Interview with Dr Nurdan Tambek Tekeoglu

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

Dr Nurdan Tümbek Tekeoğlu on her Feature Film I Loved You Very Much

As I made my way through the buzzing, glittery crowd of Cannes Film Festival to view Dr Nurdan Tümbek Tekeoğlu’s first feature film I Loved You Very Much, I am welcomed by the elegant, poised and warm Nurdan herself before we both enter the screening room. Nurdan is a renowned Turkish film producer who is proud to present her award-winning film, accompanied by her husband Orhan Tekeoğlu, the film’s director. After spending a bit less than two hours fully immersed in the film, Nurdan and I make our way to a nearby cafe to talk about her love of and dedication to film-making, and her mission to combat gender inequality through it.

How did you enter the film industry?

It’s hard to know where to begin as I’ve had such a busy professional life. I was Head Representative of Office at Metro Group in Turkey for 10 years, which is one of the most important international retailing companies. Before that I worked in different companies going from Garanti Bank to Siemens or the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Despite being in such different industries, I have always cherished the world of cinema and knew that I would take part in it one day. Already when working for Metro Group, I was organizing a Short Film Competition for cinema students in Turkey. We would organize a ceremony like a Short Film Oscars where the best three students would win a prize and then be sent to New York Film Academy to accomplish a Summer Workshop. Yet, because our students wouldn’t speak very good English, we would send them to English Courses beforehand - otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense. This project, jointly organized with the Turkish Foundation for Cinema and Audiovisual Centre (TÜRSAK), intended to contribute to the education of future directors and to support the development of Turkish cinema by encouraging the production of short films. I took charge of this for nearly 10 years, which is a good time to fully take care of a project, and through it I got increasingly close to the world of cinema.

You produced the film I Loved You Very Much. How did the idea of making the film come along?

My husband Orhan Tekeoğlu worked in journalism for 25 years and always had an interest in social issues. He studied Radio Television in Ankara, and he is originally from the Black Sea Region where our film is set. Having lived in a village set in the high mountains, he grew up seeing how the women of these villages worked extremely hard with no rest, and how they suffered deeply from it. Their tasks were endless, from working in the fields, forests and meadows, to taking care of the animals and raising their children. The problem is that most men were absent because they left for other countries to search for jobs, mainly in Germany, France and Holland, or in some cases in nearby cities such as in Istanbul. After the 2nd World War there was a big immigration wave, particularly in the 1960s from Turkey to European countries, for men to earn money by mainly working in construction or factories. Women remained the only permanent villages’ inhabitants, where there were neither proper roads nor electricity, and where no considerable economic activity took place. It was therefore my husband’s dream to document these women’s lives and together we created a documentary exactly on that topic which is called IFAKAT and was made in 2010. IFAKAT was incredibly well received by audiences and critics, receiving numerous awards from Turkey as well as from Hungary and England. The largest Turkish TV Channel TRT also awarded our documentary and has since showcased it on every single Mother’s Day and Women’s Day. All of this great success gave us a lot of courage to completely dedicate ourselves to film making, and so I quit my job at Metro Group. This is how the idea of making our first feature film came along.

Is I Loved You Very Much also about women’s lived experience in the high mountains of Turkey?

Yes and no. For our second project, my husband wanted to show the prejudices against Russian and Ukrainian women that took place in Turkey and still does in many ways. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s where unemployment was high and opportunities were few, many women from countries like Ukraine and Russia looked to Turkey as a place to change their lives for the better – only to become victims of sexual exploitation. In Turkey, these women were so prevalent, that prostitutes were called ‘Natashas’. They were also subject to incredible levels of violence and discrimination, getting little sympathy or assistance even from the public or social services agencies. In contrast, men left the villages to work in the city and spend their time with ‘Natashas’ whilst their wives continued to work restlessly in the villages. Our film is therefore based on these real-life stories. It presents themes like migration for economic reasons, the disintegration of families and prejudices - all of it revolving around a heartbreaking love story.Our film is local – but it’s important not to forget that this is a global issue. You have prejudices everywhere against foreign women touched by immigration issues. Women still face so many prejudices in the world, when you look at the recent abduction of these 300 young Nigerian women… well, it’s a very sad story. I have always been very sensitive to the various inequalities that women face. When I was in Metro Group, we financed every year the education of a thousand girls so they could enter the schooling system. In Turkey, around 1 million girls cannot go to school as they are married around the age of 13, 14 - and in most cases sold by their own families in exchange for money. So making this movie was equally important to me as it was to my husband.

What was it like to produce your first full-length feature film?

It wasn’t easy at all! Because I had no prior experience in making a feature film before, it was extremely difficult to find a co-producer as I was still rather unknown in that sector, and actors wouldn’t trust someone unknown to deliver a payment after the final day of shooting. It was also difficult to know where to go to for funding and we urgently needed money! We began with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism but didn’t have any luck. We then approached various NGOS and intergovernmental organizations to which the International Organization of Migration (IOM) answered. It was great because as they work on migration issues internationally, they understood our film well and decided to offer us some funding. Even though their contribution was not huge, their help was essential. Additionally, as my husband is from the Black Sea Region and many wealthy successful people live there, I contacted various rich and famous business people living there to ask for their financial help. To my greatest joy, many gave us their support. Also, as I am from the retail sector, many retailing companies knew me and offered their help for free, which means all of our dressing material and make-up was given to us. As for the actors, my husband used his contacts from the Black Sea Region and we found amazing professionals. Alma Terzić who plays the trafficked woman from Ukraine is a very popular actress who plays in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. As for the film’s male protagonist, Oktay Gursoy, he is a well known and very much liked Turkish soap opera actor. We filmed in the Turkish city Trabzon as well as in the Greek Santa ruins at the border of Trabzon-Gümüşhane and, despite having little time due to financial constraints and a temperamental weather, the shooting went well.

How did Turkey and other countries react to the movie?

Well to begin with, it was difficult to find any movie theatres willing to play our film as it didn’t fit into Turkey’s beloved comedy genre. In the end we succeeded to play our film in 77 theatres - we didn’t lose any money and we didn’t earn any money! But in terms of reviews, we received great coverage from Turkish press. And then something really amazing happened - we received an award from Greece’s Peloponnesian Corinthian Film Festival and received the Best Foreign Film award from Canada International Film Festival. We were even asked by a viewer from Greece to show the film everywhere in their country as the movie is also set in their old town Santa. It was also extremely well received by Ukrainian women after the screening at the International Kiev Film Festival. They would often come crying to me expressing their gratitude over Ukrainian women’s atypical portrayal on screen – that is in contrast to powerless or entrapping prostitutes. Our film was then selected in many prestigious festivals including the Women’s International Film and Arts Festival in Miami and will be screening this June at the Moscow International Film Festival. I am extremely pleased because what matters most to me is that our film is being viewed by a multicultural crowd, enabling them to understand some of Turkey’s history and women’s unfair treatment. It makes me wish I started being in the film industry 20 years ago, by now I’d be well known and have networks! My husband and I will soon be working on another documentary film project which touches again on migration issues. But if I’ve learned one thing is that you need to secure funding before you do anything – otherwise you lose your health and your mind – you go crazy! I am very hopeful for the future. Having just seen “Winter Sleep” produced by EWA’s Vice President Zeynep ÖZbatur Atakan and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it makes me so proud to be from Turkey. Of course you work extremely hard in this industry, but what could be better than seeing your dreams come alive on screen?