Between his 2010 feature film debut Gişe Memuru (Toll Booth), and the Grand Jury Award for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 for Kelebekler (Butterflies), film director Tolga Karaçelik has become one of the most respected personas of contemporary Turkish cinematography.  

By Zeynep Ardağ

Turkish cinematography is nothing new to international audience. After acclaimed film directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoğlu received awards at film festivals in Cannes and Berlin, the spotlight is on independent filmmaking and Tolga Karaçelik, who won the Grand Jury Award for World Cinema at Sundance last year for his family-centric drama Kelebekler (Butterflies).  

Although Karaçelik studied law at university, writing had always been his passion, with a focus on short stories and poetry.  The need to expand creative horizons came in his early 20s. “I realized my writing was largely repetitive and I needed other mediums to express myself,” Tolga Karaçelik told The Guide Istanbul. “That is how cinema came into my life.” 

Tolga Karaçelik

After graduation, Karaçelik moved to New York to study cinema, where the faculty took notice of his imagination and unique style. Two short films he shot during this period were chosen as the best films of the school. While he was offered an opportunity to remain in New York, Karaçelik chose to return to Turkey to continue his cinematic journey at home. 2010 brought a big break and release of his first feature length film, Gişe Memuru (Toll Booth). Depicting the monotonous life of Kenan, a quiet and introverted toll booth operator who has little interest in social interactions and who suffers from hallucinations and mental breakdowns, the film focuses on alienation as a result of modern life. 

Stills from Butterflies

The film, ultimately awarded the Golden Orange Award at the Antalya Film Festival, was a reflection of Karaçelik’s life at the time. “When I wrote the screenplay of Toll Booth, I was in a period of my life where I felt stuck,” he explained. “Generally, all of my films come out as a poem first and a screenplay second, giving me time to think on the emotion and the feeling of the movie.” 

Released in 2015, his second feature film Sarmaşık (Ivy), is a psychological thriller with strong political undertones and tells the story of the crew of a bankrupt cargo ship who got stuck onboard for months as they slowly sink into madness and violence due to the isolation. The microworld Karaçelik created in the movie was a mirror reflecting the social conflicts seen in the world. “The idea behind the film was the answer to a question I had long been pondering: what would an authority who lost power do to continue to rule?” he explained. 

Stills from Butterflies

Personal stories 

After recognition at Sundance, Karaçelik’s third feature film, Butterflies, has quickly become the talk of the town, with interview requests coming from all over the country. However, the story behind it is one of the director’s personal grief after the death of his beloved uncle Mazhar. Coping with the tragedy, it took him five years to complete the screenplay. “Writing this film was my way of burying uncle Mazhar in my heart,” Karaçelik said. 

The film focuses on the story of three siblings who reunite after receiving a phone call from their father with whom they lost contact 30 years earlier. When they return to their home village, trying to fulfill the responsibility to bury the father who has already passed away, they uncover past traumas they had tried to forget over the decades. “This is a film about believing,” Karaçelik explained. “Believing in belonging to a family, believing in being loved or not, believing that the other person wants to be your brother, and even faith in God.” 

Tolga Karacelik on the film set

Blending different genres, as the ups of comedy and downs of drama are reflective of everyday life, Karaçelik deals with the difficult topics by using elements of black humor and slapstick comedy in his family drama. The film’s production included lots of ups and downs as well, particularly on the financing side. To make his vision come true Karaçelik launched an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign to cover post-production, music, and film festival costs. Although it did not raise as much money as he hoped, it paid off by raising awareness about the film and built a community around his work. “With this film, I realized what a great audience I have, an audience that many other directors would envy,” he said. “Not only did they give me support on social media, but they sent letters and emails to cinema owners requesting that Butterflies be screened in their cities.” Thanks to them, the film was shown in the Turkish cities of Edirne, Çanakkale, Edremit, Denizli, and Van. 

As a principle, Karaçelik strives to create films that are recognized by both critics and everyday movie goers, building with his audience a deeper connection. “I shot the film I would love to watch,” he said.

Butterflies