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Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay • Director of Hysteria

“I wanted to describe my world as I know it, and this film is a continuation of that”


- The German-Turkish director breaks down his upcoming drama feature and the need for humans to be able to communicate

Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay  • Director of Hysteria
(© German Films/Sebastian Gabsch)

After his first feature-length drama, Oray [+see also:
film review
interview: Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
film profile
, Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay is poised to release the upcoming Hysteria [+see also:
interview: Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
film profile
, his second film, which deals with the world of migrants in Germany, and which he and his team are hoping to premiere at a summer festival. The German producer and director has Turkish roots himself. Coinciding with his participation in German FilmsFace to Face campaign, which was presented at this year's Berlinale, we spoke to him about his inspiration for the story, his actors and his artistic vision.

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Cineuropa: Was there a trigger that made you want to tell this story?
Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay:
There was no particular trigger, but it is simply the logical consequence and a continuation of my work with images. In particular, it’s my preoccupation with images of Muslims – images of Muslims, who, for the most part, do not produce them themselves – and that's why Oray was my first attempt to create the image of the Muslim as I know it from my own perspective. I wanted to describe my world as I know it. Hysteria is a continuation of that. What does it mean to create images? What responsibility and what difficulties are involved, especially when you are aware of the unequal power structures? What possibility do those who have been made into images have of fighting against these images at all?

The title of the movie is a comment on our way of discussing it.
Absolutely. The movie is also about something like a burned Koran. It's a symbol that is read differently by everyone. We are not in a position to talk about the same thing in a purely logical, factual or unemotional way. That leads to hysteria. Hysteria is when everyone is right. This can be seen time and time again in current issues such as the Gaza war. I am very sensitive to the issue of the burning of the Koran. When it came to the Mohammed caricatures in Denmark, I actively took part in the demonstrations against them. For me, it wasn't about insulting the prophet; it was about the colonialist view from the outside that considers something to be wrong or right. The movie is also about this aspect, using the example of the burning of the Koran.

Did you have an open ending from the beginning?
Yes, I asked myself how I should resolve the story and whether I should clearly assign responsibility. The reactions during the test screenings were different, and I came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter exactly who did what in the end. Everyone is equally responsible; everyone is equally involved. That is my comment on the emotional discourse that we are currently having in public, regardless of the topic.

Fire is a powerful symbol, but it is also ambiguous.
It destroys, but it can also have a liberating effect. After a fire, there can be a new beginning, and it can have a cleansing function. But there is also a lot of pain associated with it. I see both perspectives. I am fascinated by the idea that fire has a cleansing power. But that's basically not true. Fire destroys what we seem incapable of changing or resolving. If we, as a society, don't manage to talk sensibly about certain things, we descend into hysteria, into a rage of destruction.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, you avoid melodrama and pathos.
That was very important to me. I also decided to remove the music from the final scene in order to remain more neutral. For me, the movie has an optimistic ending. Hope remains. There is a bang, but that's normal. There are always bangs in the world, but we have to learn from them. The viewer may be frightened by the events; they can believe it was a bad dream. The main thing is that they feel the desire to behave differently from the characters.

How did you put your cast together?
The biggest challenge was finding the main character. I wasn't sure whether I should cast a white person and thus break out of my own world of Muslims. But I realised that it wouldn't work. It had to be a character who was closer to me. Elif, played by Devrim Lingnau, is an invisible migrant, as she has one Turkish parent but doesn't stand out, as such. Devrim exceeded my expectations right from the start. With the other roles, it was clear early on who was going to play them and that the actors themselves had to have a migrant background. There's nothing worse than deliberately making an actor speak bad German.

What were the most important aspects of the aesthetic concept?
I tried to use elements of a suspense film. This concerns the structure of the film, for example, which is set up like a crime-thriller. Things disappear, there are suspects, and assumptions are made. You wonder who is right and who is wrong. The rapid editing was also intended to be reminiscent of a crime-thriller.

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