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(Editor’s note: San Diego Gay & Lesbian News will be previewing the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival, which runs May 30 through June 3 at the historical Birch North Park Theatre. Look for Q&A interviews with celebrities and directors as well as film reviews.)
From Turkey comes “Zenne Dancer,” a remarkable film based on true stories from Istanbul that is sure to be the talk of the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival.
First-time filmmakers Mehmet Binay and Caner Alper have crafted a deeply moving movie about modern gay life at the crossroads of East and West cultures.
The story line centers around the unlikely friendships involving Can, a Zenne male belly dancer; Ahmet, a “bear” from a Turkish village where conservative Islam rules; and Daniel, a German photojournalist who is shooting pictures in Istanbul when he meets up with Can and Ahmet.
Ahmet, who is deeply closeted to his family who lives far from the big city life of Istanbul, and Daniel, who is openly gay, begin developing a romantic relationship. As family pressure grows on Ahmet to return to his village to help save the family’s struggling business, he longs to live free, openly and honesty. And when Ahmet gets up the nerve to come out to his family on the telephone, things go terribly wrong when his traditional Muslim family decides that they must defend their family honor.
“Zenne Dancer” is inspired by the true story of Ahmet Yildiz, who was murdered by his father for being gay in a so-called “honor killing” that shook the world.
Mehmet Binay and Caner Alper spoke with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about their film.
SDGLN: “Zenne Dancer” is inspired by true stories. Can you describe how these different true stories came together as a screenplay?
MEHMET: Istanbul is a city where people from different regional backgrounds live side by side yet their cultural differences are quite deep. About five years ago, we were watching a Zenne, a male belly dancer in an underground club of Istanbul ,and thought that a Zenne’s story could become an interesting documentary film subject.
Zennes have entertained our society for the last 500 years, and especially during times, when women were not allowed to go on stage and men took their part. Today, very few Zennes are left as western entertainment dominates our part of the world as well.
At the same time, me and Caner had become friends with a rather young man from eastern Turkey, where families are more traditional and partially conservative. Ahmet, since the early days of our friendship, has been telling us stories of how his parents were suspicious of him being gay and how they traced his life in Istanbul. Ahmet had been the target of inter-familiar homophobia since early childhood yet he’d never come out to his parents. When he confessed his being gay, his family decided to kill him and he was killed in July 2008. His murder shook us very deeply and we didn’t know what to do for the last few months. End of 2008, Caner (my partner) came to me and said that he wants to combine Ahmet’s tragic life and the story of Zennes (male belly dancers) in a fictional feature film script.
CANER: We would never go out late on a Tuesday night but somehow we did, for a few times, every Tuesday night, to an underground club in Istanbul where we watched this flamboyant, petite-size Zenne dancer used to make that breathtaking show. I watched all others at 2am in the morning, foreigners, tourists or expats living in Istanbul and wondered what their reaction was toward such an interesting and vanishing show … Ahmet was alive then. We would interview Can, do some test shootings with Can during daytime and go back home where Ahmet would visit us in the evenings and tell his contrasting life story, his parents … Which then happened to come together in the script.
SDGLN: What do you want audiences to remember from the film?
CANER: “They learned to live together … They learned to love each other.”
I wanted the audience to remember the pain that Ahmet carried all throughout his life and the pain he felt when he apologized to his father — asked for mercy for what he was and who he was.
SDGLN: To me, the casting was inspired, especially the main characters of Can and Ahmet. Even the supporting cast was brilliant. Talk about that process.
CANER: We started with an actor whom we thought might be right for Zenne Can. He was a great dancer actor whom we worked with a year both for the role and for the dances but he preferred to dedicate his time more to a TV series … We had to replace him with Kerem Can, who is a hard-working actor and we had only seven months left. His dedication to the movie and to the cause was and still is unbelievable and I am very proud to have known him.
Erkan Avci was cast almost 18 months before we started filming and the minute he walked into the casting agency office I knew it was him … But then again it took almost a year for him to find Ahmet’s soul … We had offered Sevgi, Can’s overdosed loving mother role to Ruchan Caliskur but she said she was interested in Kezban, Ahmet’s merciless mother and suggested Tilbe Saran for that — which is a name like Meryl Streep in Turkey … Giovanni Arvaneh was the last actor we found, just four months before we started the shoot and he also dedicated his entire time searching for Danny.
SDGLN: Kerem Can was spectacular as Can in the movie, playing a flamboyantly gay belly dancer who is out and proud to his family and friends. Is this possible in Istanbul today? Can one be openly gay without fear of reprisal?
MEHMET: One can be openly gay in some parts of the Turkish society. Turkey is a big mix of liberal and conservative values, and one can see different lifestyles. Can, the dancer, is a true example of how one can live in Istanbul or other large cities of Turkey today.
CANER: Absolutely. Just like both of us, openly out without fear of reprisal.
SDGLN: One of the interesting subplots in the movie is about the unusual methods the Turkish army uses to disqualify gays from military service. Can you elaborate on this, since American audiences likely won’t know that story?
MEHMET: Military service is still obligatory in Turkey and gays are not allowed if they openly talk about it. However, exemption from military service has been a rather painful process for Turkish men, as the military still requires you to dress up feminine and with a make-up to make them believe you are gay. They don’t accept that a non-flamboyant man can be gay. Until a few years ago, they requested photographs or even videos depicting you in a passive position during a penetration. This process has been one of the unacceptable human rights issues in Turkey and the practice has not been removed completely from military requirements.
CANER: I think this was a lot more shocking to the Turkish audience, not the fact that this might happen but first-time directors like us could possibly and fearlessly show this in a film. The most common question we were asked was: Didn’t you fear the military may do some harm to you?
SDGLN: The performance by Erkan Avci as Ahmet — based on the real life of Ahmet Yildiz, who was murdered in an “honor killing” that shocked the world – was nothing short of perfect. How much freedom did you give him to create this memorable character whose simple quest to live openly and honestly ended up with his tragic death?
CANER: We worked a lot with Erkan. He wanted us to trust him, which was hard because it was our first- ever feature film and Ahmet was our close friend. We practiced every single line and scene a hundred times but no rehearsal for the love-making scene and where he call his dad and comes out. I wanted to him to create those of his own. He was very relaxed during the shooting of the love-making scene and very intense and silent before the shooting of the “coming out” scene. I remember whispering into his ear when I brought him onto the set for that scene and left him all alone and started shooting.
SDGLN: How has “Zenne Dancer” impacted Turkish cinema? Has the movie helped to change public opinion about homosexuality in Turkey, or in the region?
MEHMET: We released our film “Zenne Dancer” in over six months with a staged communication strategy. Firstly, we filmed “Zenne Dancer” without much PR and then the film was submitted to major film festivals. Antalya International Film Festival accepted the film in the competition and we won five awards including the Best Film by the Turkish Cinema Critics. Antalya is very much like the Turkish Oscars so the film was a big hit in the public agenda. This was in October 2011 and then “Zenne Dancer” was in the headlines for more than five months, mostly accepted and positively acclaimed although some radical Islamist newspapers accused us being perverts for doing such a movie. “Zenne Dancer” was released for theatrical distribution in January and so far 100,000 people saw the film in theaters. Now, we are showing the film internationally at film festivals and we expect to screen our film at nearly 50 film festivals around the world by the end of 2012.
CANER: At the festival, the first public screening of “Zenne Dancer,” there was a standing ovation for seven minutes all throughout final credits. It was like a big bomb all over Turkey via Twitter as the film became a trending topic. Around 800,000 people were tweeting about “Zenne Dancer” that night. A lot of columnists flew over to Antalya the next day to be able to watch and write about “Zenne Dancer.” The Guardian said: “From homophobia to a moving apology in Turkey: As a groundbreaking film launches, Turkish attitudes to gay and transgender people are slowly improving – in the media at least.”
SDGLN: Turkey and its ancient history at the crossroads of Asia and Europe have always fascinated me since childhood, and I’ve always wondered if I don’t have some unknown ancestral ties to the country. Modern Turkey is a secular nation, and like the United States, it faces immense pressure from intolerant, right-wing religious extremists. How did this LGBT movie get made under that environment?
CANER: Turkey has also been the land of tolerance and acceptance for many taboos and forbidden subjects. Rumi has always been effective on Turkish people in terms of love and acceptance. Just like in our film “Zenne Dancer,” Rumi believed passionately in music, poetry and dance as a path for reaching God. Just like in the last dance of Can, where Ahmet walks to death, the Zenne Dancer (both of the characters in this sense) symbolically turn towards the truth, grow through love, abandon their egos and arrive at this ideal which is “Honesty.”
Turkish people are very sensitive and become merciful when they feel sincerity with Rumi’s teachings over the centuries.
SDGLN: What was it like to share directing duties? Did you clash at all? Will you co-direct again?
MEHMET: We took a sabbatical from our three-year intense work on “Zenne Dancer” as of April 2012 and settled in Los Angeles for four months. Caner has been writing our second feature film since then and he finished a second draft as of mid-May. Yes, we will direct and produce movies together. We enjoyed it very much despite artistic differences yet we complement each other in a good way. We will continue to make films aimed at changing the society’s prejudices.
CANER: I love working, living and sharing a whole life with Mehmet. He inspires (I am a romantic Pisces) and limits me (he is a very realistic Virgo) at the same time. I cannot think of anyone else to share all these with anyone else.
SDGLN: What’s next for each of you?
CANER: Second and third movies, which are in the pipeline.
SDGLN: What is something that your fans don’t know about each of you?
MEHMET: I can’t dance properly.
CANER: I was beaten by my cousin at the age of five because I was belly-dancing which inspired the scene in the film.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at [email protected], @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
“Zenne Dancer” (2012), directed by M. Caner and Mehmet Binay, 104 minutes, Turkey. West Coast premiere
Saturday, June 2 – 4:30 pm Sponsored by ABC-10/Azteca America Co-presented by Pink Egg Media, Do It In Gay San Diego and BLADE Magazine
This gorgeously shot, handsomely mounted, deeply moving film about an unusual trio: Daniel (“Giovanni Arvaneh”), a German photo-journalist in Istanbul without much knowledge about Turkish values. Can (“Kerem Can”), a flamboyant, out and proud male belly dancer with lots of love and support from his family, and Ahmet (“Erkan Avci”) born to an eastern and conservative family whose quest for honesty and liberty results in a tragic end. The film has been inspired by the true story of Ahmet Yildiz, who was murdered for being gay at the age 26 by his own father in 2008.
With: “Bang Bang” (2012), directed by Raphael Lungo 20min, Belgium. U.S. premiere
Where: Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92104