Smuggling equipment

We contacted several camera stores in Turkey and did the math: it actually would be cheaper for us both to fly back to the U.S., buy our equipment there, and carry it in to Turkey. We also realized that we would need to have dozens of meetings with cameramen and potential interview subjects, which meant that we would need a phone and a computer, and that we’d have to move out of our island of Heybeliada, which was too remote to use as a base. I almost cried when packing.

We moved in with Dilek in Bostanci, and her doorman immediately disappeared. It turns out that he absconded with the money which he collected from the tenants to pay the utilities for the entire apartment building, and this had been going on for months. The day we arrived, the electric and gas companies terminated the services for the whole apartment complex, the doorman was gone, and everyone was dark and cold for three days until they could gather enough money together to pay the utility companies. I was also sick, and I was sleeping in Dilek’s freezing apartment.

When pow

Atatürk International Airport. Istanbul.
Image via Wikipedia

er came back on, we were rewarded with something delightful on TV at her house: a broadcast of the world weightlifting championships in Finland. (Turkish Radio and Television showed it, of course, because Turks rule in weightlifting and wrestling. Turks also hock loogies really well on the street, but as of yet, there are no international competitions in that sport.) Despite the event’s formidable list of corporate sponsors, the buzzers and lights in the contest kept breaking. Weightlifters doing the clean and jerk got confused when the light went on to signify a successful lift but not the buzzer, or vice-versa. The highlight came when this Italian guy named Feri, a huge bear of a man, lifted a 200-kilo weight over his head and neither the lights or the buzzer worked, so he just stood there for an eternity, his face turning every color of the rainbow, and finally he dropped the weight to the floor and gave the judges an extremely confused look. That confusion turned to anger, however, when the judges, in their wisdom, ruled it a “no-lift” because he dropped the weight behind his head instead of in front of his body. (After holding 200 kilos over your head for a full minute, I suppose you wouldn’t care how you let it go.) After some discussion, they allowed him to do it over, which was very helpful of them, but the guy’s muscles were so fried that on his second try a few seconds later, he couldn’t ever get the weight off the ground, let alone to chest level or over his head! So he was eliminated.

We flew to the states on December 8, ran around for a few days (we had a small 30th birthday gathering at my parents’ house and bought camera equipment at B&H in NYC), and flew back to Turkey on the 14th, with lots of equipment in tow. We arrived at Ataturk International Airport and found out that our tripod was being sent to Seoul, and then to Thailand. This turned out to be a good thing, because even without the tripod, we had far too much equipment to get past customs in Turkey: we had no filming permits. I was nervous, but Elif walked right up to the customs police and innocently said, “I live in America and came here with my husband to visit Turkey. We’re going to the south, and I have a camera – does it have to go through customs?” The policeman looked at our huge train of luggage (including our light kit, gels, power supplies, digital video tapes, etc.) and asked, “What kind of camera?” Elif mimed placing it on her shoulder and said, “You know, those things you carry on your shoulder like a camcorder.” They waved us through, and the tripod arrived two days later.

However, there were two immediate minor setbacks. The battery for the camera was defective, which meant that we had to get a new one and mail back the old one, which would cost some money and take some time. Also, Dilek bought a bad, bad batch of bottled water, containing trace amounts of an unwanted additive: fecal excrement. I puked for two days, and lab results from a stool sample which I was all too ready to give confirmed that I had amoebic dysentery.

I researched questions to ask our speakers, and Elif determined whom we wanted to get. We wanted writers, journalists, professors, activists, prisoners, torture victims, politicians, and soldiers. We wanted people to tell us what life was like during the coups and after; what the street violence was like; talk about human rights issues and what jail and torture were like; how trade unions and teachers were targeted; how tribunals were run; how the coups were carried out; how the army is organized and indoctrinated on Ataturk principles; how they purge their ranks; how they run an interim government and a national unity council; and, above all, why the coups happen and how they differ from each other and from those in other countries.

We hired an assistant and called many of Dilek’s friends, and friends of friends, and eventually started cold-calling people. Elif arranged meetings and tried not only to meet with people, but also to get them to give us other contacts to interview, as well as permission to use their photographs and film footage. Our secretary was a little shy about calling politicians and generals at first, but she loosened up. (She was not shy about calling Bulent Tanor, her former professor on whom she’d harbored a crush.)

A few people we talked to at first were wary that I was an American. Nothing on CNN television or on the websites of the American media mentioned it, but Iraq’s been saying on Turkish TV that America and Britain have been dropping more bombs. They’re showing footage of the now-decimated Iraqi village of Cumhuriyet; the word means “nation” in Turkish, and apparently this is how we celebrate other nation’s sovereignty. Our bombing of Iraq makes me a little embarrassed, like turning on the TV to find out that your aunt, who had been rumored to be a bit of a klepto, just got caught shoplifting – and you’re living close to the store-owner. In the end, though, the fact that our film is to be an American production is proving to be an asset rather than a liability in getting people’s trust to speak on film; Dilek’s connections and Elif’s charm are of much help as well. Many of the film’s interview subjects had never before spoken on film about their experiences, and all are saying that this is the first film ever that will have people from all extremes of the political spectrum together to speak on the same project. Our interview subjects now include Constitution authors and professors; coup leaders; economics and criminal law professors; former death-row inmates; former mayors of Istanbul and Konya, and a Minister of the Interior; a former President of the Bar; Generals and military personnel; historians; human rights attorneys; journalists; labor union leaders; and members of government tribunals. If half of these people will be candid on camera, this is going to be one heck of a film.

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