< Light Millennium: Seeking The Sultan
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Documentary: Seeking The Sultan
We can bridge enormous changes in our lives

A mirror interview

by Didem YILMAZ

"My main aim was to suggest to the audience that things can be different than what they seem from the outside, and that in order to get to the truth or substance of a subject, we should look closely."

- Where did the idea come from for making this film?

- There is an image I have carried in my mind since primary school of the heir to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire as an old man.  It was from a black and white photo taken of him in exile, staring towards the horizon. While I cannot recall the caption, I knew enough about history then to understand that he had been expelled from my country. The image was so powerful that it has remained with me since then. As a newcomer to the United States, struggling to adapt, I found myself recalling this vivid image and my childhood concerns for the Ottomans, the ruling family of Turkey that was expelled from my country in 1924. From these memories, stimulated by my new situation, the idea for this documentary was born. Aware that most Americans know little of the history or geography of Turkey, I thought it might be valuable to share with others my attempt to learn what happened to this family through the documentary genre.

In the beginning of shooting the documentary, I didn't realize that there might be a connection between my desire to seek out the Ottomans and my own attempts to establish an identity in a new culture. I now realize that when a person leaves their homeland they have to face numerous challenges that offer them opportunities for personal growth. In some ways the film became, in part, a personal story about what I could learn from someone else from my country who also had to adapt to moving, but under much more difficult and emotional circumstances than myself. In the course of my searching and shooting, I had the extremely good fortune of finding the man who would have been the head of the empire.

- Why did you choose a "self-reflexive documentary" style?

- Most documentaries have a viewer and a subject and most discussions of documentary deal with this relationship. But it became clear early in my thinking that I needed to include my own explorations of the topic in the documentary. Like most people who grew up in Turkey, I didn't know what happened to the Ottoman family after their exile and I had no clear perspective on them. I had felt empathy for them as a child and now that I was struggling to adapt to living outside of my country, these concerns about them as exiles were being rekindled. It therefore seemed that the most honest approach to this subject was for me to be a part of the video, with my dreams, investigations, reflections and doubts exposed. To make a traditional documentary film of the history of the Ottoman family and an account of their current lives would have resulted in a one-dimensional account of history. It would not have captured the potentially interesting dimension of how the identity of a historical figure had impacted the feelings and identity of a developing child and might now have some impact on an adult who finds herself missing her homeland.

- How did you decide to structure the film and what to shoot?

- I decided to shoot and edit the story in the same sequence as the story naturally unfolded for me. In this respect the film follows the logic of the directors of cinema verite. Of course there was a fundamental difference from most cinema verite in that I was both partially the subject of the video and the director! Nevertheless, I took the decision to have my cameraman or myself turn on the camera whenever I was in pursuit of my question and to film what happened in sound-synch. Furthermore, I decided not to alter this sequence of shots in the process of editing the video.

I also decided to videotape my telephone calls in pursuit of the Ottoman family and the Sultan. Because the time period for this series of phone conversations took weeks, I decided to show the chronological changes through the changing colors of a maple tree in my garden. Still, I feared that the telephone calls would result in a boring story at times. But preliminary informal screenings of the video indicated that the audience found these phone calls to be an effective way of engaging them in my struggle, so I kept them.

- Although you describe your film as self-reflexive it is also educational, in part, isn't it? 

- Yes, I knew that most Americans know very Iittle about my country and I wanted to do something about that. I needed to find a way to introduce the audience to some of the basic geographical and historical information, but to do so in a way that was in keeping with the self-reflexive style of the documentary. Rather than presenting static maps from an atlas, I decided to show myself drawing maps of my country and the historical changes in the Ottoman Empire as a way of stressing that this video was a personal attempt to make sense of history, I further employed this principal in my reading of historical texts, paintings and photographs. I showed these sources not as abstract historical facts but as another set of resources in my own process of making personal sense of history. I wanted to show that history is a social construction and that we each carry different understandings and interpretations of major world events. We all knew as children about the grand days of the Ottoman Empire but like most  of my friends  I had been confused about why the Ottoman Family had just evaporated. Surely the members of these families had some stories to tell too? As I put it to Zeynep Ertugrul, the wife of Ertugrul Osman  (the head of the Ottoman family who would have been the Sultan), in my first phone conversation with her: "I'm not interested in the cold facts of history, I'm interested in the human side of the story". It was not that I doubted the history of the foundation of the new Republic of Turkey that I had been taught as a child, but just that it had felt like there were more stories to be told. I introduced the audience to the tendency to stereotype by including in the documentary a clip of the comments of one of my cameraman. He explains during the car journey to Osman Effendi's home that he gained his stereotypical images of Turkey from cartoons.

- Your film seems to be visually poetic. Do you agree?

- New York City offers a lot of visual material to filmmakers. Since I arrived in New York, I have been impressed by the patterns of the city, the diverse styles and motifs and the height of the buildings, which make me feel so small. All of these feelings about the form of the city helped me in my visual compositions. Through visual metaphor I was able to enrich the context of my shots and to add another layer of discourse.  For example, in the New York University Library I was able to suggest some other meanings for the viewer that went beyond the obvious by playing with visual scale. For instance, we see an image that the audience does not recognize that appears like a labyrinth. Later, by changing the camera shot from an extreme long shot to a long shot, they realize that what they are seeing are the multiple floors of a building that I am walking through. Then, through a medium-shot, the audience discovers more about what is going on • its a library with books that are central to my search for the history of Ottomans. Similarly, we see in the library a very abstract shot of hundreds of file card catalog drawers in the library and then a close up shot of my zeroing-in on a particular drawer with the name of the Sultan's family.

In another example of this, I am seen calling Turkish people to ask what they know about the Ottoman family. In this sequence, we see a long shot of the Manhattan Skyline. This dissolves into a shot of the windows of the apartments. By this change of camera shot, I wanted the audience to imagine that every window symbolizes the life of a person who might be a member of the Ottoman family. My main aim was to suggest to the audience that things can be different than what they seem from the outside, and that in order to get to the truth or substance of a subject, we should look closely.

- Why did you conduct interview with Ertugrul Osman in Turkish when the rest of the film uses English?

 Learning that HIH Prince Ertugrul Osman could speak Turkish broke one of my own stereotypes about how he would be. Because he had left Turkey before the new Turkish alphabet was launched in 1924, I had assumed that he would not speak Turkish. I was wrong. I decided also to let the audience know this man who had to live outside of his country for fifty years still taught himself Turkish and spoke the language well.  But I later learned that he was much more relaxed and less "on guard" in English. It might therefore have been better to have interviewed him in English, as the language that he is most comfortable with. But this was not something I could have known at the outset. I decided to correct this imbalanced account of him by using English in my subsequent interview in Central Park. This relaxed scene contrasts with the formal interview in Turkish and helps communicate the warmth that was beginning to emerge between us.

- What was the most difficult challenge you had to face?

One of the biggest challenges I had to deal with was how to end the film. "If I had a bad life, it would be better for your film." said Ertugrul Osman during my formal interview with him. Yes, it would have been an easy ending for my documentary to show a person who would have been the Sultan now living in poverty. But the documentary shows instead a person in good health that is kind, understanding and contemplative. For a while I thought that I didn't have a good ending for the film. But on reflection I realized that in finding Mr.Osman I had done much more than just filled in the gaps in my historical knowledge.  I had learned from a man who might have now been the head of a nation, if it were still a monarchy, that more important than any loss of wealth status, or even national identity is the sense of self-identity that we each create for ourselves.  I learned something about the qualities that enable a person to have a clear sense of identity that has continuity with the past, no matter how conflicted that past might have been. Mr. Osman showed me that with an open-mind and a generous heart we can bridge enormous changes in our lives. I was therefore able to conclude the documentary by saying that more important than any status we may have in the world, such as being a sultan or the head of a family, it is how we live our life that counts. That the empire that counts is our own life and how we each shape it.

_ . _

Synopsis of the documentary & Profile of Didem Yilmaz

E-mail to Didem Yilmaz: dyilmaz1@hotmail.com

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