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BERLIN 2019 Competition

Emin Alper • Director of A Tale of Three Sisters

“This time, I was more interested in the human condition”

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- BERLIN 2019: We met with celebrated Turkish director Emin Alper after the screening of his dark fable, A Tale of Three Sisters

Emin Alper • Director of A Tale of Three Sisters
(© Mehmet Kacmaz/NarPhotos)

Emin Alper has followed his lauded drama Frenzy [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Emin Alper
film profile
]
with an entirely different proposition. A Tale of Three Sisters [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Emin Alper
interview: Emin Alper
film profile
]
, presented in the Berlinale’s main competition, marries Chekhov with a harsh social drama about three sisters – Reyhan, Nurhan and Havva (played by Cemre Ebüzziya, Ece Yüksel and Helin Kandemir) – who struggle to change their fate in a small Turkish village, completely isolated from the outside world.

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Cineuropa: Were you inspired by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov in any way? He also famously wrote about Three Sisters. Their desperate dreams of a better life seem to be echoed in your film.
Emin Alper: I was fairly inspired by Chekhov, and one of his short stories in particular: In the Ravine. It also takes place in a small village and ends with a very cruel, tragic event. That being said, Three Sisters was always on my mind, and I tried to establish a loose relationship between the play and the film quite early on. 

After the male-dominated Frenzy, it was interesting to see you focus on women this time. You are very honest about their sexuality and desires.
My initial goal was to understand the kind of woman that we call a “foster girl” in Turkey. There was this long-established tradition of rich families taking young girls in, adopting them and considering it an act of charity – they thought they were saving them from poverty. But at the same time, they were using them as domestic servants. Although they were encouraged to call their benefactors ‘mother’ and ‘father,’ they were never treated as real members of the family. They always had a much lower status. Having been raised by such a woman myself, I was always stunned by this situation. Even then, I thought their position was very contradictory. They suffered because of that. I always thought that one day I would finally write a story about these girls.

There are realistic elements in A Tale of Three Sisters, but ultimately it feels more like a fairy tale for adults. Was that your intention all along?
I always wanted to use some poetic, folkloric elements. It’s already there in village life anyway, in tales about genies or night-time horror stories. But it was after writing the screenplay that I realised that it really feels like a fairy tale. In fairy tales, all characters dream of a better life. They dream about marrying a prince and he usually lives somewhere far away, somewhere beyond a mountain. In Turkey, we refer to this place as ‘Mount Qaf’ – that’s where happiness lies. For these girls, ironically of course, happiness also lies beyond the mountains. I’ve always wanted to combine these two: harsh social drama and a fairy tale. 

Especially because in their case, Prince Charming is just a rich doctor that comes to their village once in a while and takes them away to take care of his children. There is something very prosaic about their fantasies.
That was my main point – they dream of a better life, but their horizons are so limited. Mostly because of their social situation. It can only direct them towards a certain position and they are very aware of this. The only way to achieve their goal is by going to serve a rich family and then who knows? Maybe later on they will get a ticket to a better future.

I hate black and white characters and I was happy when writing them. These girls are survivors. They are struggling and strong and they experience conflicting emotions. As we all do. Sometimes they hate each other; sometimes they fight. When I write, I am quite meticulous to make sure that even the most negative characters are given a human face.

Their village is so isolated that they seem to be so far away from politics and current problems. Did you want to escape that world too?
My previous films were certainly much more political – especially Frenzy [about two siblings trying to survive in the outskirts of Istanbul]. Although in that film I didn’t really mention any names, specific organisations or use a concrete period of time. The current agenda changes so rapidly and I didn’t want to be limited by it. No artist should. I always try to make something more universal. That’s why making this film felt like a relief. I was more interested in the human condition.

Everyone here is so flawed in a way. Is it something you are entertained by? The imperfect qualities we all possess?
Exactly. When I was writing, I really enjoyed it. I even liked the character of Veysel – and he is a system destroyer! He ruins every environment he enters. You can’t tell if he is too stupid or clever, because he is always so honest. For me, he is one of the funniest parts of the story.

A Tale of Three Sisters is probably the most humorous film I have ever written. Veysel for example is a character on the margins, but I hope people will find some sympathetic qualities in him. He is the underdog of the village, always humiliated by everyone and married to a very beautiful woman [Reyhan, the oldest sister], which probably makes his life even worse. He endures even more heartbreak. He is the most tragic character in the film, because in the end he understands that he won’t be able to break the cycle. But I sympathise with all of them.

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