Portrait of an Anatolian Quixote

in 7th Istanbul Documentarist

by Pamela Biénzobas

I had never heard of Ahmet Uluçay in my life. Not at least until a few days ago when I saw him walking on railroad tracks in the opening shots of Güliz Saglam’s A Dream School in the Steppes (Tepecik Hayal Okulu). An enchanting character started to take shape and grow on the screen, through archive material of him expressing himself through his own words, through tales and souvenirs recounted by others, and through the images born from his imagination.

Saglam did not set about making a hagiography of a singular artist, neither to expose the story of his life. She created a film that seizes its subject, not just in its content but also in its form; that shows Uluçay’s world by adopting a point of view close to his. That is, the point of view of someone who chose to never renounce to the amazement of a child discovering life. This basic (but often neglected) understanding that, even if it is about a creator, a documentary film is first of all a creation in itself, is what allows A Dream School in the Steppes to seduce so easily and draw the spectator into its surreal universe: one of concrete people and events, but also one that feels like a fairytale.

Those who, like me, discover this unique Turkish director through Saglam’s film, also learn that the reason why we only see and hear him in the past is because he passed away almost five years ago. The man whose existence seemed to find its meaning when, as a young boy, he saw a film projector for the first time, succumbed to a brain tumor. A Dream School in the Steppes draws on a wealth of precious material, since Saglam had accompanied him during key moments, before and after a successful brain surgery, offering Uluçay’s personal perspective on what he was going through. It also incorporates his lucid voice and view about his cinema and his particular choices in life.

The filmmaker who remained in his small Anatolian village and was never able to make a living through film, but persevered until his death, candidly exposes himself. We learn of his fascination for childhood (raison d’être of his art), for railroads that connect to the rest of the world, even of the way his illness informed his cinema, when the epilepsy that it had provoked inspired formal experimentation.

The innocence and the love of life leave no room for pathos or tragedy. The tone is at all times joyfully emotional and humorous, with a great deal of irony both in Uluçay’s words and in the construction of A Dream School in the Steppes, with its accomplished editing of the different material. Thus, through recent testimonies of his relatives and friends we learn that, even though he engaged his family and community in the creation of his films, he did not want his daughter and wife to go out to the screenings, and always found reasons to keep them confined inside their house. Also we understand to what extent, like so many fairytale characters, that he always yearned for the recognition of his father, for whom film was something strange but in no way a real, money-making work.

As the multilayered portrait intelligently unfolds, and the aspirations and memories of this Quixote of cinema acquire an epic dimension, comes the climax of Boats out of Watermelon Rinds (Karpuz kabugundan gemiler yapmak, 2004), the only feature-length film he managed to do, which earned him national and international awards — with some prize money: finally the acknowledgement of his status as a professional filmmaker). At that point, the archive images of the acceptance speech for the Best Turkish Film of the Year at the Istanbul International Film Festival appears as a most beautiful and moving memory of Ahmet Uluçay, thanks to the documentary’s insightful structure. What makes A Dream School in the Steppes a brilliant homage, that can also touch an audience who has no previous connection to Uluçay and his work, is that Güliz Saglam uses cinema to transmit a man’s love of cinema.

Edited by Steven Yates