ISTANBUL — Turkish artist and filmmaker Kutlug Ataman is used to creating an outcry — especially in his own country.
His most recent contemporary artwork, the Carnegie Prize-winning film “Küba,” about the inhabitants of an outsider’s shanty town, was criticized by Turkish nationalists as propaganda for the Kurdish minority. Ataman, though, says he only wanted to tell the stories of the fascinating individuals — by no means all Kurdish — who lived there.
“I came across this neighborhood in Istanbul and decided that they had interesting stories and decided to broadcast them,” Ataman says simply. “Here are young people with a lot of aspirations and dreams which they will never realize and they are talking about it in a very excited way….It was all most striking for me.”
“Küba” currently is being shown as part of the Vienna-based art gallery T-B A21’s summer program, which kicked off Saturday. The program, “Journey Against the Current,” involves a barge traveling 1,936 nautical miles on the River Danube to show the work of 11 artists selected by seven different curators. The barge was launched in Rousse in Bulgaria last week, travels to Novi Sad in Serbia and Montenegro on Wednesday, Vukovar in Croatia three days later, Budapest on June 1, Bratislava on June 14 and then on to Vienna on June 24.
In addition to Ataman, the artists include new commissions from Central European artists Zelimir Zilnik, Renata Poljak, László Csáki and Szabolcs Pálfi, Anetta Mona Chisa, Lucia Tkacova, Emanuel Danesch, David Rych and Matei Bejenaru. “This is a huge operation, the most ambitious project T-B A21 has ever undertaken to date, and it contains the most conscientious message we have ever sent out,” said the gallery’s chairman, Francesca von Habsburg, in a statement.
As for Ataman, “Küba” is only one of his works that is creating waves. His most recent feature film, “2 Girls,” has been making the global film festival circuit after winning a slew of prizes at the Turkish national film awards late last year, including one for best director. And, of course, there was an uproar.
“I am very vocal and do not belong to the old guard, so I thought they would never give it to me,” says Ataman, laughing. “I hope they don’t have a backlash next year.”
What is striking about “2 Girls,” which had its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February, is its homage to youth, both in theme and in its making. The story of two teenagers from Istanbul who rail against their dead-end lives and go on a rampage is anathema to Turkish cinemagoers more used to over-the-top comedies, sentimental melodramas and blockbuster Hollywood fare.
“This was the first time we had a realistic film about youth in Turkey….The first time we had a b—job in Turkish cinema. The first time we showed a girl having sex in a realistic way — not in a sensationalist way, but as a part of normality,” says the director, warming to the theme. “I hope this will slowly change filmmaking and the approach to reality and have an effect on other people….The fact that I put together a group of 22-year-olds and made this film with them makes a statement.”
For social and political reasons — the oppressive political climate that grew out of three military coups between 1960 and 1980 — Turkey’s youth culture had been suppressed and apoliticised, he points out. Even MTV was a problem when it first began broadcasting here. Yet this meant the voice of the vast masses was not being heard. Ataman was determined to be a catalyst.
“A great, incredible percentage of the Turkish population is young — I don’t know exactly, but something like 70 percent is under 20,” says Ataman, 44. “I hope that these young people will increasingly find the confidence to express themselves — not necessarily politically, but creatively, through the arts, fashion, whatever.”
But Ataman takes furor in his stride, showing simply the bemusement of someone often steeped in controversy while swearing he doesn’t understand why. As a person, he is committed politically, particularly when it comes to gay rights, yet he does not use his work as a vehicle for political messages.
His frustration at the political perception of his projects also extends to Western writers, who always refer to his leaving Turkey following the 1980 coup, when he was tortured for filming a demonstration. “They always exaggerate that….It happened to everyone then — even the prime minister. It’s in the past, just forget it,” he says dismissively.
Having lived as a child in a Sixties waterside house that was often used as a set for old Turkish films, Ataman was fascinated by cinema in his formative years. Moving to the U.S. after the coup with hardly any English, he soon acclimatized and went on to study film at UCLA. He returned to Turkey in 1989 to shoot his first film, and moved back to Istanbul in 1994, but spent much time in London, then Barcelona and now Buenos Aires with his British partner.
An internationalist with a soft spot for his home city, Ataman now finds his country rich with stories he wants to tell — stories that he is able to channel into either of the media in which he works. For someone who joked during a talk at an Istanbul film festival that if you do bad camera work you can redefine it as “art,” and who says he became an artist almost by accident — while wondering what to do with eight hours of filmed footage with an outrageous Turkish opera singer — Ataman is taken extremely seriously by the art world. He exhibited in the Venice Biennale in 1999, was short-listed for the Turner Prize in Britain in 2004 and won the Carnegie International Art Prize in the same year.
His video installations, interviews intertwining fact and fiction, of the quirky and curious — from four women who wear wigs to an Englishwoman who lives for her amaryllis bulbs and a German boy obsessed with moths — have given him an outlet for an artsy side of him that could have been a disadvantage in the commercial film world of today. And now, with the success of “2 Girls,” he finds he is popular in both worlds, with Turkish backers approaching him about new projects.
“I have hope,” he says reflectively. “As with many other things in business and fashion and the arts and politics, because of this modernization, the whole country is going through immense change. The old guard is feeling threatened. We have to live through these times….We will overcome….We have to create this new Turkey.”