İlker Çatak had been receiving reporters in a room in one of the Potsdamer Platz hotels since the morning, and I was assured by the PR people that my questions would feel fresh because they would be in English. I put this to Çatak himself when we say hello, in Turkish. Would he feel more comfortable in English or Turkish, I ask him, and also to consider that the interview will come out in an English language outlet. He is comfortable with all languages, he says and adds "I mean, Turkish, English and German." I don’t even seem to make a conscious choice as the interview starts in Turkish "so we are sticking with Turkish?" he asks "I guess" I answer.
There is one conceivable reason why I stick to Turkish. First thing I ask him is where the story came from and he explains that one of the central scenes in the film happened in his school in Istanbul. Having been born and gone to school in Germany up to two years of Gymnasium, Çatak continued his high school education in a German school in Istanbul, and so he is as relaxed in Turkish as in his native German.
After his German high school in Istanbul Çatak went to university in Berlin, and after a semester there knew that Economics was not for him. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he gave up school, partly inspired by the conversation he had at a job center where they asked him what he enjoyed doing and he said "going to the cinema" and then they asked "why not do something with that then?" Being a Capricorn, he says, he was stubborn enough to withstand the censure of his parents. I jokingly say "Capricorn, noted for future reference" and it is at this point that he says it feels great to be speaking Turkish after whole day of German.
When asked about his relationship with the Berlinale, the first adjective he uses is 'difficult'. He has memories of waking up at 5 in the morning to go to the ticket queue (tickets are all online now) and resenting the film students, who had their accreditation for the screenings. I ask him if his time at the Berlinale as part of the audience gave him a chance to chat with directors and other people from the industry "I was trying to market myself. It wasn’t a nice experience. As the Germans say, for years I cleaned the door handles of the film business. 'Klinkenputzen'. They were very hard years." This is Çatak’s first film at the Berlinale, after having submitted his shorts and feature films several times. When I tell him he has finally conquered the festival he says "Not yet. The film should have been in the Competition."
Çatak says they finished The Teachers’ Lounge last year and proposed it to a couple of distributors. "They said it was a good film but that they didn’t see international potential. And now the sales of the film are excellent. It has been bought in almost all continents of the world. In Turkey, Bir Film bought it and we have also been invited to the Istanbul Film Festival."
He says the project developed very quickly and that they were able to finance it easily because schools and pedagogy are very important matters in Germany. I ask him about the multicultural setting of the film, and how carefully he had to tread when writing the characters. He pauses a moment before he says that there is actually one moment he is not sure about and asks me what I think of it. "You know the parents of Ali, and how I’ve written them as conservative characters? Do you think it played to the stereotypes?" I tell him it didn’t strike me as ‘stereotypical’ that the parents were ‘conservative’, some parents are, and depicting Turkish parents as liberal by default would be an idealized approach. He also tells me about the thinking behind one of the female students: "For Hatice, I had in mind a departure from how women wearing headscarves are represented in German film. They are always given victim roles. But I wanted this girl to be a journalist, and in her role as a journalist she has an aggressive side too."
I ask him to place the school he’s set his story in by way of social class, reminding him that another German school depicted in the Berlinale, in Sonne und Beton, seems to be one of less privilege. He says the one in his film is a very middle middle class school, like the one that he attended in Germany, but definitely a rang lower than the German School he attended in Istanbul. "The German School in Istanbul was of course an elite school. I would not have been able to attend had I not had German citizenship." In the Gymnasium he attended in Berlin for two years, he was the only Turkish kid. If Turks living in Turkey know one thing about the experience of Turks in Germany, it is that Turkish children are discouraged, by their German teachers, from applying to Gymnasium. I ask him if that has changed since his own childhood. He replies with a hesitant yes. "At my school they used to boast: ‘this kid is the best student in the school despite the fact that he is Turkish’." ‘Despite’ we repeat in unison. "This is the sort of identity politics where this film comes from" he says.
I propose that the film tackles issues that are even bigger than identity politics and put the question to him "what is the film about?" He laughs "many things… but I think it’s about truth." The Turkish word he uses is ‘hakikat’ (indeed, a word of Arabic origin) which suggests more than truth -- a veracity, a truth that people will try to hide but which will come out anyway. "It’s about truth and how it can be bent as well" he now says in English, emphasizing truth’s fragility. He asks what I think the film is about and I say it’s about the walls that idealism hits. "If you must betray truth, you should betray it for a higher cause" he says about the film’s heroine, the teacher Frau Nowak.
I then wax lyrical about Leonie Benesch, who plays Frau Nowak, and ask him how he cast her. He says he’d been following her since her appearance in The White Ribbon and that he had her in mind when he was writing the script. "She reads the text, comes to the set, offers an interpretation, and her interpretation is so good, there is no need for a second take. Very precise." When I ask him if they ever compared notes about having gone to school to in Germany he explains that Benesch went to a Waldorfschule, a special kind of school that focuses on things such as dance and art, so she hasn’t really had the ‘public school’ education the film depicts. Fittingly, her character Frau Nowak seems to come from another understanding of education when compared to her colleagues in the film. Çatak says that he was very happy to give Benesch her first lead role "I find it hard to understand how she was not given a lead role before. She is extremely talented. But then maybe this says something about the industry, that other things supersede talent."
Casting the students was a longer process. Çatak held improvisation sessions with them for a couple of days. The task for the younger actors was, as ‘students’, to change the mind of Çatak (who played the teacher in the scenario) who has refused to let them go on a field trip. Out of this process he selected 22 actors and then worked with them one on one where he talked to them about the meaning of film making "that art, a film is bigger than us in a way, that it will exist when we no longer do." He talked to them about how they are a family, and how if one of them does not feel good, they need to take care of that. He seems to have inculcated the feeling of the family very strongly: "On the last day of shoot we were all in tears."
I tell him the chemistry of the cast comes across very clearly in the film, and that the story is very relatable, indeed, with excellent ‘international appeal’. Seeing that the film has already received an award in Berlin, and is set to travel to other places, it is certain to win more audiences, and make Çatak a household name.
Images courtesy of the Berlinale, used with permission.