In June 2013, İlker Çatak sat in front of his laptop in Berlin, feeling outraged. The son of Turkish immigrants was watching the anti-government protests in Istanbul‘s Gezi Park: “I thought to myself, ‘Actually, you should be there right now‘.“ But this virtual experience would not let him go. A year later, the young director shot his graduation film SADAKAT at the Hamburg Media School, in which he addressed the social tensions in Turkey and later won the Student Academy Award in gold.
This fundamental experience continues to shape the work of the now 37-year-old filmmaker: “If you haven‘t dealt with something in your life, you can compensate for it with film. It‘s a kind of outlet.“ But he is not concerned with banal wish fulfilment: “Filmmaking always has something to do with exploring boundaries. With a search, often diffuse, that forces you to think outside the box and leave your comfort zone.“
He has proved what that means for him with his three feature-length films, all of which push the boundaries in their own ways. ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIAN COUNTRY (2017) was a poppy, over-the-top coming-of-age story based on the novel of the same name by Nils Mohl, in which he deliberately sought to leave his political graduation film behind. “It was a journey into the blue, because I really didn‘t know what kind of film it was going to be.“
In 2019 a different kind of ‘poker game‘ followed – I WAS, I AM, I WILL BE, a relationship drama about a German pilot and a Turkish callboy: “It had so many themes that I wanted to recount properly. I had this crazy fear of simply being clumsy.“ A fear that turned out to be completely unjustified. The film was nominated for five German film awards in 2020 and received the bronze award for ‘Best Feature Film‘. Seen in this light, İlker Çatak was also rewarded for his credo: “You need to shape each of your projects so that you have to jump over another cliff. No risk, no fun.“
At the time, he had deliberately reduced the film’s formal means to be able to concentrate more on his characters. He continued along this path with his most recent film, STAMBUL GARDEN – also an adaptation of an initiation novel, specifically the bestseller of the same name by Finn-Ole Heinrich. In making it, İlker Çatak has been reflecting on his own youth – because the story of two unequal friends is set largely in Istanbul, where he himself graduated from high school. “I wanted to revive that sense of longing to see what life has to offer you after school. And it was also a reunion with Istanbul: the city is my great love-hate relationship.“ It was a particular challenge finding the two teenage leads. “In the end, it called for real detective work at youth theatres.”
Precisely because İlker Çatak is always looking for a new challenge with every project, he is never deterred by complications: “I try to stay calm, look at what the universe is offering me and how I can deal with it. It‘s not about implementing a fixed vision, by hook or by crook. As I see it, first and foremost a vision is about bringing good people together and giving them space to develop.“
Whether this continual exploration of new possibilities is influenced by his life between two countries is something he himself cannot judge: “It broadens the horizon, but I don‘t feel it‘s anything special.“ On the other hand, he did find his youthful encounter with films like Paul Thomas Anderson‘s MAGNOLIA more revolutionary: “That was a revelation because it was so completely different. And I thought to myself: ah, cinema can do that, as well.“
And so, he continues to explore the possibilities of film, even though he recently made a “guest appearance“ directing a TATORT episode. He is currently preparing his next cinema project – LEHRERZIMMER (The Staff Room), once again turning to a socio-political topic and pushing stylistic self-restraint even further with a setting limited to a single room. “I have more time to work with the actors“.
He sums up his path so far in the following way: “If ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIAN COUNTRY was a cocktail with brightly-coloured umbrellas, then I‘d like to arrive at a glass of water.“ But this will not be the end of his development by any means, as he knows: “I want to break new ground with every film and keep searching. I don’t even know what I‘m looking for myself. But that‘s not the point, either. It‘s about staying curious.“