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VENICE 2023 Orizzonti

Nehir Tuna • Director of Dormitory

“Coming-of-age stories are my favourite genre”


- VENICE 2023: The Turkish director delves into the many nuances of his first feature, a film you’d be a fool to sleep through

Nehir Tuna  • Director of Dormitory

Ahmet (Doğa Karakaş) has two lives and is stuck between stations. We are in Turkey, in the mid-1990s, and the country is experiencing a schism between its secular and religious identities, symbolised by Ahmet going to a modern school where he learns English, whilst living and sleeping in a yurt, or dormitory, where he can also learn to be a good Muslim and enrich his spiritual life.

Nehir Tuna’s Dormitory [+see also:
film review
interview: Nehir Tuna
film profile
, which is screening in Venice’s Orizzonti strand, develops into a novelistic coming-of-age story, shot in austere black-and-white hues, which never resolves how you expect it to.

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Cineuropa: Dormitory has a very dense, rich screenplay. How long did it take you to develop and write it?
Nehir Tuna:
It took quite a lot of time, and not because I was constantly working on it. We wanted to shoot the film before the pandemic, and prior to that, we were denied government support. But it also gave me the time to rethink and go back to maybe fix this and that.

I used a lot of visual rhymes throughout the film, in order to structure a poetic narrative. I believe repeating these recurring images gives a greater meaning to stories and helps create narrative economy. There are a lot of circular motifs in the movie, like the audio cassette at the beginning, Ahmet's lucky coin, or the moon on the lake when he and Hakan [Can Bartu Arslan] run away.

There’s an even-handedness and nuance in the story, although it’s certainly not a hedging of bets or a defensiveness. Can you talk about how you accomplished this? It was eye-opening for me as someone unfamiliar with this aspect of Turkey.
The story takes place in 1996 and 1997, which was a milestone in Turkey's historic power struggle between secularism and Islamists. And these dormitories first started opening up in the 1980s. Originally, it was pious Muslim Turks who sought to give poor children a place to stay, and they would also provide them with a religious education. At the same time, on TV and in the media, these Islamic youths are shown as a potential threat to the government and the secular system. There was this brewing tension. And people were staying away from these dormitories, to avoid being seen as extremists. But for others, like Ahmet's father, they represent a righteous new way of life.

I only realised after watching the film that Ahmet’s father is a recent convert himself.
When Ahmet comes home, he realises that his posters have been taken down because otherwise, no angels can come.

The visual style is noteworthy, and quite different to that of other directors of your generation who might be making debut features. It’s classical, yet it allows room for expressionism and dreaminess. It’s predominantly in black and white, with a square frame.
Even from the start, I knew what this film was going to be like and why, and along the way, a lot of people told me not to do that! For the black and white, I was quite insistent because, to me, it's a symbolic representation of a life where the belief system does not allow colour, differences or nuances. You are either good or bad, either a Muslim or a non-Muslim, either a worshipper or an infidel. And so later on, we go to colour, when the boys experience freedom for the first time.

The aspect ratio reminds me of classic films like Oliver Twist by David Lean. This format leaves a lot of room for bodies to express themselves. Without moving the camera, you can capture a lot of body language. We wanted our audience to be able to easily see the world through Ahmet's eyes and relate to his struggles.

How does this debut film point towards and set the stage for what you’d like to make in the future?
Coming-of-age stories are my favourite genre. I'm very interested in people who experienced traumas at a young age, and the consequences of that later in life. So that's what I'm trying to do in the second film. I hope I will be able to make a second one! It's extremely hard in today's world for an independent filmmaker. I hope Dormitory will help move the next project forward faster, and I hope it won't take as long as this one did.

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