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Light Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005

"If you keep going the barking dogs will be far behind you..."
An Interview with Emre SAHIN, director of CANTA

THREE lives collide....
Across TWO Continents....
Searching for ONE briefcase.

1) Poster of the CANTA (The Briefcase)
2) Emre SAHIN, director of CANTA, at the Beverly Hills Film Festival.

by Light Millennium

"I always feel like I am connected no matter what. And sometimes I think that being away has helped me understand it a little better or appreciate it. When you are living there, traffic is just traffic and a mosque is just a mosque. But if you aren't in Istanbul, the images that come to mind are very different than if you live there."

From Istanbul to Hollywood to Istanbul and back, Filmmaker Emre Sahin's debut short film,"Canta" (The Briefcase) was awarded the coveted "Best Cinematography" prize at the 2005 Beverly Hills International Film Festival. "Canta" was chosen out of 1800 film submissions and beat out 40 shorts, 7 features and 7 documentaries in contention (including David Duchovny's "House of D" and Executive Producer of "The Terminator" and "The Last Emperor", John Daly's "The Aryan Couple" starring Martin Landau)  to take home the prestigious award at last month's celebrity filled gala event.  "Canta" is also an official selection of the 2005 Palm Beach International Film Festival and is in consideration for upcoming 2005-2006 festivals worldwide.

The man behind this whirlwind success is Emre Sahin, a 28 year old Turk who credits his fresh filmmaking style - best described as a masterful blend of gritty, raw verite with polished cinematography - to growing up amidst the beautiful chaos of Istanbul. Sahin moved to the states to study film at Boston's Emerson College. He's spent the last 8 years living and working in Los Angeles shooting, directing and editing for television networks including MTV, VH1, FX, E! Entertainment, ABC Family, National Geographic Channel, TLC, The History Channel, The Travel Channel, The Discovery Channel and The Food Network.

But Hollywood wasn't the first to take notice of Sahin's unique talent. After "Canta"s 2004 winter debut in Istanbul,  Turkey's Radikal Newspaper called Sahin (translated to English from Turkish) " one of the best examples of the new generation of Turkish Cinema".

Time Out Istanbul agreed,  "An original story, beautiful cinematography, crisp editing. Canta is a must see." 

And NTV raved "Canta is a one of a kind film... Emre Sahin shows promise for the future of cinema in Turkey."

We sat down with this Hollywood Turk to find out what all the fuss is about, what's next and why he just might be the Woody Allen of Istanbul.

- First of all, congratulations on "Canta"s success. Is it something you expected?

It was something I had hoped for but not necessarily expected. Obviously if I didn't think we could have done something good we wouldn't have done it but I felt like there was a good story, the timing was right. I felt ready and it was a good debut film. We did it hoping for the best and so far it has been great.

- Go back in time for us. When and why did you decide to be a filmmaker?

Officially in high school, but I was always into visual things and I always knew I couldn't have a normal office job from the time I was 6 years old. As someone growing up in Istanbul,  filmmaking never seemed like a reality or an actual job. It seemed like something people far off do and they aren't real people - so I never really considered it. It wasn't until I started to see that universities had film programs that I thought "why not?".  I hadn't ever shot a film, I just watched tons of films and was fascinated by the visual aspect and the technological aspect. My father is a journalist and when I would go on the road with him to do stories I loved the mechanics of setting up the tripod, or the buttons on the camera.

Once I started film school at Emerson, I knew right away I had chosen the right path. The theory classes, the history of film - it was amazing. I never knew  that was out there. It was like the passion I had actually had a name and class to take. My first college film, "Fetish",  won Best Film and Best Editing in the college version of the Emmy awards and that was the reinforcement I needed to move to LA.

- Then what?

I moved to Los Angeles and applied for the internship at Panavision. They only choose one student out of thousands per semester so I was lucky to have had that opportunity. I worked in every department and worked closely with AC's and DP's. It was my first taste of the Hollywood system and I got to see how systematic it was. My work now has the discipline of Hollywood, you know, the team effort, how you really have to depend on people to do their job.  Hollywood has created the most efficient way of filmmaking and it is the standard all around the world and I got to see the inside of that. But I also saw all the negatives of that system. It can be limiting to creativity. It can be about trying to repeat successes instead of trying to find new ones. It has become too safe. Most decisions aren't made for creative reasons but for financial ones. But I think this formula will change. The success of foreign films and documentaries shows that you can spend less and make more and in the end people just want to relate to a story. A good story is a good story and you don't need 50 million and a Tom Cruise to tell it.

- Tell us about Canta!

It is an Istanbul film in every way. This film wouldn't work unless it was done in Istanbul. I always like the idea of the fine line between coincidences and miracles and letting the audience in on a secret that the characters aren't aware of. It happens all the time in Istanbul and in the film we look into the lives of three very different characters whose actions all affect one another's lives beginning with the day a briefcase full of money appears to fall from the sky. I like the idea of watching seemingly unconnected events unfold, like opening a window for the audience to see these people, to know what is going on, but being able to relate to the character and to get lost in their world.

- How did the concept of the film evolve?

I had the idea for about 2 years and I knew my first film had to be in Istanbul. The stories I am going to tell fit there. But once we started production there, it was a challenge. Filmmaking is difficult and independent filmmaking is even more challenging and then to do it in Turkey... Once you say short film, people automatically think it's a student film.

- How long of a process from start to finish?

Because it is an independent short, I shot straight for 2 weeks, then had to take a job back in the states while we were in post production. In the end it  took 8 months.

- Tell us how your work in documentary helps!

Working in TV is really fun. It allows me to shift gears because I can be intense about writing and my own projects. It forces me to think in a different way - the budgets can be smaller and the conditions less than perfect so it makes you question why and how you are doing everything. It has helped me train my instinct of what works and what doesn't work - and this helps in fictional storytelling. I like the discipline and structure of Hollywood system and this trickles down into the shows I do. But we also have much less time to do them so we are all about setting up and going - running with things and letting things happen. It's very real and exciting.

- How do you apply this to your filmmaking?

I have a plan, I storyboard, and break down each scene just as much as anyone else. But when we are on set, I am able to let it all go out the window if needed. I like when the actors bring something of their own. With "Canta", they brought things I wouldn't have thought about.  My documentary background allows for that more verite or real style - in the sense that I prefer not to do camera moves that are unmotivated. I prefer to follow the action instead of gimmicky camera tricks. I think it helps with a better performance for the actors too - they don't have to worry about hitting their mark constantly and I'd rather the shot shift out of focus than a 3 key lighting that seems stiff and predictable.  I think this translates to the audience. It feels more genuine and interesting to watch. It shouldn't be treated like a mathematical equation. 

Emre SAHIN, director, at the set .

- What was your criteria to select the actors?

We looked for many many weeks for the right people for each role, as the actor selection is the most important part of any film. A good actor can make a film come alive while a bad actor can kill a good script. So we were very careful about this process. In the end, it was word of mouth that led us to the people we chose. I feel we were very lucky to have found the actors we did. The young ones like Ali Atay, Ceyda Sener are great actors who truly know the craft of acting. They brought many things to the film that I had never imagined. But also, to balance them out with the more established actors like Abdullah Sahin, Mehmet Gulerbasli and Sema Onur turned out to be a good dynamic as well. It was great in the end to have such a wide range of actors and characters.

- Tell us some funny stories from the shoot!

We were doing the chase scene on  Istiklal Caddesi during the bayram so it was busier than usual. As soon as we started shooting we were looking at the action one way and when we turned around at least 300 people had gathered in less than a minute. And no one was shy and no one seemed to mind interrupting to find out what we were  doing.

Sound was an also a huge issue for us and I realized quickly why so many Turkish movies dub over instead of shooting sound. You don't realize the noises of your own city until you need it to be quiet for a take. I'd yell "action" and the guy selling tomatoes, oranges, plastic, or whatever would take his cue. One day there was a refrigerator seller and then of course there is the prayer call five times a day. It can be frustrating but you just have to laugh. And those are the sounds that make Istanbul so dynamic. So our shooting schedule basically had to fit in between the street vendors and the imam.   

And of course the language barrier always makes for good set stories. The producer, director of photography and AC were all from Los Angeles and the rest of the crew and actors were Turkish so there were plenty of dictionaries out and by the end the set spoke and gestured in a weird mix of both.

- What obstacles did you overcome while shooting Canta?

After months of prepping, we were a week away from shooting and the bombs went off. That was a big blow for the moral, everyone was shocked and we weren't sure if we should  go on. One of our locations was across from British Embassy and was pretty much destroyed and our apartment is on the same street as the synagogue bombing.  So everyone we knew was affected. But instead of going into hiding the city kept going so we thought we should too.

Another obstacle that we faced from the very beginning and even now to some extent is the negative attitude towards making a film in Turkey - especially a short.  I can't tell you how many people questioned why I wanted to shoot in Turkey. Why would I not just stay in the states where I was making a good living and why I would put my own money up to do this short. But I do have a plan and the films that I want to make are in Turkey.  Turkish cinema does lack a certain eye that it needs to be able to open up to the world. I'm not saying we should be doing Turkish films with a Western view - but we need to make Turkish films with a certain standard. There are good stories but there's an obvious lack of know how. You can see basic mistakes in Turkish films whether it's the sound, continuity, editing, whatever. Right now the most successful Turkish directors live abroad because they learned where an infrastructure exists for successful filmmaking. Now if we can just bring this into Turkey and adhere to a standard, the potential of Turkish film and filmmakers is infinite.

- What do you hope for Canta?

Career wise it was the first major step. Every goal I set for Canta was fulfilled. So I learned you can achieve even when everyone is telling you to go home and why bother since there is no hope for Turkish film.  For me, Canta is just step one of many steps. Now what? There are many more steps. You can't go from 0 to 100 overnight. My epic will come. Canta has given me another confidence boost, allowed me to trust my own instincts and to ignore the negative feedback. There is a story I really like in Don Quixote that says as you are moving forward if  you hear the dogs barking, don't be scared and run away. Keep going because as you are striving for your goal there are always people who want to stop you. But if you keep going the barking dogs will be far behind you.

I also hope that the success of Canta will be an example that Istanbul can be beautiful even if it isn't sugar coated. We can be so nationalistic that everything we make or produce has to be like a tourism brochure but there is beauty in the chaos here. Istanbul isn't like Paris where almost every street is like a postcard. Its crowded, loud, there's a different kind of beauty - one that seems very alive. In Turkish cinema we either try to sugar coat it or go completely the other way. But in reality these aspects live side by side and we are what we are.  Instead of making Istanbul into London or Paris we should just bring out more of what Istanbul really is and people will relate to that genuine image. After "Canta's" Beverly Hill's screening, so many people, some who were interested in Turkey and others who knew nothing about it,  said the film made them want to go. That was nice to hear.

- You shoot, direct and edit. Why is this important for you to do it all?

I just enjoy it. I have specific ideas in mind from the beginning and it is easier for me and makes a better end product if there is this clear vision. I might not always do it,  but when I can I enjoy it.

- Your wife who you work with in Los Angeles was the producer on Canta. What is it like to work together? Tensions? Bonuses? Language problems?

Working with my wife on Canta was great. We work together on everything else and I really don't understand when people say  it is difficult to work with your spouse because all we have to do is  look at each other and we know what the other person is thinking. It puts us ten steps ahead of everyone else. She knows when I am on track and when I am not. And before I even know I need something, she makes it happen. I think we really complete each other and look out for each other more than a typical producer/director team.

- What has it been like living in the states for so long? People have said Canta captured the heart of Istanbul. How can you do that from so far away?

I always feel like I am connected no matter what. And sometimes I think that being away has helped me understand it a little better or appreciate it. When you are living there, traffic is just traffic and a mosque is just a mosque. But if you aren't in Istanbul, the images that come to mind are very different than if you live there. From afar,  you capture more of the essence of the city instead of getting bogged down in the details of the city.

I think certain directors are associated with certain cities. Woody Allen gives a certain life and face to NY. When you hear Emre Sahin, I'm projecting my own image of life in Istanbul.

- Why is it important that you are a Turkish filmmaker and not an American filmmaker?

It is important because I've seen so many Turks come to LA and suddenly become American or "Hollywood". And in that process of becoming someone else they lose their identity. By not hiding the fact that I'm Turkish in Los Angeles, it makes me more interesting. My aesthetic choices, my tastes all bring something fresh and unique to a project. Obviously, some assimilation is necessary. I'm not saying we should walk around with a tesbih in our hands - but just to remember to keep a piece of Turkey with you as you move along and don't try to be someone you are not.

- What's next?

As a follow up to Canta, I'm writing a feature film right now to be shot in Istanbul. The plan is to release it  theatrically in Turkey and Europe. We've had some serious interest in funding and are still looking.  It is a project that has a bit more social commentary than Canta but keeps the same mystical feel of Istanbul in it. It will be the first true Turkish thriller.

Also, my wife and I just sold a pilot to The History Channel in the states. It's a documentary about the hidden history buried beneath modern day cities.  We'll shoot the pilot in Istanbul this summer. I'll direct it and we are the co-executive producers, as well. I'm also directing a documentary series about professional bull riders for TLC and my wife and I have teamed up with Newline television, the producers of The Amazing Race and Big Brother and Authentic Entertainment and are shopping around a reality series that we developed to be shot in Turkey. There is so much to shoot in Turkey and I hope it will one day be seen as more than the backdrop for "Midnight Express".

 - You work in Hollywood so why don't you want to do a "Hollywood" film?

I would do one if I could do it the way I wanted to . But no one would let me. In the 70's, there were movies like "The French Connection" and Hollywood was producing some really cool films. But in the 80's it became much more about the money. I understand that and that it is a money making business so in that respect, I'm lucky to have Turkey as my outlet and to be able to take the best of Hollywood with me. I'd love to do an Ottoman epic and I'll need Hollywood type money to do that. But since I can do it in Turkey, it won't have to be a cookie cutter movie. I have no interest in that. This is a creative job and if I can't be creative I should just go clock in for a 9-5. 

A brief information of the film:
Set in the gritty, yet enchanting streets of Istanbul, Canta is the story of three strangers who each
unknowingly possess the object of the other's desire - thus sending them on a collision course full of
surreal twists and turns and life altering results. The duration of the film is 30 minutes.

- For more information on "Canta", upcoming screenings and festivals or to contact Emre go to www.cantafilm.com
_ . _

Special Thanks to:
Sarah Wetherbee & Haluk Sahin

Light Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005 - http://www.lightmillennium.org

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