Innocence of Memories: director Grant Gee in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul
Innocence of Memories (2015) is a documentary film inspired by Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence. Director Grant Gee talked about the making of this movie.

In interviews, Orhan Pamuk has said that his memories of old Istanbul are so entangled with Ara Güler’s photographs that he cannot distinguish the two in his mind. British director Grant Gee was reading Pamuk when he first visited the city, making his film Innocence of Memories a triple-distilled vision – from Güler’s lens to Pamuk’s pen to Gee’s camera. The result is both real and otherworldly, starring the nocturnal alleys of Istanbul where fact and fiction play with each other like stray dogs.

Gee first saw Istanbul on a visit for the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival three years ago, and like many foreigners he was awestruck. Later reading about the newly opened Museum of Innocence, the director found a cinematic reason to return. The film reminisces on the doomed affair of Kemal and his younger cousin Füsun through the eyes of a minor character in The Museum of Innocence, Füsun’s friend. Thanks to the documentary feel created by Pamuk’s narration, even viewers who are familiar with the author’s postmodern inventiveness will question whether these characters were in fact real people.

“I increasingly got the feeling that Pamuk’s books were becoming a kind of literary SimCity,” Gee told The Guide Istanbul. “He’s setting up these characters that almost feel like documentary characters that he’s experienced over his lifetime, and finding ways to set them operating in the fictional world.” The film’s realism is bolstered by interviews with iconic actress Türkan Şoray, a long-time Istanbul taxi driver, and one of the waste pickers known in Turkish as çekçekçi. Commenting on another postmodern twist in events, Gee says, “Weirdly, the most metatextual thing that’s happened is that the recycling guy in the film, called Dursun, seems very much like the boza seller in Pamuk’s later novel A Strangeness In My Mind.

Innocence of Memories trailer

Shot exclusively at night, Innocence of Memories reflects a peculiar writing routine whose influence permeates Pamuk’s novels. “Orhan and I had a couple of long walks over the winter,” says Gee. “In his night-walking heyday he used to start writing at 8 or 9 o’clock at night. At 4am he’d finish writing and walk through the streets from his studio to his house. That’s when he mapped out a lot of that nighttime landscape.” The film’s dreamlike aesthetic derives from yellowish streetlights and evocative shadows, with minimal post-production changes to the colors that you can see in the actual streets at night. 

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted the street scenes to be empty, at night, like modern noir,” says Gee. “A very particular image reference was one of Ara Güler’s photographs from the 1950s: a slow shutter speed, slightly blurry shot of one guy in a trilby walking down a cobbled street, with a single street light on him. I remember thinking I wanted a mood like that.”

Filming after dark also challenged Gee’s cultural expectations of the city. Asked whether any locals approached them during shooting, he says, “No, never. That was one of the real delights about the shoot. I thought it was going to be full of incidents like that, people hassling us. And it didn’t happen.” A large factor in this trouble-free filming was the lack of drunken people on Istanbul’s streets, Gee believes. However, he also noticed some deeper cultural differences. “Istanbul has a strange mix of chaos and quiet resignation,” he says. “People aren’t so on edge, they just give you a slightly baleful eye and go on their way. For a place that’s so macho, I also find it quite feminine. People aren’t always challenging you.”

An exception to this accepting nature came when Gee mentioned Pamuk’s name to his taxi driver from the airport. “The taxi driver was a very conservative-looking man with a handlebar moustache. He asked what I was doing here and I said ‘Orhan Pamuk.’ He couldn’t even say what he thought, but he was shaking his head,” Gee recalls. When trying to find a taxi driver for Innocence of Memories, Gee had a similar character in mind. “When we first spoke to Süleyman, the driver in the film, he wasn’t sure about the idea. “I’m not going to judge him, but the things I’ve heard Pamuk say… You’ve got to be loyal to this country,” he said. Later Orhan was in the car with him and they got talking. At the end, the driver said, “Everyone should have the right to say exactly what they want.” It was brilliant to see him go from a conservative position to loosening up a bit.”