“There was, and there was not. In an earlier time, when God had many servants, when the sieve was in the chaff, when camels were town criers, when fleas were barbers, when I rocked my mother’s cradle…”
For Western readers, these words might seem like the opening of a surrealist novel. For Turkish readers, they mean only one thing: “fairytale.” That is because these lines are the Turkish equivalent of “Once upon a time.” In his new film Anatolian Tales, director Emin Fırat Övür invites us to enter this strange and mystical world.
Övür lived in New York for eight years before returning to Turkey permanently in 2013. As he explains, fairytales were a way for him to rediscover his own identity. “When living in New York I tried to blend in, so I completely discarded my own culture. In the last couple of years there I realized that this is wrong – I should go back to my source,” he told The Guide Istanbul.
The majority of Turkish fairytales that we know today were first written down in the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire was breaking apart. Övür admits that the early Turkish Republic used these stories to redefine its identity as a new country. However, the director aims to reach truths that are much more profound than politics. “When I came back to Turkey in 2010 to make a film, I travelled around the country and spoke to people. I realized that fairytales actually say something really deep. Not only about culture, but about how people look at existence.”
As you would expect from the kind of universal truths that Övür mentions, they exist in similar forms in all cultures. But we can identify a pattern of migration, as he explains, “Most of the tales we know originated in the East and travelled to the West. And Anatolia is really a pool for all the tales from India, Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Greece.”
The hero's journey
On this subject Övür references the theorist Joseph Campbell, who stated that all fairytales contain the same stages or episodes. By looking at these stages Campbell proposed that all fairytales actually tell the same story, called “the hero’s journey.” But Övür notes that Anatolian tales have their distinctive touches and attitudes as well. “When you look at fairytales from different cultures, they have so many similarities. Take Snow White – Turkey has the same story but it’s called Nardaniye Hanım,” says Övür. “There are differences, like instead of seven dwarves there are forty thieves. But the main difference is that Anatolian tales have a different moral point. Also there are different approaches towards women, and Anatolian fairytales are not as violent as German tales.”
To capture this otherworldliness, Övür took inspiration from the visual language of filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. He also collaborated with contemporary Turkish artists such as Volkan Aslan, Tamer Nakışçı, and Erdal İnci who use their distinctive styles to portray different scenes in the film. “My question was, ‘How can I capture the imagination of the past with today’s imagination?’ When you read a children’s book there are illustrations, so I wanted it to be like that,” he says.
However, Övür emphasizes that we should not belittle fairytales by calling them “children’s stories” and excluding them from adult life. “We think that fairytales are for children, so we despise them and discard them. But if you just meditate on a small part of these tales, you can find really deep truths about life. It’s strange that we tell them to children at bedtime, because the stories don’t make you want to sleep – they make you more interested.” By underestimating these fairytales we strip meaning from our own lives, Övür believes, and deny ourselves ways of thinking that have survived for millennia. “In the world today we have an understanding that everything should be black or white. You are either modern or you’re a conservative-traditional person,” he says “But I believe we should make modern and traditional crash into each other and see what happens. Tradition has a deep wisdom about life. I notice that this spirituality, this ancient understanding of life, is disappearing.”
But the director does give some cause for optimism. Visiting modern storytellers such as Judith Liberman and Beyza Akyüz, Övür noticed that their groups are growing day by day. “We all reach for technology, but in the end we all need the one-to-one contact of storytelling. If someone starts telling a story in a café, people around will turn and listen to him. So now I’m using the new technology of cinema to tell these stories.”