Much like the dark undercurrents in our childhood fairytales, the most memorable children’s movies do not shy away from issues in the adult world. The success of director Ümit Köreken’s film Blue Bicycle, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, comes from a subtle, layered approach to the theme of social injustice. Inspired by the true story of a Turkish child who rebelled against his teacher’s intervention in the elections for class president, Blue Bicycle takes place in the director’s home district of Akşehir, part of Konya province.
Speaking to The Guide Istanbul, Köreken says the Akşehir of his childhood was a cultured place, known internationally as the home of comical wise man Nasreddin Hoca. But the children in the film find little entertainment in the forbidding Anatolian landscape, where their fathers survive through farm work. The conflict between the adult and children’s worlds begins when young Ali’s father dies in mysterious circumstances while working for the local farmer. After that, his love interest, Elif, is removed from her elected post as class president, and Ali plots with his friend Yusuf to strike a blow against the adult oppressors. They sacrifice the money that Ali had been saving to buy a blue bicycle and launch an anonymous campaign to have Elif reinstated.
Köreken explains, “Our sense of justice is one of the main themes of the film: searching for justice, finding justice, how justice can be achieved. One of the triggers in the film is the injustice related to the death of the child’s father. But the child doesn’t really know how to solve that injustice in the adult world, and he can’t intervene. So the children’s world finds a way of winning justice on its own grounds.” He elaborates with an anecdote from his own childhood: “I remember an interesting story. The men of the local ağa (rural lord) beat up my friend’s uncle, so he and his friend went to the ağa’s land and bit every eggplant in the garden. When you bruise an eggplant it’s no good anymore. That’s just the kind of justice that the children use in the film.”
The school principal illustrates the same idea with a story from Nasreddin Hoca. One day a villager sees Nasreddin looking for something on the ground outside his house. “What are you looking for?” asks the villager. “My house keys,” says Nasreddin. “Where did you lose them?” “In the house.” “Then why are you looking for them out here?” “It’s too dark inside.” A similar humor exists in the contrast between the children’s naive principles and the complex reality that adults have to negotiate.
Akşehir's got talent
A remarkable feature of the film’s production is that all of the children are actually from Akşehir, and the school principal is the real-life principal of the school in the film. “When we decided to make the film, we thought that if we’re going to film on location then it should also be an opportunity for the people there. So we made a radical decision to pick children from that area. Before filming, we worked with 400 children in Akşehir for about two years. By pre-production that number had dropped to about 100. But for two years we taught them the basics of acting and cinema. They were village children with no prior experience,” says Köreken.
Co-writer Nursen Çetin Köreken, who also plays Ali’s mother in the film, trained 100 local children over the four weeks of pre-production. “Actually we took the basic themes of the film and rewrote them with the children, without showing the script. They even designed the look of the campaign posters made by the children in the film,” the director says. They only decided which children would take the lead roles in the last three days before filming. Selim Kaya, the boy chosen to play Ali, was not expecting the call. “He didn’t stand out in the crowd, and you might even say he had a meek character. But his quietness also had an incredible strength.” Kaya went on to win the Best Young Actor Prize at the 2016 Olympia International Film Festival in Greece.
The three lead actors were overjoyed at being taken to the Berlin Film Festival premiere. This was part of the Körekens’ plan to make a lasting contribution to the Akşehir children. “They said it was like a dream come true. It was the first time they had been outside of their country, and they were there as part of the cinema industry, with a full salon. There was a lot of interest in the actors from the children who had watched the film, and they had a long queue for autographs. The atmosphere in that salon was fantastic. I think it opened a small window into the world for them,” says Nursen. In October 2016 the film won three awards at the Antalya Film Festival, Turkey's most prestigious festival, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Script.
Questions and praise
Despite the universal appeal of Ali’s struggle for justice, it is natural that aspects of the film have drawn questions from foreign audiences. Akşehir’s rugged vistas are far from the holiday towns so loved by tourists, and the social life depicted in the film is harsh and oppressive. The main shock for audiences so far has been the character of the principal and the martial discipline that he uses in the school.
“People asked whether the education system in Turkey is really like that. We took the school principal with us to Berlin, and the audience asked him directly: ‘Why is the principal so strict? Are all schools run in this military style?’” says Köreken, explaining that this was the form of discipline that he experienced as a child, and the film does not necessarily reflect the schools of today. “The principal’s answer was that normally he isn’t like that, but the director wanted it that way.”
But now that the Akşehir children have had a taste of global fame, will they be content in their Anatolian village? Köreken cannot work miracles for them, but as an Akşehir native himself he does retain a relationship with the young actors. “This kind of work is usually in Istanbul, while the three main roles and the rest of the children are all from a village. There are a few children who asked us whether they could study acting or cinema, and we’ll support them as much as we can.”