Chatting with Turkish director Umran Safter, DCIFF Alum
One of the pleasures of running a film festival spanning over two decades is watching filmmaker careers take off. Umran Safter produced the documentaries The Eye of Istanbul (Best of Fest, DCIFF 2016) about Ara Guler, the legendary Armenian-Turkish photographer, and Sevan the Craftsman (DCIFF, 2018) about celebrated jewelry designer Sevan Bıçaçkı. Then, during the pandemic in 2021, Umran Safter won the DCIFF Best Documentary Award for Leave the Door Open which follows two young sons of a Turkish diplomat in Washington DC who loved jazz enough to smash through racial barriers and segregation in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
An award-winning producer, director and journalist, Umran has worked at media outlets and television stations, including CNN Turk, Kanal 7, TRT Turk and Al Jazeera Turk, both as a correspondent and news editor. She also produced television documentaries on life in Guantanamo Prison, the story of victims of the Bosnian war, and the conditions faced by Iraqi refugees in Syria. After all these successes, Umran has pivoted to make her first ever fiction film. We asked her to take some time out from her busy schedule for a brief interview!
Check out the conversation below:
DCIFF: Tell us about your new feature-length fiction film…
Umran Safter: Kabahat, which means Guilt in English was completed this September 2022 and is my first fiction film. I wrote the script and directed the film. In many ways it is partly autobiographical as it draws on some of my experiences as a young girl growing up in a small town and village in Anatolia. Kabahat is about a 13-year-old girl who has had her first period and experiences first-hand the stigma, taboos and superstitions associated with what is just a biological process. The film’s cast are mostly women as I wanted to show how it is often women who are actually at the forefront when it comes to imposing this unjust stranglehold girls face from an early age. It also seeks to show the suffocating and intimidating atmosphere within the context of regular life in an Anatolian village, where drought, poverty and traditionalism play a major role in shaping an extremely conservative worldview. I am so happy that Kabahat has received such a positive reception to date domestically. In September, Kabahat won the Special Jury Prize for Best Film, along with prizes for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Young Actress with Promise at the International Adana Golden Boll Film Festival. It also won the Best Debut Feature Film award at the 10th Bosphorus Film Festival in Istanbul in October. I will start submitting to international film festivals soon and hope Kabahat does well internationally as well.
DCIFF: We have been honored to screen three of your documentaries. How was the experience for you?
Umran Safter: DCIFF will always have a very special place in my heart. It is the festival where my first documentary, The Eye of Istanbul, was accepted and I was overwhelmed when it won the Best of Fest at DCIFF. That award and experience was a major motivation and boost to me going forward. The whole experience at DCIFF with the festival team, screening venues, panels and everything associated with the festival was amazing.
DCIFF: How was working during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Umran Safter: The Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges. The pandemic hit when I was in the middle of making Leave the Door Open, which also won the Best Documentary award at DCIFF – leaving me very thrilled. I was fortunate in the sense that we had finished all on-location filming in the United States just before the pandemic struck. It was on the flight back to Istanbul from DC after I had finished filming my last interviews when the first people wearing masks appeared. I even self-isolated for 15 days after returning but thankfully it turned out to just be a cold. But shortly after those flights started getting cancelled and lockdowns became the norm. Having to work remotely during the editing and other post-production processes was a very different experience. Thankfully we managed to navigate through all the challenges, and I was really pleased with the the outcome. Of course, DCIFF was held that year as restrictions were gradually being lifted and it meant a different DCIFF experience. I was saddened that films were not being screened at the traditional iconic venues but very happy at the same time that the festival went ahead thanks to the great effort put in by the festival organizers and team despite all the challenges.
DCIFF: Can you tell us a little bit about why you originally chose documentary filmmaking?
Umran Safter: I have been a journalist for more than 2 decades and have always wanted to tell the stories of people rather than just events and incidents. Even during my time as a journalist I wrote long-form scripts and stories but never pursued them further. I eventually reached a point where I decided I would like to delve more in-depth into issues around multiculturalism and gender. That was when I thought making documentaries would be a good fit.
DCIFF: What is it about the genre that excites you?
Umran Safter: I am fascinated by the opportunity to be able to cast a spotlight into stories of people whose multicultural traits and, in other cases, conviction to address any gender-based prejudices have a positive impact on societies. I think being able to work on and tell such stories is even more relevant in our fractured world today and am grateful that I am able to make films.
DCIFF: How did wanting to make films turn into a successful reality?
Umran Safter: Becoming a filmmaker was a progression – I think a natural progression in my case. As a young girl growing up in a relatively low-income family in a small town in central Anatolia, I was determined to not let that define the boundaries of my existence. Growing up, I was seeing and hearing about it happening to so many people in a similar situation – especially girls. At first, I became very interested in journalism because I saw it as an ideal way of questioning the status quo and defending the rights of marginalized people. Over the years this gradually led me to filmmaking as I saw it as a perfect way to combine my interest in writing scripts and focusing on people who make a positive impact on our societies by challenging the accepted norms.