Only five films have been selected by the IOM international jury to be presented at the Global Migration Film Festival 2020*. One of them is Omar and Us, a Turkish film directed by a member of the European Film Academy Maryna Er Gorbach. Maryna is a graduate of Kyiv National I. K. Karpenko-Kary Theatre, Cinema and Television University and of the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing (Warsaw). She has been living and working in Turkey for over 10 years. Omar and Us was created by Maryna in partnership with her husband Mehmet Bahadir Er, screenwriter and producer.
The protagonist of the film, Ismet, has worked all his life with the coast guard and recently retired. The former soldier, he finds it difficult to adapt to new reality, find a common ground with his family and neighbours. His only son moved to the U.S., and now his wife wants to join their son. When refugees Omar and Maria unexpectedly come into Ismet’s life, it becomes a challenging experience for him since, like most people, he has his own views and prejudice.
Omar and Us is not only about refugees and the Turkish society. It is about a conflict between children who choose to emigrate and parents who choose to stay home. It is about the lack of rights of migrant workers — both international and internal. It is about whether or not people are willing to accept other people.
Prior to the film presentation, we talked to Maryna Er Gorbach about her film, her own migration experience, and about ability of the cinema art to help change people’s attitude to aliens.
Some say that migration is an experience that changes not only your environment but also yourself as a personality. What was your own experience? Is it fair to say that your move from Ukraine to Turkey has changed you?
That is a deep question going down 13 years at the very least. I think everyone’s migration story is unique. For a very long time, and even now, I could not consider myself a 100% emigrant, because I am mentally linked to Ukraine, I try to create a Ukrainian-speaking environment for myself. It is also very important to me to express myself as an artist through Ukraine. Much has changed in my life in these years. I have got lots of sheer human experience. I fell in love, and I got married, and I got children — all these events would have changed me even without emigration. Assimilation takes place quite easily, while permanent stay far from Ukraine has become a powerful driver to preserve my self-identification. It is quite true that large things should be looked at a distance.
The script for Omar and Us was written by your husband Bahadir. What inspired you and him to tell this story about asylum seekers?
Bahadir is not only the screenwriter, he is also the producer of this film, so he is the driver of the project. I joined the film at the casting stage... One day Bahadir went to a barbershop, and there was a cleaning worker who suddenly spoke to him in perfect English. They chatted a little and Bahadir found out that the man was actually a professional cameraman. He used to work for Syrian TV, but now, like many of his compatriots, he is a refugee. Later, Bahadir often regretted that he had not pushed the conversation forward. When he came home that day, he looked concerned. I saw he was thinking of something... A few days later, he went to the barbershop, but the cleaning worker was not there. Bahadir kept trying to find that man in Istanbul for two weeks or so, but in vain... A one-minute conversation was enough to make Bahadir ponder upon perception of a person, upon the destiny of artists who had to seek refuge. But what upset him most was that at first, even he did not quite believe in the story of that man. So, Bahadir started writing a script about the local community’s perception of non-locals, aliens let’s say. By the way, the initial title of the project was They and Us.
Today, Omar and Us received 25 international awards. But to be frank, we had no global intention to conquer the world or change the attitude of Turks to refugees. It was a quite local, personal gestalt for us. We followed the script reflecting the current-day events, and we studied our own feelings. It is hard to stay indifferent when the news turn into daily casualty reports. Geopolitics produces news, news produces statistics that turn into prejudice, and it is an endless cycle. We decided to show the prejudice and to take particular characters from the statistics, to shoot at real locations without showing a single picture or episode exploited in the news... This is how we came to the title Omar and Us, because it is a name of a particular person.
When the project got funding, it was obvious to us that we should cast professional actors among refugees who need this job here and now and can make a manifest in the film and simply return to professional life. It was a burning point in the concept that guided us. But at the same time, it created a huge problem to us. The refugee status in Turkey restricts a person’s movements to the district of registration — and that is if there’s no problem with documents. It took us two years to find Omar (Taj Sher Yakub) and Maria (Hala Sayasneh). Two years! They were masters in making themselves invisible... Though they lived in the centre of Istanbul.
In our search for actors, Bahadir first went to the refugee camps at the border with Syria. While I went to Europe hoping that I could find refugee actors there or at least get useful contacts. A few actors from Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin were so excited about this project, but it turned out that they couldn’t go to Turkey because in that case, they would run the risk of deportation to the camps at the border with Syria...
So, we focused on Turkey. Where there are document problems there should be someone to help fix them. This is how we found outstanding Omar Berakdar, a Syrian photographer and a French citizen. He helps fix documents and destinies of people of art professions as a volunteer. He also created Arthere centre where people can buy works of artists and support their art.
Omar, accidentally a namesake of the film’s main character, organized a casting. Over 50 actors came. It was a very emotional experience for us. They wanted the job so badly... they wanted to come out of the underground. For me personally, that day was a turning point. Before that, I had been perhaps a co-author, assistant, advisor, but when the statistics narrows down to real people — with sweating and trembling hands — everything changes. I got a deep emotional experience that made me the director of Omar and Us.
How did you find the filming process?
In general, I enjoyed the work very much. Of course, there were difficulties. For example, the shooting took place in Assos, a Turkish region in the vicinity of the Greek Island of Midilli (Lesvos). The audience can see it in the film. With no high wind, it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get to the European shore.
This is where most refugees crossed the border. The parents of the main actress, Hala Sayasneh who played Maria, also escaped to Europe from there. Many locals were reluctant to let their houses for shooting because of the experience they had in the context of the migration situation. They turned adamant as soon as they found out that the project staff included refugees. But other people agreed to help. For example, the owner of the house where we made the shooting even lived in a tent in that period as he did not want to bother the crew or interfere in any way.
There were some legal issues as well. Refugees are not allowed to work, what we showed in Omar and Us, among other things. So, Bahadir as the producer had to settle the work permit issue. And then it turned out that Hala had no documents at all. Line producers initiated the document re-issue procedure and at some point, the Migration Service told us that they would handle the documents, but if it turns out that Hala committed or was suspected of committing any unlawful actions, they would report the case to the competent authorities. This was another trust test. I remember how we met with Hala to ask her whether there was anything in her past that could put her in jail in Turkey.
I guess the most difficult thing about the film was to face personal traumatic experiences of migrants who really are in deep trouble. It is not a role they play — it is their life.
There is an episode in the film where the main character says he wants to go home. It took us long to shoot that scene because Taj could not calm down for a while. He was supposed to say it in a simple way. It was not the time for crying because otherwise, the film should have ended right there. Taj would start saying the sentence and he would choke back tears. We had to do many retakes. Our whole crew understood that the episode transfers the actor to his lost home.
That was a hard moment for me too. I could not help making comparisons with Ukraine: refugees in Turkey, displaced persons in Ukraine... During Q&A sessions at various film festivals I always mention that I come from Ukraine and we have a war there too.
Now we know that Omar has a prototype to an extent, the man whom Bahadir met in a barbershop. Is there a prototype for the main character, Ismet, a tough retired officer who likes order, who likes being a commander but who doesn’t like refugees? Or is it a composite character?
Bahadir’s father is a retired serviceman, and he would often ask us to say that Ismet is not him. It is not him indeed.
The actor who played Ismet had an extraordinary mission. By the way, I should say that this was his first leading role in a film, and we believe he was excellent. So, we didn’t want to show him as a negative character. His character experiences his own emigration. Ismet was part of a very understandable military system where he used to be a commander, and everyone obeyed him without discussion. While retired Ismet had to build his relationships with his wife and son from scratch. He had to find ways to be at peace with himself as he finds himself in a situation where his imposing tone is no longer effective. Ismet sincerely believes in the system that he served to. And when for the first time in his life he decides to act against the military code, he starts thinking about his helplessness in his relations with his dear ones. However, helplessness is extremely hard to admit, and to some extent too late to admit. He is also an emigrant, but emotional one.
Your film was released in November 2019 and has already received many awards at various festivals, including in Turkey. A great portion of the Turkish audience has already seen it. Among other awards, Omar and Us won the Human Rights audience award at Istanbul Film Festival. Do you think the film is changing the attitude of the audience to refugees in Turkey? Do you see any evolution triggered by your work?
I had several personal discoveries relating to your question. First of all, when I started working on this film, I was absolutely sure that it was impossible to change anyone’s attitude towards anything. A film can unite people around certain values and thus make these values more visible, and changing perception was something I could not believe in. Several screenings took place back when offline events were still allowed... For example, after one of such screenings, a woman got up and told her own story: she is a daughter of emigrants who came from Sofia, Bulgaria, but she hated this ‘mob of Syrians’. There was a pause, and the entire hall was suddenly filled with tension. Because the woman made a very honest statement. Many people in Turkey feel the same, but few discuss it. And then she continued and said that she has just realized that there is no difference between her parents and Syrian refugees... The audience burst into applause.
To touch people’s souls and inspire them to accept strangers is a great thing. Another display took place in Malatya and it was attended by schoolchildren. They came up to Taj (Omar) after the film to hug him, take a photo with him. They asked him not to risk his life, they asked about Maria. It was unexpected. I think they got vaccinated against xenophobia.
"Another source of inspiration for us was realizing that by shooting this film, we were really helping these two professional actors, two real people who became refugees because of the war."
Actress Hala Sayasneh who played Maria had not seen her family for seven years. She did not dare to get on the boat during a storm (as a rule, refugees cross the sea when the wind is high, and the police would not chase them). We had to postpone the filming for six months to restore her documents. After the first editing, Hala applied to the French Embassy (because her parents and all her family are in France) and got a visa as an art worker. So, even before the official release of the film, Hala went to France to rejoin her family. Of course, a global goal to change the world might seem tempting... but when you see that your work changes the life of one particular person, that is a great inspiration.
* The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency, launched the annual Global Migration Film Festival to feature personal stories, discover new talents, bring people from different parts of the world closer to each other and create a platform for dialogue. In 2020, screenings in the framework of the Global Migration Film Festival took place in over 100 countries all over the world.