Born in Istanbul in 1972, Pelin Esmer took an unusual route to filmmaking. The Turkish director, whose feature-film debut, 10 to 11, is playing in competition at the Middle East International Film Festival, says: "I studied sociology at the Bosphorus University and was quite interested in being an anthropologist. In the end I didn't think that being an academic would suit me. I came around to the idea that cinema was a better way of explaining myself. Although, I do think that studying anthropology also helped me to become a filmmaker because it really helped me to look and to hear, and then to take in the idea of someone."
Since taking classes from the director Yavuz Özkan, Esmer has been forging a successful career as a playwright, director and documentary maker. If that is not enough, she also lectures on documentary filmmaking. Her first documentary, Koleksiyoncu: The Collector, about her uncle Mithat and his obsession with collecting, won the Best Documentary Award at the Rome Independent Film Festival. She started to make 10 to 11 after the completion of her second documentary, Oyun, about nine peasant women from a mountain village in southern Turkey who decide to write and perform a play based on their life stories.
The drama 10 to 11 focuses on a friendship between a passionate collector, Mithat (played by Mithat Esmer himself), and Ali (Nejat Isler), the concierge of the building in which he lives. It's an unlikely friendship that has a heavy cloud hanging over it, as the owners of the old Istanbul building want Mithat to leave his home as they fear it is in danger of collapsing. Mithat thinks that this is a ploy to redevelop the house.
Esmer says: "It's a film that I wrote about someone I know very well. My uncle. I asked him to act in this as well. He has always inspired me, especially his perception of life and the idea of collecting - not in the sense of collecting in general, but the concept of collecting life." The film is often poignant and melancholic. Mithat is desperately scared that his life's work will be lost. The concierge is lonely because his daughter's asthma means that she cannot live in the building, and as long as Mithat stays in the building, the concierge cannot return to his family. Despite this, he has sympathy with the old man and an unlikely friendship forms.
"There is a darkness, of course," says the director, writer and producer. "It's very sad that someone has to leave a place we feel safe in. This happens to all of us. Sometimes we have to leave our house, we have to leave our country, we have to leave our partner, and they are all dark but real parts of life. We all have very different priorities. The film is actually more about our search for security. All of those people in the film, they are searching for the same thing and they find themselves in different places."
What is intriguing about the film is the way that all the conflicts come from small, almost commonplace, things. It's devoid of cheap plot points or action scenes. Esmer says of the aesthetic: "I think that the reality is in a way more fantastic than anything we can imagine. I feel like I'm quite well sated by reality. Not that this film is reality; I wrote a script and filmed it. Nonetheless, the fantastical aspects that surprise us about life are what really excite me."
The danger of this approach is that in recent years this type of film has struggled to find an audience outside the festival circuit. It's difficult for directors who want to tell stories that need to be championed in order to find an audience. Esmer puts across a different point of view: "Obviously it is not a blockbuster, but I'm also against this idea, this discrimination, this labelling that there is the art film and the blockbuster film. I believe in film. I don't believe in these distinctions. When a film is successful at a festival it doesn't mean that it is boring or incomprehensible. I want to tell a story that it doesn't matter where the audience is from, they can have their own special experience with it."
Blockbuster or not, people in love with the art of cinema should be grateful for the fact that there are filmmakers like Esmer out there who want to bring these stories to our screens. For videos, trailers and more on MEIFF, visit www.thenational.ae/meiff.