“For a long time, I had no faith in success.” This is a somewhat unexpected utterance from İlker Çatak. After all, the 39-year-old filmmaker is responsible for the most celebrated German production of the year – the drama THE TEACHERS’ LOUNGE, which won prizes including Best Film and Best Director at the 2023 German Film Awards and was submitted as a national entry for the 2024 Oscars. He has recently been fêted for the film at the Telluride and Toronto festivals. He was sitting in Los Angeles during our Zoom interview, where he is busy discussing the Oscar campaign with US distributor Sony Pictures Classics.
But Çatak is not floating on clouds of euphoria. He sees this as a lesson from the early years of his career: “I know what it means to be unsuccessful.” After difficult early years, he made his short film SADAKAT about social conflicts in Turkey at the Hamburg Media School in 2014, with which he won the Student Oscar. After that, a straightforward career seemed on the cards. The coming-of-age film ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIAN COUNTRY met with a positive response from critics, but flopped at German box offices. “Before that, they butter you up so much, you think your job is a no-brainer. But then reality comes along and hits you hard.” Subsequently, he came to a conclusion that works like a “protective mechanism”: “We are here to make projects, not to bathe in success.”
It was only after the triumph at the German Film Awards that he slowly began to trust his own good fortune with THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE: “After that I thought to myself: What other surprises will this film have up its sleeve?” But he stays grounded, even now: “Michael Barker, the co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, said to me after the first screening in Telluride: ‘Everyone is talking about your film, people are crazy about it.’ I figured he was saying that because he wanted to make me feel good. But then the festival put on two extra screenings to keep up with audience demand, and all kinds of people said they wanted to see the film. Suddenly I thought: Maybe we did something right after all? At some point I have to start having faith in the film.” Nevertheless, first he had to adjust to pushing a campaign for THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE.
Actually, I‘d rather be shooting my next film, keeping on working. But I’ve forced myself to accept that pushing our film to win an Oscar is part of the job as well. That’s better than making a film that no one will see. I’m aware of the responsibility, needing to do the best I can for the German entry, and to get THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE plenty of visibility within the industry.”
At the same time, his American management is organising meetings for him with representatives of well-known production companies. As a result, he is already being offered material by foreign authors, and at the same time he is talking about his own ideas that he could set in the USA. But he is keeping a low profile here, as well: “None of this is ready for publicising yet.”
Currently, his main wish as a filmmaker has come true anyway. In May next year, he will be behind the cameras again as a director: The German-French-Turkish co-production YELLOW LETTERS tells the story of a Turkish artist couple who lose their jobs and livelihood following an arbitrary decision by state officials. “In the end, they face the question: Do you play the system’s game, or would you rather live in ‘poverty’ but be able to look yourself in the eye?” Like THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE, this existential story is an “experiment” for him, and initially “the form as well as the content are unsettling”: “I know I need to fathom everything out first, but I have come to see this uncertainty as something valuable.”
Once again, he will be working with his tried and tested THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE team, including producer Ingo Fließ, cinematographer Judith Kaufmann, production designer Zazie Knepper and many more. “I want to keep my film family. This also applies to possible English-language projects. My goal is to take the people who have shared this success along with me.” This also reflects his key experience drawn from THE TEACHERS‘ LOUNGE: “Film is all about an honest encounter with your collaborators. To have a deeper exchange that is ideally insightful. The aim is not to stand on the red carpet and win the Oscar, but to appreciate and consolidate what is happening right now, which is the process of making a film.”