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MONS 2020

Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay • Director of Oray

“Humans are too complex to be able to choose between two sides; we have to learn to combine different identities”


- We chatted to German filmmaker of Turkish heritage Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay about his Cineuropa Prize-winning Oray at the Mons Film Festival

Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay  • Director of Oray

The winner of the Cineuropa Prize at the 35th Mons Film Festival, Oray [+see also:
film review
interview: Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
film profile
by German filmmaker of Turkish heritage Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay, is an unusually accomplished first feature, with the great Zejhun Demirov in the lead role. The movie’s seemingly simple plot leads to a subtle exploration of numerous issues related to Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. We chatted to the helmer about the film.

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Cineuropa: What was your motivation for making Oray?
Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
: At the beginning of the film, the protagonist says that sometimes we have to choose between hell and paradise. I think that the human being is too complex to be able to choose between two sides; we have to learn to combine different identities. This is the most important thing I wanted to say.

Are there any autobiographical elements in the movie?
Oray is very personal, but it is not autobiographical. I’ve never had to choose between religion and my wife. I also don't know anyone who has pronounced the divorce formula that Oray pronounces against his spouse. But the feeling of being "the other" in the country was very personal to me.

How did you find the actor who plays the main character?
The search for the lead actor took a long time. We found Zejhun Demirov after a year. He is pious himself, or tries to live piously; he was also with the Salafists for a while. We moved the community from Hagen, where I grew up, to Cologne. That's why my father, brother and cousins are there, too. I wanted to show a feeling of familiarity and almost homoerotic intimacy between the characters.

Could one say that the film is a criticism of the manipulative power of religion in general?
It depends on the audience. Many people have said that the movie is a propaganda film for the religion of Islam. Some people, on the other hand, said that I was criticising Islam. Paradoxically, the German extreme right and the Islamists adopted the same position, arguing, for example, that Islam is not compatible with democracy.

I'm not judging. I tried to present the facts, and I give the viewer the freedom to interpret the film according to their own experience. I wanted to show the dynamic of a community. You can change the topic of Islam and how it’s viewed among football hooligans or homosexual communities. I also had someone belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses telling me that he saw himself represented in the movie.

Burcu [Oray’s wife] is a woman who is more advanced than Oray. She is more independent.
The community shown in the film does not represent the 3.5 million Muslims in Germany. There are many different communities, and each one can have a different interpretation of Islam. As far as the role of women is concerned, there is a lot going on among the Muslim community right now in Germany, as we are already in the third generation. This means a partial rise from the working class to the middle class and more and more highly educated Muslims. There is a rise in self-determination among the women.

Who are the directors who have influenced you the most?
The Dardenne brothers inspired me for Oray, but also Italian neorealism, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Romanian cinema. In Romania, you can feel the urgency to do more with the medium of film on the formal level. From a more general point of view, I consider Pasolini a hero and a real role model. It starts with realism, and becomes more and more aesthetic, but never loses sight of politics.

After winning the Berlinale's Best First Feature Award, you received a lot of propositions, even from Hollywood majors and Netflix. Why did you say no to them?
Because of freedom. I want to make the films I like. And the second movie is always the most difficult.

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