Born and raised in Turkey, Nisan Dağ is a writer/director who started her storytelling journey as a teenager with animated shorts. After graduating from Columbia University’s MFA Film Program, she co-directed her feature debut “Across the Sea” (2014). The film competed at the Warsaw Film Festival, won several awards at festivals, including the Jury and Audience Award at Slamdance and Best Director at Milano. She directed a documentary episode for MTV’s “Rebel Music Series” in 2015 with rappers from Istanbul’s slums, which led her to write and develop her second feature, “When I’m Done Dying” (2020). It premiered in Competition at the 2020 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, where it won the Best Director prize.
Tara Karajica talks to Nisan Dağ about “When I’m Done Dying” ahead of its screening at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Nisan Dağ: Filmmaking has always been about storytelling for me. I remember making up fantastical stories in my childhood and telling tales to younger friends whom I convinced my magic worlds to be true. My parents frequently had friends over at our house and their kids were around my age. I’d write two-three-minute scenes for the kids and I’d have everyone’s dialogue written in different colors for them to follow, we’d rehearse those parodic scenes and finally present it to our parents at the end. Looking back, I realized that I started “directing” with these games. I continued telling stories in my late teen years with animated shorts and finally landed on the live action form in my early twenties as I experienced the bliss of working with actors.
How did When I’m Done Dying come about and what attracted you to the Istanbul hip hop scene?
N.D.: In 2015, I directed a documentary in Istanbul where I discovered the Hip-hop subculture in the city’s rough slums. What fascinated me was beyond the Hip-hop culture itself, but what it meant for the impoverished communities in the city. Especially for the youth, rap is a vocal weapon, a force that gives them purpose and power to keep pushing. Hip-hop is literally a savior for the youth, who battles with the difficulties of their habitat – one of which is the drug addiction issue. The cheap and deadly synthetic drugs are sold at every street corner like candy, easily accessible. I spent nearly two years in the slum I filmed the documentary in and I witnessed bright kids fading away because of addiction. On the other hand, I saw many who chose to hold onto their passion for rap music, graffiti or Hip-hop dance and built a good life for themselves. Inspired by the positive influence of Hip-hop culture on the youth, I wanted to make When I’m Done Dying, hoping to touch some lost souls.
The use of music is central in the film as a possible way out of despair and addiction, in spite of Fehmi’s dreams becoming more and more difficult to achieve. Can you comment on that?
N.D.: Fehmi withholds his biggest enemy and his savior within himself, those are respectively his addiction and his passion for music. His inner battle between these two forces is the reason why I say the film is like an “emotional rollercoaster” with many ups and downs. That’s what it’s like to be an addict. I actually went against the conventional three act screenwriting format in writing the script. The structure of this film resembles the turbulent journey of an unstable addict. Even when Fehmi decides to stay away from drugs, and even when everything in his life seems to be going alright, still there are moments where Fehmi doesn’t know how to cope with excitement or positive feelings without drugs too. As difficult as it may be to overcome addiction, Fehmi’s passion for music is just as strong to keep us hopeful throughout his journey. Deep down, the audience will hope and believe that Fehmi can find his way out of addiction.
You show the contrast between the local youth subculture along with its growing problem with the deadly drug and the highly conservative and judgmental society. Can you elaborate on that?
N.D.: The youth in these highly conservative slums discovered the Hip-hop culture thanks to the Internet, but the Western culture didn’t find its way to the world of their parents. This only made the dichotomy more rigid between the two generations. In slums where people like Fehmi live, music is seen as the “devil’s work” by their parents and being a rapper is not perceived as a real job. Fehmi’s parents don’t believe that he can make good money from music, they don’t see it as a future for him. Only now in the last two years where rap music became a huge trend in Turkey, older generations are warmer towards the genre but the religious pressure is still a factor. If people are drinking alcohol in a venue where a musician is performing, that cannot be perceived as a “halal” way of making money. The reflections of being raised in such a religious community are present in the young generation too, regardless of their modern and western influences. I’ve met youngsters in the slums who felt guilty consuming alcohol because it’s mentioned to be a sin in the Quran, but they had no reservations in doing drugs because the holy book had not mentioned the drugs. This is just one example that illustrates the scope of tremendous religious pressure the youth in conservative slums deal with.
Despite being directed by a female director, this film is very male-centric and everyone is over-willing to forgive him, which I am not sure would happen with a female character. Can you talk about that?
N.D.: I think gender should not define the way a director is expected to choose their protagonists. The only lead I follow is my heart when it comes to which character and story I pick for my films. Being a woman in the film industry already puts a lot of weight on our shoulders and one thing we don’t need on top of that is the pressure of a mission attributed to women to tell stories only about women. The female perspective will be naturally embedded in my films regardless, as I identify as female and that shapes how I perceive the world. When I’m Done Dying has a male protagonist, but the film naturally has a female perspective. I believe that is just as valuable as making stories centered on women. Fehmi is a lost soul and a vulnerable boy, and Devin is the sane and resilient woman who is the source of inspiration for him. In most male centric films created by men, we won’t see female characters like Devin who are in a powerful position to rescue men. Despite their passionate love, Devin knows when to let Fehmi go because she has the willpower to stick to what’s best for her, so she is not forgiving Fehmi endlessly. Throughout their relationship, Devin also challenges Fehmi’s old-fashioned views which are shaped by the patriarchal society he was raised in. She refuses to change or adapt for his ill standards. I’ll actually admit that while writing the screenplay, I tried to avoid “judging” Fehmi throughout earlier drafts and I worked on making Devin less of a saint, whom I was constructing as a “perfect woman.” I just want to look at my characters from a very human, eye-level point of view, regardless of their gender. When it comes to Fehmi getting second chances, he has this quality of naive charm, you can feel his good heart underneath his ill choices and that is why he is repeatedly forgiven. I think these are gender-free qualities and if Fehmi were to be a woman, everyone would still be willing to forgive her. I think everyone deserves a second chance in life.
You use animation to go in Fehmi’s headspace when he is high and show us what is inside is as much a nightmare as it is any form of release. Can you comment on that?
N.D.: This cheap deadly synthetic drug called Bonzai is made of several chemicals including rat poison and its effects increase the more you smoke it. It starts off as a nice relaxation and reduces motor capabilities, but quickly escalates to death trips. Bonzai makes people perceive the world as scarier and renders everything around them as a threat to their lives. Its deadliness comes from increasing the heart rate, so much that people have fatal heart attacks. I’ve never tried this drug, but I’ve closely witnessed people under the influence in the slums and spoke to them about the experiences. That’s why I choose to use dark and gritty hand-drawn animations to illustrate Fehmi’s nightmarish visions.
It had always been baffling to me as well, why would someone use a drug if its high is so miserable? I’m sure there are many answers, but I think one major reason is escapism. This drug is popular among the impoverished communities and I came to believe that the difficulties that people face in those neighborhoods probably feel worse than the death trip of the high. I think it’s similar to the case of people who cut their arms to feel something. Also, I should note that Bonzai is extremely addictive, so kids who use it a few times out of curiosity could end up being hooked to it too.
Can you talk about the collaboration with Da Poet? How did he get on board?
N.D.: I started listening to a lot of Turkish rap in 2015 and Da Poet quickly became one of my favorites. When I decided to make a film about a rapper, Da Poet was the first name on my mind for the film music. I sent him the script and he said he was impressed with the accuracy in my depiction of rap culture in the back alleys of Istanbul, and he also found familiar elements from his life in the world of the story and had a connection to the project. We started working on the beats in 2018.
Jessica Caldwell is your producer, which makes the film an American co-production along with Germany and Turkey. Can you talk about that?
N.D.: I’m a long-time collaborator with Jessica Caldwell. We met at Columbia University in 2009, became close friends and started working together on short films. When I’m Done Dying is set entirely in Turkey, yet like many peers, I wished the film to have a universal resonance. I believe that having an international key team is an essential factor to achieve that, aside from having a universal story. Having started my journey as a filmmaker in New York, I wanted to continue making films with the same indie American spirit even though my stories took place in Turkey. I’ve collaborated with peers from USA in both of my feature films. There were challenges in combining a Turkish-German European co-production with the indie American filmmaking structure on technical levels. The two are not very compatible and it’s quite an unusual combination in Turkey, but our hardworking team of producers pulled it off.
John Wakayama Carey, your d.o.p., worked on your first feature as well. Why was it important to continue this artistic partnership on your second film?
N.D.: I’ve worked with John Wakayama Carey on my short films, my first feature and in the MTV documentary which led me to write When I’m Done Dying. We have a fantastic working relationship, he’s incredibly talented and I completely trust his instincts. I didn’t want to let go of such a great collaboration once I found it, as I think it’s not as easy to come by. It was also very valuable that he was filming with me while we did the MTV documentary, so he witnessed my inspiration first-hand and he knew the genesis of the film already. He knew exactly what it looked like, the world I was trying to create.
There has been so much talk about the situation of women in film in the past three years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Turkey?
N.D.: The gender inequality and harassment towards women have been serious issues in Turkey as they have been around the world. Given that Turkey is increasingly becoming a more patriarchal society is also not doing women favors in this matter. Watching the #metoo movement take off and grow has inspired women in Turkey too. A local movement started in 2018, called #SusmaBitsin translated as “Speak up to End It,” initiated by women film professionals to fight against sexual harassment and discrimination on film sets. It has become a platform of solidarity with hundreds of women. Women are inspiring and empowering each other. More women started speaking up, taking strength from the act of other women. Men now understood that fame and power won’t help them get away with their wrongdoings anymore. They can’t sleep at night, fearing they might be the next ones to be exposed. There’s actually a new hashtag trend that arose with the local movement called #UykularınızKaçsın which translates as “Hope You Can’t Sleep at Night” referring to this situation. Women in Turkey are now stronger than ever, despite the worsening socio-political trajectory. The #SusmaBitsin movement gives me so much hope for the future of Turkey. I believe in the fantastic women of my country, and it’s so inspiring to see how strong we are when we stick together.
Do you have a favorite female film director and a favorite film by a female director?
N.D.: One of my first influences is Maya Deren actually. I remember watching Meshes of the Afternoon at the age of seventeen and it lit a bulb in my mind – her stylistic aura influenced my animated shorts. One of my favorite filmmakers in the world is Andrea Arnold. I love Fish Tank and American Honey – they are among my all-time favorites. Andrea Arnold has been a role model and an inspiration to me. I also admire Greta Gerwig, both her work as a filmmaker and her sincere, non-pretentious persona. I like how she doesn’t try to fake a “serious, harsh, stereotypical director” attitude. Sometimes, female directors feel the need to compensate the inequality in the industry by being extra cold and rigid to be taken seriously. I constantly fight not to adopt this defense mechanism. I believe directors need to be in a free and comfortable state of mind, especially on set, for the sake of creativity.
What are you working on next?
N.D.: I have finished writing an eight-episode series set in Istanbul, following idealistic actress Umay in her mid-thirties, who chases TV gigs to pay the bills. The series portrays what it is like to be a woman in today’s Turkey, the bullsh*t, sexism and harassment in the industry, while also taking a look at the spectrum of “modern men” of today through Umay’s one-night stand relationships. Think I May Destroy You meets Master of None. I’m also developing my third feature. It takes place in a dystopic future Turkey where women’s rights are nearly nonexistent, almost like a Turkish Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Nisan Dağ.