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Nilgün Öneş: the distinguished Turkish scriptwriter of the series “Asi” in an exclusive interview for peoplenews.gr

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nilgun-ones1_resizeDuring the summer of 2012,  a Turkish television series claimed our attention and our hearts, offspring of the creative imagination primarily of Ms. Nilgün Öneş and a team of worthy collaborators. It was filmed in mystic Antioch,
once the cradle of Greek civilization in the Middle East. Its title, “Asi”, signified both the untamed river which runs through it  –the historic Orontis-  and the name of the dynamic heroine of the story. The inconceivable success of said series globally (it was acknowledged at the International Television Awards in Monte Carlo in 2011 as the second most watched series in the world,  breaking rating records in more than 67 countries), as well as in Greece, and the International Giuseppe Sciacca Award with which its leading actor, Murat Yildirim, was honoured in November 2012 in Vatican City, became the bridge that brought us to her door.

Nilgün Öneş’ gifted pen draws characters with the agility of a dancer and paints tears and smiles with the sensibility of a poet.
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An esteemed name in neighbouring Turkey, she is a master of words who also co-wrote the script of another, very well-known film to the Greek audience, namely, “Pains of Autumn” (Guz Sancisi). Nilgün Öneş is an amiable, mellifluent woman, an exceptional artist, a great lady. With her “smiling” words she took us on a journey through her life, her beliefs and her experiences, her secrets and her truths…
 
What brief biographical sketch would you choose to introduce yourself to us?  
 
I was born at Inebolu, a small town on the coast of the Black Sea. My father was a forest ranger so they kept transferring him and I, along with my three siblings, had to change schools all the time. Ηοwever, I’m very happy because this way I got to know every part of Eastern Turkey and it was an experience that really enriched me as a human being. I started drawing at a very young age.

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Nilgun Öneş in her childhood

My father adored poetry so it was through him that I came to love it. When I was in school, I tried my hand at writing poems and, indeed, some of them were even published in newspapers. At that time, drawing became my first priority and mapped my career path. Thus, I studied Fine Arts at the University of Marmara in Istanbul.

For years I worked in advertising agencies, as well as a freelance graphic artist. After a while, I got into script-writing and for a time I tried to combine both jobs. Soon though, script-writing became my whole life. Nowadays, graphics is my hobby but I am totally dedicated to script-writing. I have a daughter, Ceren Oykut, who has an artistic training. She is a young painter whose work is exhibited both in Turkey and other foreign countries.
 
What fond memories can you recall from your childhood?
 
My father’s constant transfers fascinated me because each time I was looking forward to meeting new people and new places. I always remember a truck loaded with our belongings and us in a Anadol car setting out for our new destination. When we left a place there were always tearful goodbyes, and when we arrived at a new one there expected us a heartfelt welcome.

nilgunpanorama_resizeI have friends in every corner of Eastern Turkey, cherished friends whom I never forgot. My fondest memory has to do with a childhood friend. I was invited to appear in a television show at the time my series Ikinci Bahar (Second Spring) aired on TV.

The very next day I got a phone call and a woman’s voice asked me “Guess who this is”. Despite the distance of many years, I instantly recognized her and said her name. She was shocked but, at the same time, overjoyed. We talked for hours, reminisced about our childhood and we are still in contact today.

How were your adolescent years? Were you restless, rebellious?
 
I don’t think I created any problems. Given my father’s constant transfers, he decided that I should attend a boarding school in Istanbul.

The separation from my family was difficult and heartbreaking, however, my boarding school stay was filled with valuable experiences. Every time I got  home during the summer vacation, I used to climb to the top of the trees or seek solitude to read books. Of course, I drew all the time. Since I had so many things to occupy myself with, I never gave my family a hard time.

During high school, I started drawing comics, which were published and gained a loyal following. Now, I have loyal fans who watch devoutly the series I write.

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This gives me great joy. If you are passionate about something and work on it with determination, you can withstand adversity. Writing and painting are the two invaluable gifts I was blessed with and they helped me pull through in very difficult moments in my life. 

How did you deal with loss in your life?
 
Loss played a decisive role in my life. Ι lost my mother at the tender age of 8.5 and my father when I was 25. At the time, my daughter was only 3.5 months old. My mother’s passing  wounded me deeply and left an indelible mark on my soul. She was a very special,  truly wonderful woman who read poems, kept a diary and enjoyed painting. I didn’t just lose my mother but my role model, my friend. For a long time I was unable to accept her absence in my life. I was trying to convince myself that she was merely away in my beloved Istanbul. When I finally came to terms with her loss, I craved for a daughter of my own. My prayers were heard. These wounds serve as important tools when I write.

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Nilgün Öneş with a team of a scriptwriters 

How important is love (which you manage to portray so admirably) in your life?
 
Love is a pretty powerful emotion that fills us with energy, but, at the same time, demands equal amounts of energy from us. It’s in those rare moments that we experience life in all its essence. It’s the cause of many simultaneous feelings. At the same time we can be lovers, friends, siblings, parents, collaborators, even enemies. 

We also discover aspects of ourselves through the eyes of the other. Love in my time was a very important and precious feeling.
Nowadays, one gets over it quite easily. It goes without saying that I myself have felt the magic touch of love.

I got carried away many a time, I fell, I pulled myself up, I allowed myself to fly. I feel extremely lucky that I was given the chance to turn all those feelings into words.
 
What do you value most in a person?
 
nilgunsmileFirmness of character and honesty. Because nowadays people tend to create false personalities just so they can be likeable and admired. Thus, most of the times, they project a pseudo-image and fail to realize how phony they appear.
With fake smiles on their faces and by repeating grandiloquent quotes they borrow from books and people, they strive to prove to the world how happy, benevolent and wise they are.
However, it is through our disappointments and our mistakes that we become truly human. I am mostly fond of the outspoken types who don’t hesitate to express themselves freely. Sometimes it’s better to hit rock bottom.

I would dare say that it is even necessary, since this way you are given the chance to really look inwards and search for yourself, get to know yourself better. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes feels like being born all over again.
 
Male characters in leading roles are inherently noble. What is your favourite type of contemporary Turk?
 
I was among those women who took active part in the feminist coup of September 12, 1980. At the time, I was planning a film called “Contemporary Woman”. It was the first feminist movement and it just so happens that this week, we, the members of that group, are meeting again after so many years. The women of that period were unsure of their position and their personality.

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The leading actor of "Asi" and "Pains of Autumn", Murat Yildirim

This attitude influenced men immensely. To make themselves agreeable to women, they acted according to the modern norms and showed themselves willing to share everything with them, to pave their way. However, given that no one was truly ready to accept those changes, both sexes were unhappy. Divorces multiplied. 30 years have passed since that morning of September 12th and the new generation of Turkish men appear to have drawn closer to the goals that the previous one failed to accomplish. They tend to share more, they are more polite, more tender, they take initiatives when their children are born so as to help and support their mate. This is a very positive step towards the right direction and a male type that is to my liking.

What was the exact moment that made you turn to script-writing?
 
I was employed as a graphic artist at the Manajans company. At one point, two of my friends started working on a TV series called “Super Dad”. Some scriptwriters were supposed to collaborate with them but that never happened.

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Süper Baba, the first script for a television series she co-wrote

So they invited me to take part in their project. “But I’m a graphic artist, how can I write?” I asked them. In those days, graphic artists and scriptwriters were a team and worked closely. Plus, graphic artists had to think and narrate the script for an advertisement or a series.

I guess they must have noticed something in me since they asked me to join their team. My first scripts were handwritten, as I couldn’t type like all professional scriptwriters. From that day on a whole new chapter opened in my life and gave me great joy and satisfaction.

Do you guide your heroes or do your heroes guide you?
 
Stanislavski has said, and I quote, that the scriptwriter provides the text and the actor provides the sub-text. And especially when we are working on a television series, we are talking about a long term project. As you write, the characters are starting to take shape and come to life in front of you. As you continue writing, you sense their independence, their point of view, their resistance. At that point I try to establish a secret relationship with the character without him or her realizing it.

There’s a struggle, a conflict that takes place… So, the more successful the compromise during that struggle, the more satisfying the result. In other words, from a certain point on, we guide each other. Moreover, I want to communicate with my actors face to face, to reply to the questions they may have regarding their characters, to solve their problems with them. I strive for it because this relationship is essential, it helps both sides immensely. After all, we are working together and we have a lot to learn from each other. 
 
How much have your roles influenced the mentality of your viewers?

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I believe that especially Hatirla Sevgili, its  story, its plot, its characters, had a great impact especially on young
people. The series was created on a basis of different points of view.  Differences of opinion, not only in my country, but anywhere in the world, lead to wars and have a negative effect on people. It’s a reality.

The series covered a period during which people went through a great deal of suffering because of their different beliefs. Books that deal with that time have become best-sellers. We visited Universities and talked with students, we answered their questions.

What affected me personally and most of all was the ceremony in memory of the political activists Deniz Gezmis, Husyin Ιnan and  Yusuf Aslan, who were executed on May 6, 1972.  A deluge of people attended it, especially youngsters and students. Besides that, it was also a story of true love which, as in the case of “Asi”, influenced the viewers greatly.

Film industry in Turkey is flourishing. Where do you attribute this?

Personally, I don’t believe that it is flourishing at all. In Turkey, we cannot even talk about a film industry. The vast majority of films are independent productions. The truth of the matter is that the situation is quite confusing. The box office hits are derogated while the Art House projects are extoled. However, in both you can find good and bad films and both categories have a common goal: the strong audience response. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if a film is mainstream or artistic, the audience always know what they are watching. 

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Nilgün Öneş with the cast of the successful series  Hatirla Sevgili starring  Beren Saat and Cansel Elcin.

There’s also the question of aesthetics. Not anyone can grab a camera and start filming in a helter-skelter manner without proper know-how, using sloppy frames, poorly written scripts and vapid roles because people will move away from cinema.

A slapdash work filled with mistakes can only be justified if it’s a budding cinematographer’s first attempt in the film business. Sometimes, passion is enough to create  a very positive result, and in that case I feel happy. But a good film that was the product of such passion, doesn’t mean that it will always be like that.
 
All Turkish television series deal with passionate love and deep pain as well. How can this be explained in the cultural context of a nation who still takes a strong stand for “prohibitions”? 
 
Old Turkish cinema was extremely melodramatic and that appealed to the audience. Nowadays, there’s the comic relief element, however, melodrama has also undergone change. I believe that modern viewers appreciate stories that are more realistic, and that is something that a lot of cinematographers are trying to do. Nevertheless, television addresses a far wider audience thus, it is unavoidably more conservative. Naturally, we cannot forget the ratings. It is almost guaranteed that melodramatic series will be successful. As regards deep-rooted prohibitions, we feel them more than we see them. 

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The legendary series Asi that captured the hearts of millions of viewers around the world starring Tuba Tüyüküstün & Murat Yildirim

You have been a celebrated scriptwriter in Turkey for years. How did “Asi” come about?
 
I was hard at work on a television project titled Hatırla Sevgili. Tomris Giritlioğlu (director and producer), Gül Dirican, Şebnem Çitak and Neşe Çehiz (scriptwriters) had already started planning “Asi”.

At first , they merely sought my advice on the screenplay. Naturally, I accepted, although I was quite tired.

Later, I started taking part in their meetings on plot and script control and, I don’t know how it happened exactly,  but I found myself deeply involved in the project.

And I am grateful to Tomris for insisting that I joined their team because I had the chance to work closely together with so many remarkable people. And, as it turned out, we are all very proud about this collaboration.
 
What was the inspiration for this particular screenplay, given that in “Asi” there’s a noticeable but positively creative influence of the classic Jane Austen novel “Pride and Prejudice”?
 
Indeed, Tomris’ inspiration for “Asi” was Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. 
It was also her idea that important scenes should be filmed in the beautiful landscape of Antioch, her place of origin. During the shooting of the series, cast and crew stayed in the area and many of them rented houses there. It was wonderful to live away from the big city, they all had a great time. Of course,  director Cevdet Mercan’s and art director Naz Eray’s contribution was also invaluable.
 
How do you explain the inconceivable and continued success of the series globally, success that was indisputably manifested at the International Television Awards in Monte Carlo, in 2011?
 
For a project to be loved so much, it means that first and foremost it was loved by all those who took part in it. If any of them loses faith, the feeling infects the rest like a contagious disease. Sometimes a script is good but it lacks spirit. Other times, the complete opposite is the case, that is, the  script is bad.

asi_montecarlotutti_1Monte Carlo 2011

So, even if the production is of quality, this particular series may be doomed to failure and not even the best actor in the world can save it. There are also times when all appears to fit in perfectly. But that won’t do either, because even if it fares well in the ratings and the whole project is functioning like clockwork, it may be missing that sparkle which will make it stand out.  The problem is that no one knows that you need a magic wand that isn’t always there.  In “Asi”, though, everything came  together like magic. And all realized that there is indeed such a thing as a magic wand. Our Monte Carlo experience was important for all. We went there as a team and took part in the awards process.

asiMonte_Carlo_1_resizeAs a matter of fact, Prince Albert himself invited Tuba to dine him along with other famous personalities like the  two American actors William Macy και Felicity Huffman.  Murat and Tuba also presented awards during the ceremony. We shared the stage with television stars from all over the world. 
 
What made the script so natural and so real at the same time?
 
The power of love in the pure natural landscape. For me, Antioch had a big part to play in this with its history, its people, its customs, its position on the border between Turkey and Syria, its local names which we borrowed for our heros, like Asi Nehri, its cuisine, its culture and, of course, the warmth of the people of Anatolia. I, along with the other scriptwriters, visited Antioch as a team where we roamed about, listened, observed and turned everything that touched our hearts into a script. Antioch made it very easy for us to work and be inspired. 
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At a time when sex and violence sells everywhere, and especially in television and film, would you describe as bold your decision to write about pure human emotions like true love, sincere friendship, family ties, as well as about important moral principles and values?
 
I don’t believe that it’s a matter of boldness.  A scriptwriter writes what he collects. From the day that we are born we collect knowledge and emotions. After a while, all these become part of us and guide our choices. What do we want to read? What do we think about the country we live in? What is our outlook on life? How close are we with our fellow humans? They are also reflected in our activities. When you write, you observe your inner world. In reality, when you write you can even alter it. This is why for me writing is both therapy and action. As you change, your way of writing changes as well. Thus, romantic love, honest friendship, family love, morals, hate, sex, violence, in short, all human emotions, all situations, are different aspects of our human existence. Whatever you may choose defines your priorities and abilities.

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Were you ever asked by the director or the actors to change, remove or add scenes?
 
No, but for a technically difficult scene to be filmed, I may have had to make some alterations in order to facilitate the crew’s job.
 
How powerful is a scriptwriter in Turkey?
 
I think that only recently they have started to realize our value. I have served as Chairman of the Scriptwriters Guild in Turkey, so I had the opportunity to see the problems that the scriptwriters face up close and personal, both in Turkey and in other countries. You know that Turkish television series have a duration of over 90 minutes. This is inconceivable. Two years ago, we at the Turkish Scriptwriters Guild invited actors and all those who work in the entertainment industry to take action in cutting down the duration of the series. Our motto was “Domestic Series that Last Incredibly Long”.

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Finally, scriptwriters, actors and technical crews were united with one common goal. There was a lot of talk surrounding this demonstration but our efforts were fruitless. What we write every week is a 90 minute film. So, in essence, we are striving for the impossible. And that is not our only problem. We are not in possession of our basic intellectual rights since the copyright law is not implemented. Imagine that we don’t even get our rights from the airing of our series in Turkey and in other countries. I assure you that “Asi” is the second most watched series in the world and yet we didn’t get a dime out of it. In this particular matter, Turkey is still living in the Stone Age. So, your question was about the power of the scriptwriters, right? But what can be said given the circumstances?

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The leading cast of "Asi"

Were there any scenes or developments that you would have written differently?
 
A lot. As I said before, in the space of 90 minutes there a great many things that escape your attention. When you are under pressure to meet a deadline, you cannot control everything. There were times when, as I watching my work on TV, I felt the urge to hide under the table in shame.

Did you have any favourite characters in the series?

I cannot pick out any of them, they are  my children, I love them all dearly. 

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Most Turkish drama series seem to favour unhappy endings. How did you opt for a happy ending which was also greatly appreciated by the fans?
 
Some series have bitter endings and others joyous ones. We wanted Asi and Demir, as well as the rest of the characters, to live happily ever after. And it was an unanimous decision. Don’t you think that they had suffered enough?

Υou know that Murat Yildirim received the International Giuseppe Sciacca Theatre and Cinema Award for 2012 in Vatican City. His springboard into immense popularity was “Asi”, the flagship of Turkish television series in the world and, of course, his talent. How do you feel about that and about Murat’s success?
 
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Vatican, 2012. Murat Yildirim is honored as the Best Young Actor for 2012 by the International Giuseppe Sciacca Awards. The award was presented by famous Italian actress Emanuela Tittocchia

I love Murat very much both as an actor and as a friend. He has an exceptionally expressive face that can show his emotions quite easily, and he’s also a truly humble and good man. Moreover, he invests in acting and takes his profession very seriously. Life has a lot of great things in store for him and I am sure he will participate in many important projects. I believe that he will become even more successful in the future.

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What is the memory you treasure from your collaboration with the stars of Asi?

In the beginning, when we visited Antioch for research, we spent most of our time with the actors in location, that is, in and around the houses where the families would be living, according to the script. It was a wonderful place that stretched to the border of Syria. Everyone worked with dedication, love and in harmony and, of course, all those feelings were reflected in their work. I was very impressed by how they complemented and supported each other, how great their enthusiasm was. 

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Would you write again for the legendary and successful couple of “Asi”, Tuba Büyüküstün and Murat Yildirim?
 
Of course, why not? They are very near and dear to my heart both as actors and as human beings. What is even more important is that these two together are in perfect harmony and are also excellent performers.

Do you believe that culture can help bridge the gap between two countries with a burdened historical record?

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I believe so wholeheartedly, as I also believe that cultural contact and communication can change the world for the better. In the past, my daughter was invited to take part in a joined exhibition in Pisa, Italy where she stayed and worked for about a month. There she shared a place with two Greek girls, they loved each other, created together and had an amazing time. Later, my daughter visited them in Athens and her friends then came to Istanbul…They are still in contact. It was culture and art that brought these young people together. For me, the world should be governed by people with a cultural background.

How did you venture to write such a daring and disturbing script as the one for “Güz Sancisi” knowing that you risked causing a stir?

In my opinion, congratulations are due to Tomris Gritlioğlu. It had been a dream of hers to turn the book into a screenplay and waited  a long time for it to happen. We had just finished with Hatırla Sevgili and were exhausted. Tomris and Etyen Mahçupyan had already worked a great deal on the script and, at some point, she asked me to join the team. Then, we started from scratch. It was a difficult task but our collaboration harmonious and the end result was to our liking. 

How did you do research for the script of this film? Did you talk with witnesses from both sides?
 
Witnesses’ accounts are indeed extremely valuable, as well as books, documentaries, newspaper articles and photographs of that time, and, most importantly, the writer of the book “Güz Sancisi” himself, Yılmaz Karakoyunlu...In short, we had a wealth of material at our disposal. 
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Beren Saat & Murat Yildirim in the movie "Pains of Autumn"

How did the Turkish audience respond to the film?
 
It left quite an impression among audience members who were happy that we shed light on a dark page of history. It goes without saying that such projects inevitably cause a stir. We were not the exception to that rule. But we had already ventured the leap. World history is filled with shameful moments. All countries have blood in their hands. The last few years non-governmental organizations have been constituted in Turkey aiming exactly at rescuing such fragments of history from oblivion.   

pliges155baFor istance, this year, on the memorial day for Hrant Dink (distinguished Turk-Armenian journalist and writer who was murdered in 2007) the crowd that gathered was as huge as the first time. This gives us hope, because now we know that the governments may continue to write history as it suits them, but the past is filled with events that were never written, they could not be written. Even nowadays they cannot be written. But thanks to the NGOs they will become history. 
 
Was there any interference that forced you to make some changes in the final draft of the script?
 
muratpligesI can’t think of a particular point that changed without our consent. We had a book in our hands and didn’t deviate much from its story.  We also added a political character. The book was so crammed with facts that it was a difficult task to turn it into a screenplay. If we omitted some things it was because of the technical difficulties  and not due to pressures.

Were you satisfied with the result?
 
Hardly…There should be more films like that. This particular project expresses our point of view. Another group of people might look at these events from an entirely different perspective and highlight details that we failed to notice. 

When you visited Greece what impression were you left with as regards the Greek audience?
 
They were very excited and incredibly moved at the same time. There were people who had tears in their eyes, who cried, people who had experienced those events. I suppose that for them the film was quite painful to watch.  It was a fascinating time for us.

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Athens: Leading actors Beren Saat, Murat Yildirim, Belçim Bilgin, the producer, director and scriptwriter Τomris Giritlioğlu and the scriptwriter Νilgün Öneş

Beren Saat and Murat were interviewed. The hospitality was outstanding. The reception night, the Cretan restaurant that they brought us to the next day…everything was amazing. We came back carrying  beautiful memories. Years ago, we drove around Greece and the islands with my daughter and sister. I also remember that trip fondly. 


Do you have any favourite films from world cinema?
 
Quite a few actually. For instance, I like all films by  Michael Haneke, Tom Tykwer, Tod Solondz, Pedro Almοdóvar, Robert Altman, Ang Lee and Jim Jarmush. Thomas Winterberg’s  ‘’Festen’’ and  Paul Thomas Anderson’s " The Master",  in which  Joaquin Phonenix gives an unforgettable performance,  are the first that come to mind.  

How do you usually sit down to write a script, do you follow a specific method or procedure?

nilgunclassic_resizeAt first, I must feel inspired by something, something that will urge me to write a story. For instance, a musical piece, an event, a person, a situation, a memory…Thus, I formulate a premise and slowly the script starts to take shape. Then, it’s the characters’ turn. As I develop their layers, the basic story expands. When the past and future storylines are mapped out, along with the character arcs, I start working on the treatment.

In my opinion, the treatment is the most important stage of script-writing. It is when you turn the content of the script into prose according to the scene index. A good treatment is the basis for successful dialogues, a bad treatment sets off a chain of disastrous events. The treatment is like a road-map that gives us the opportunity to discern structural mistakes or plot holes. An elegant dialogue may fascinate us but, at the same time, it may lack meaning. If a script has problems, they can only be worked out at this particular stage. I write the treatment over and over and over again until its form is finalized and is ready to be presented. Then it’s the dialogue’s turn.

What was the most useful professional advice you were ever given?
 
Never say: “I learned the job, I know it!» It’s a valuable advice that I, in turn, give to new scriptwriters, since script-writing is like walking a tightrope. Every day we face the risk of turning a blind eye to our mistakes, enchanted as we are by our own inspired ideas. But what makes our work so magical is exactly that we are not fully aware of it. Each script is an adventure and we can never be sure of its outcome. It is in this aspect that, in my view, script resembles a poem: it is never ending. Of course, at some point we are obligated to end it. 

It is said that you will pen the script for a new film by Tomris Giritlioglu, the producer of “Asi”, starring Tuba Büyüküstün. Can you tell us how reliable this rumor is?  
 
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The actress Tuba Büyüküstün

Indeed I’m working on such a project. On July 2nd, 1993,  in Sivas, there was a ceremony in memory of Pir Sultan Abdal, the famous bard.
A group of attendees (among them, the celebrated writer Aziz Nesin) were staying at Madimak hotel. Radical Islamists set fire to the hotel and 33 people, bards, intellectual, writers, as well as two hotel employees, died from suffocation or were burned.  
 
The script you are asking me about deals with these events, but it needs a lot of work because the story is extremely obscure. It may appear as a terrorist act by radical Islamists, but behind this massacre there are other powers at play. 

How would you choose to sign off this interview?
 
I would like to thank you for contacting me and making this interview a reality. It gave me great joy to talk to you on the phone and via correspondence. I believe that Greeks and Turks are a lot alike, they share emotions, habits, even food. This is why when we meet it feels as if we are relatives.  The truth of the matter is that governments create problems, not peoples. 
I send you heartfelt greetings from Istanbul and bid you farewell with the wish that we all live in peace.

Interview by Vicky Bafataki & Theodora Darviri
 
Translated in English by Theodora Darviri

Translated from Turkish by Bahar Sapountzi - Aki, Erkan Hatip, Zeynep Albayak -Vempis, Stathakis Arvanitis
 

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