Ahmet Taner Kislali’s last interview

The cameramen were starting to drive me crazy. At first their goofball routine was cute; although they fried the power supply, it was fun trying to feed them (they didn’t keep Ramazan and generally ordered half of a restaurant’s menu as an appetizer) and watch them immediately spend the money I’d pay them (they’d buy utility items such as the videodisc of the film Ghostbusters 2). When they’d get too scared about the shoot, I’d have fun playing with their heads; I’d tell them that Elif’s father’s a judge and says they’re going to be arrested! But I became weary of the fact that they only come equipped with the basic youthful goals of wanting basically to drink, eat, have fun, meet girls, be free of supervision, do an easy job and have a happy life, without working or thinking too hard. Baris had just purchased a watch with an alarm that went off twice every hour. I told him about a dozen times to turn the alarm off, to which he always responded by shrugging his shoulders and giggling. Finally, during the Isvan shoot, the alarm went off again and I yanked the watch from his wrist. Metehan suddenly had the bright idea of injecting some visual life into the film by panning and zooming on our interview subjects. I knew that later we’d be having to weave a story out of hundreds of hours of footage, and that it would be important for the shots to match. I communicated this to them, at which point they asked Elif if I liked and respected them. Elif said it’s not a matter of friendship, it’s a professional issue, and both trust and companionship from me would come after a job well done. Since Elif came from the same culture and language as the cameramen, and since she was doing a splendid job directing, I spent the next week orchestrating my symphony (which is why I came to Turkey in the first place) while she did the Ankara shoots.

The following week, Elif filmed Oral Calislar, editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper. Elif thought he was very well-rounded for an activist so involved with the Kurdish situation; he wasn’t so wrapped up in it to think that the whole political situation in Turkey existed just to ruin his “cause.” While she was there, he had a cute telephone conversation with his son, a university student in Germany. Although he himself was due to go to court the next day to be sentenced to prison for his writings, his only concern was whether his son was making enough friends in college. He asked his son, “How are you doing? I’m worried about you – why are you home? It’s almost New Year’s; go out with your friends, go socialize – you can’t only study!” Although Calislar was very helpful and gracious, the rest of the people at Cumhuriyet were not. They weren’t nearly as forthcoming with their archives as were the other newspapers. Ugur Mumcu, one of their principal writers, was killed by a car-bomb two years ago; one heavily-armed guard took Elif’s car and moved it! The head guard asked Elif what TV station she was from; she answered none, and he insisted, so she said PBS. On her way out, the guard angrily stopped her, and told her, “The other guards have been laughing at me for believing you. Don’t think I’m stupid. I know there’s no such thing as PBS.”

When she arrived at Istanbul University to film Zafer Uskul and Toktamis Ates later in the day, she found out that there had been a riot in the cafeteria earlier in the day, with communist students fighting fascist Ulkucu students. There were stabbings and arrests. Istanbul University traditionally has been a hotbed of student activism, and the seen-it-all guard at the gate asked Elif (with a half-smile) if Elif wanted the guard to provoke any trouble (violence) with the students that would look good on film. Elif said no thank you.

Next was the filming of Ishak Alaton, the head of Alarko Holding and one of the richest people in the world. He talked about the “taxes” that then-Prime Minister Menderes imposed on the Jewish community in the 1950’s. Also, Alaton’s partner got murdered under very mysterious circumstances; he was a “multireligious” person, a kind of Jewish Moslem. He was praying in front of a saint at a graveyard and was stabbed at the gravesite.

Elif also filmed Abdurrahman Dilipak, a far-right religious extremist writer. He was, as was most of the other speakers, very gracious; he wore baggy pants and a long beard and, although of course he couldn’t shake her hand, he welcomed her. Nothing he said ended up in the film; he mostly talked about how the Illuminati (the CIA, CEO’s, the military, and the Jews) were running Turkey behind the scenes. After filming, he showed Elif his illegal side business: he makes fake National Identity Cards for women who are too “modest” to remove their head-coverings for photos (which you have to do for passport photos and Turkish ID’s). He takes their pictures, then scans them into the computer, then uses Adobe Photoshop to add someone else’s forehead and hair (his most popular “model” is prime minister Yilmaz’s wife), and finally he prints a photo that they can submit for their passports and ID’s!

From there, we were all off to Ankara for an 11-day shoot. None of us were happy to go there, and my first experience with the city was hate at first sight. Ankara is a drab city, a landlocked valley that is home to pollution, government buildings, one great museum, and not much else. I stayed in the hotel composing my symphony on a cheap keyboard I bought in Istanbul, and the others went to film Anatkabir (Ataturk’s tomb) and Parliament; Metehan and Baris were chicken, as always. They’ve been looking antsy lately, since our interview subjects are talking about getting blown up. When they arrived at the entrance of Parliament, a soldier wanted them to open the trunk of the car. Metehan was so nervous that he answered, “We have a camera but aren’t planning to film, really we aren’t… we don’t have guns or something!” Baris elbowed him and told him to shut up. The soldier opened the trunk and informed them that you’re not allowed to film without a permit; Baris called one of our subjects on his cell phone and put him on with the guard, and the guard let them in.

Elif describes the Parliament as being filled with people hanging around, with few seeming to be doing everything at all. It was hard to figure out what everyone was there for – secretaries chatting, rooms full of smoke, tea trays being taken from person to person (despite Ramazan)- it was hard to see what anyone’s job was; it was more like a big fraternity gathering. Elif filmed Atila Kaya, the head of the Ulkucus. The fascist party MHP had started the Ulkucus years ago as a youth wing; now the branch serves as a sort of “underground police” against the Kurdish minority, as well as an armed militia group and as bodyguards for right-wing politicians; they continue to support and promote the MHP. Kaya was very sensitive when he talked with Elif and would giggle, smile, and appear shy in front of her. He tried his best to let her not be intimidated by his bodyguards and let her know that he’s a normal, regular guy who would do anything for his country. Tevfik Diker was a member of Parliment from Ciller’s party, more surprising for what was going on around him than his on-camera talk about the nation’s founding fathers. Our filming was right before the elections, and he was making campaign calls. His telephone pleas in front of Elif were really pathetic: he would say to people, “I don’t have another job – this is my livelihood and how I earn my bread, there’s nothing else I can do, I have to be reelected.” Elif was surprised that although he was from a centrist party, he had a posse of proud and loquacious Ulkucu thugs surrounding him. While Diker was getting ready to speak, a thin, small man sat down next to Elif; he had a long Turkic moustache, and a goatee with nothing on the chin. He asked, “So who are you? I know a lot about what was going on during the coups because I’m an Ulkucu myself. I’ll do anything necessary. Anything.” And you could see by his face that he would. The last person Elif filmed at Parliament was Oguzhan Asilturk, who was generous, kind, and softspoken, with the highpitched and husky voice that lots of religious people have for some reason. He broke his Ramazan fast with water, and continued filming without breaking to eat something.

The next day, Elif filmed Turkan Akyol, who was elegant, what Turks would call zarif. She was well-educated, well-dressed, and well-spoken, but very sensitive; when she would tell her stories, her eyes would tear up.

She then filmed Ahmet Taner Kislali, the former Minister of Culture who was now a newspaper columnist writing articles about the connection between religion and organized crime. He was less emotional, but equally nice, as he traced how the Ulkucus and fascists became a Mafia in Turkey. (At first, the government paid them for killing leftists, but once the leftist threat vanished, they found ways to get “favors” from the government. Ultimately, they began drug trafficking to raise money for the army to fight the PKK in the southeast; once that war began to die down, they’ve been making strange bedfellows with Islamic extremists.) Like Akyol, Kislali was extremely articulate but fortunately not a “pro” at interviewing – when his cuckoo clock went off mid-sentence, he gave it a cute, mock-angry look, but didn’t know to repeat his last sentence when the bird went back inside the clock. Later in the shoot, there was a power outage; after drinking Nescafe for awhile, they realized that the power wasn’t about to come back on, so they resumed shooting on battery power even though the color balance would be off. When Elif and Kislali parted ways, he was heading out to pick his daughter up at the airport.

A few weeks later, he found a coke bottle sitting on top of his car. When he went to remove it, his car exploded with such force that pieces of his watch were found in his skull, and bits of his brain were scattered all over the street.

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