European Union, the European regulations automatically intruded.
D.S: How did you manage the casting process for "Djam," especially the main character? What were your criteria?
As an independent filmmaker, I would like to ornament the characters in my movie with things I like. Here, there is a woman in the leading role. So since I am a big music fan, I wanted her to be familiar and into music. I love dance so I wanted her to be able to dance. This is how I envisaged her in mind. But it is really hard to find someone who is capable of managing all these things. What I was trying to do was like seeking water in the middle of the desert. This person should tick all the criteria boxes. Daphne didn't know how to dance, sing or play instruments when she arrived. And the character I had written was not supposed to be beautiful; I was looking for someone with minor defects, whereas Daphne has a great beauty. But it all worked out in the end; she learned everything and created the character I was hoping to create.
D.S: As an Algerian-origin French director, you successfully and focus on Balkan territory in several films, especially among gypsies, like in "Transylvania" and "Gadjo Dilo." What is so special about Balkan societies, music and culture?
T.S: At this point, I would like to stress my Gypsy roots, as well. I'm not just an Algerian making movies; I am a Gypsy shooting movies. What drew me here are my Gypsy origins. I like exile stories and therefore, the exile and the immigration that took place in the Balkans is one of my fields of interest.
D.S: "Djam" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and later in many other festivals. How was the audience's reaction?
We received great and pleasing reactions. Screening in Cannes was like a feast. We then headed to festivals in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium. We received the viewers' award at the Brussels Mediterranean Film Festival.
D.S: There is an intense use of dance and music in your films. What does music mean in your personal life and cinematography?
Music is as intensely included in my life as in my movies. Music has always been there. It is both universal and eternal. Music also played an important part in my family's life. We used to travel to Andalusia to celebrate the New Year and enter the first hours of the new year with music. We celebrated the arrival of a new year with songs of Flamenco, live music and dance.
D.S: There is a specific stress on liberated and free characters in your films. How do you build up those characters?
My characters are usually free and liberated yet they are shy at the same time. They have a hidden, secret side to them. Their freedom is not a vulgar freedom or a vulgar show of liberty. They are not naive either. They are well aware of what they do. People should be well aware of what they have to be free anyway.
D.S: In the last few years, the refugee flux has been on the world agenda. How did you prefer to mention this issue? And was your preference of Lesbos intentional in this matter?
I didn't include the refugee and immigration issue in the movie on purpose. It literally coincided with the time I was shooting. This is what is magical in the end. I set out on this road just to tell the story of Rembetiko music. Lesbos is an island very close to Turkey, and we, by chance, witnessed that people were arriving there to go to Europe. This is a sad fact. I did not want to re-create the situation by showing the people who were immigrating. Instead of showing them directly, I shot the traces of them, the life jackets that were left behind.
D.S: Do you think the belly dancing of Djam, the leading character who arrives in Istanbul from Lesbos by wearing belly dancer's clothes and sleeping on the roof of a historical building may receive criticism for being Orientalist in a way?
I saw girls dancing in dancing clothes in Istanbul. I don't know if they are actual Gypsies, but I saw such girls. I believe this is a part of life and is a fact so I don't think this is a marginal and orientalist touch in the movie. I was inspired by my son in the sleeping on the roof scene. He traveled to many countries and slept on roofs of various houses so I reflected his memories and experiences onto the screen.
D.S: The female characters in your movies are all very liberated and strong women. They can travel freely, wear whatever they want and dance whenever they want. Can we say that such characters are created as a stance against the patriarchal pressures of modern societies? In other words, can we claim that you shoot your movies with a feminist point of view?
T.G. This is who I am. I am against the patriarchal system. I like showing women the way I like to see them. I am a feminist. Women are not victims, or small, secondary creatures. The concept of women is not insignificant and small unlike what some men believe. Women are equal to men in all my movies. They have the same level of power with men. Just like Carmen.
D.S: Do you have any certain upcoming projects?
I usually do not plan on movies that I will shoot; they come to me on their own. I would like to make a musical; however, there is no certain project yet. An inspiration comes from where the world is headed. These days, the issue of belonging to somewhere or something is on the agenda. I may shoot something regarding the search for belonging and identity. It will definitely be the story of a winner, will be hopeful. It will be the story of an optimist, who is not dumb, to the contrary, who does know what they are doing and wins without hurting anyone. We need to struggle to win over pessimism and foolishness. It will be a fair story in which everyone does what needs to be done and wins.