Memories of director Seyfi Teoman, whose two feature films drove Turkish film for two decades.
By Kaya Genç
Images courtesy of Altyazı magazine.
Seyfi Teoman, a leading figure in the new wave of Turkish film directors, died last month, two weeks after a motorbike accident left him with a cerebral hemorrhage. Having directed two feature films and numerous shorts, he was once described as Turkey’s new Nuri Bilge Ceylan, perhaps the most influential film director to emerge from this country over the last two decades. The comparison was partly due to Teoman’s first film, Summer Book, which is about the adventures of a troubled teenager named Ali, during a summer holiday in a small Mediterranean town.
Shot with Ceylan’s trademark visual style, it features sensual close-ups, little dialogue, meticulously planned frame compositions and a romantic appreciation of the landscape, among other things. The film premiered in the Berlinale in 2008 and unsettled viewers with its sudden plot twist of a car crash that leaves Ali’s father with a cerebral hemorrhage. Teoman’s second, and last, feature, Our Grand Despair, also begins with a fatal traffic accident. When the parents of a pretty, young freshman student named Nihal are killed after a car crash, she moves to Ankara in order to seek meaning in her new life. With Teoman’s own traffic-related death, his family, friends and loved ones were left with a tragic example of life imitating art.
Yet, a decade later, only a tiny minority seemed to regret their decisions, and it was Seyfi who achieved the unachievable, making a living solely through directing films.
He was only 35 years old and was known cordially as Seyfi among his friends. I first met him during my university years in early naughties. As an occasional visitor to Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, I was part of a group of young writers, prospective filmmakers, and film buffs who sought meaning in their lives through the challenge of art house films. Many of us dreamt of earning our lives by doing the thing we loved most: watching films and then writing about them. Bosphorus University, the first American higher education institution founded outside the U.S., provided an unlikely setting for our dreams. Destined for comfortable careers in the managerial sectors in Turkey or the U.S., Bosphorus alumni had little reason to dream of a low-income existence that comes with being a film critic or an experimental filmmaker. But over-education brings with it certain irrational desires, and our cinephile deviation from a conventional adult life was nothing if not irrational. Yet, a decade later, only a tiny minority seemed to regret their decisions, and it was Seyfi who achieved the unachievable, making a living solely through directing films.
In fact, Seyfi’s interest in filmmaking was a discovery he made comparatively late in life. He was an economics major and attended film history classes of the charismatic leader of the cinephile bunch, Mithat Alam. When his students began working on a new, highbrow film magazine that would be the Turkish equivalent of Sight and Sound, Seyfi was among the first to join the staff. After months of preparation, the Altyazı (“Subtitle”) magazine began its publication in 2001, and Seyfi’s name appeared on the masthead of the first issue. During that year, we wrote lengthy essays about auteurs while Seyfi worked hard on the shorts section of the magazine—an experience that contributed to his already considerable knowledge of the technical details of film making.
The publication of Altyazı coincided with the foundation of Mithat Alam Film Centre, a non-profit cultural institution located in the beautiful southern campus of the university. Alam, who is a frequent visitor to England, was impressed with the activities of the British Film Institute in London. With its comprehensive film archive, comfortable theatre and carefully programmed activities, the centre to which Alam gave his name began to play a similarly captivating role for Turkish cinephiles.
Seyfi was among those who would spend hours in the terrace of the centre overlooking the Bosphorus, chain smoking and discussing his latest discoveries in the seemingly infinite universe of film history. Some of his favorite directors, including Gus Van Sant, Costa Gavras, and Jane Campion, visited the centre, gave talks and found opportunities to socialise with Turkey’s young generation of cinephiles and prospective cineastes.
In 2004, having made friends with the growing short film community of Istanbul, Seyfi decided to take a big new step. He went to Poland to study in the National Film School in Łódź. The legendary film academy that lists such masters as Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, and Krzysztof Kieślowski among its alumni was responsible for many grimly realistic films that he grew fond of during his Bosphorus years. In Łódź, Seyfi took Polish language classes, met his one-time future cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer, and begun looking for money to produce his first feature film. Upon his return to Istanbul, he continued to work for the advertising industry like most of his contemporaries, but it was thanks to the little amount of money he managed to find from friends and sponsors in this period that five years after his return, Seyfi was able to produce Summer Book alongside two editor-turned-producers from the Altyazı staff.
In his scripts and films, Seyfi had a magnificent talent for understatement. His story of Ali, the young boy who is subject to constant bullying at school in the provincial town of Silifke had the potential to become a sentimental film in the hands of a less sophisticated director. Always suspicious of filmmakers who claim to have a thorough understanding of their characters, Seyfi retained his distance from the psychologies he depicted in his films. Instead he focused on the surface details of Ali’s life and surroundings and allowed the camera to capture manifestations of human psychology in the Anatolian landscape.
But his style had little grandeur, being intimate, frank, and grimly realistic. As a native of the eastern city of Kayseri, Seyfi had an ear for local realities, about which many Istanbul-born directors had little knowledge. He took his cue from the slightly older generation of Turkish film makers (a group that includes Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Reha Erdem, both alumni of Bosphorus University) and focused on the modest task of discovering Turkey’s soul story-by-story, character-by-character, and frame-by-frame.
The year following Summer Book‘s release, Seyfi went back to work in advertising and made plans for new projects. Then began the long production process of his second feature for which he collaborated with Barış Bıçakçı, the reclusive author famous for his stories that describe life among university students in Turkey’s depressive capital, Ankara.
Their collaboration resulted in the impressive tale of a traumatized young girl, and it was with this film, Our Grand Despair that Seyfi found his voice as a filmmaker. Already well versed in describing Chekhovian details of Anatolian life, he now found an opportunity to express his love and admiration for French cinema. François Truffaut’s classic tale of ménage à trois, Jules and Jim , provided a fruitful beginning point for the story of two best friends, the intellectual Ender and his down to earth pal Çetin who fall in love with Nihal, the sister of one of their friends. Premiered in the Berlinale’s Competition last year, Our Grand Despair was praised for its psychological realism as well as the faithful depiction of its subject matter: three young Turks falling in, and out of, love.
Working with a new cinematographer, Birgit Gudjonsdottir, Seyfi made an excellent job in capturing the scenery of a snow-covered city shadowed by the massive mausoleum of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal. The night strolls of the members of the love triangle brought about frames that seemed to come out of the paintings of Bruegel. The film’s narrative, which spoke about the weaknesses of a generation, was reminiscent of Salinger’s realism. But unlike the angry protests of a Holden Caulfield, those characters suffered silently and the task of assigning a meaning to their grand despair was left to the audiences.
Some critics complained that Our Grand Despair never confronts the elephant in the room; Ender and Çetin were surely in love and Seyfi’s presentation of their relationship as nothing more than an intimate friendship was seen as unconvincing. But this only helped to emphasize Seyfi’s gift for understatement. Never overtly naming the couple as homosexual, he implied that many male friendships in the country were similarly amorous but were simply not named as such.
To his family, friends, and viewers Seyfi left an impressive, albeit tiny, body of work as a filmmaker. Many of us thought Seyfi was destined for greatness, and his death is the grand despair of our generation of filmmakers and critics in whose lives he played such an influential, and indelible, role.
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.