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‘Hysteria’ Director on Struggles of Minority Filmmakers, ‘Mephisto’

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Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay’s suspense drama “Hysteria” offers a timely look at Germany’s diverse West Asian community and the subtle racism and hypocrisy that often permeates liberal discourse about immigrants and foreign cultures.

“Hysteria” centers on a provocative film being shot by a Turkish-German director about racist arson attacks on German migrant residences in the 1990s. When a Quran goes up in flames during the shoot, the Arab extras on set are outraged, resulting in a set fraught with tension. Caught in the crossfire, production intern Elif, played by Devrim Lingnau (“The Empress”), finds herself increasingly drawn into a whirlwind of shame and suspicion.

Mehmet Akif Büyükatalay
German Films/Marcus Höhn

Büyükatalay, who won the Berlinale’s Best First Feature Award in 2019 for his drama “Oray,” which likewise explores themes of Muslim culture in Germany, is among seven film professionals selected as part of this year’s Face to Face with German Films talent showcase campaign.

He spoke to Variety about his latest work and possible forthcoming projects.

“Hysteria” is produced by Büyükatalay and producer Claus Herzog Reichel’s Cologne-based Filmfaust. Pluto Film is presenting the film at the Berlinale’s European Film Market (EFM).

What inspired you to make this film?

“Hysteria” is the continuation of my discussion about media representation, especially the portrayal of Muslims. While with my debut film “Oray,”’ I tried to assert my right to my own, subjective perspective on Muslim life in Germany outside of the usual world of images, “Hysteria” is more about the responsibility and challenges in producing these images under existing social class relations and power structures — both by those who create the images and by those who become images.

It is an approach to the question of representation in politically and emotionally charged spaces of discourse and in times of far-reaching discussions about post-colonialism, racism and Muslim anti-Semitism.

To what extent does it reflect some of your own personal experiences as a Turkish-German filmmaker

It’s about the feeling of dependence and the resulting feeling of powerlessness. As an immigrant filmmaker, you not only fight against racist and Oriental images that dominate the screens and minds, but also for the favor of the people who manage and distribute public funds. However, nearly all of them are socialized completely differently than I am.

They know my world and culture precisely through images and news. This means that between me and the decision-makers there are precise ideas about the world from which I come. And in this middle area a consensus has to be built. Without that there is no cooperation, there is no money. It is precisely at this point that a certain form of injustice begins.

The films that correspond to these old ideas and continue to reproduce them have it much easier than the films that want to explore, experiment and search for new images.

“Hysteria” looks at many aspects of the German experience of members of the Turkish and Arab communities as well as the attitudes of the liberal, westernized Germans of Turkish descent. To what extent did you want to explore the many contradictions and differences within these very diverse communities?

As in “Oray,” in “Hysteria” the biographies of the characters are complex and cannot be read within simple definitions of identity. They are biographies, not identities. Almost all of the characters in the film, including supporting characters, share the experience of not living in Germany for more than one generation. And yet it is impossible to generalize and group them together beyond just this one experience. They all have different desires, fears, values, goals and ways of dealing with conflicts. And this psychologization is part of my efforts for emancipation.

The burning of the Quran is seen differently by some of the angered extras. For some it is an affront to their religion, for others simply to their culture. How important was it for you to illustrate these nuanced views?

[The] burned Quran is [seen as] a sign of Western arrogance towards other cultures, an exploitation for its own purposes. It is also an expression of the West’s arrogant, ignorant attitude towards all non-Western cultures. But here too there is more to it than the purely post-colonial and racist reading. It’s about symbols. The point is that one and the same symbol can represent something completely contradictory to people who are socialized in completely different ways. Because burning a Quran is also a symbol. It stands for hatred of Islam or criticism of Islam. But it is also a symbol of freedom of expression, even if it is a hurtful, offensive one. Historically, Europe has developed a strong belief in absolute, almost religious freedom of expression, and this clashes with the religious belief that the Quran is the word of God and stands above everything. Suddenly two world views, two beliefs that have developed differently over thousands of years in different geographies around the world collide. And it is precisely in this coming together that the bang, the explosion, the inferno happens. And the person who has the power makes the rules and ultimately has the power to make decisions.

In “Hysteria,” a character accuses the director of making films in which minorities are presented as victims “just so Europe can have a clean conscience.” Do you share this view?

Yes, I share [the] opinion, although it’s not so universally applicable to all Western films. I feel like we would rather make a film about bad working conditions than fight against bad working conditions. These films create a calming catharsis that calms our conscience and our fighting rage. Otherwise I can’t explain why so many victim movies are made and yet the conditions hardly change or don’t change at all.

Do you see a need for filmmakers of West Asian descent to be more original, more independent or more radical, or is that very difficult, or even impossible, due to Germany’s film funding restrictions?

Absolutely. We need a radicalness in our search for form and questions. We want to be able to search without having to provide answers. It’s as if post-migrant filmmakers are under pressure to explain. “Explain your world to me, but the way I want to see it. Please illustrate what I’ve already seen in the news.” But is that what interests me? I first have to realize what I’m interested in outside of these expectations, then I can make independent and radical films. And it’s not impossible to make these films. However, it is an uphill battle, a constant assertion of oneself. When looking at the films made by post-migrants so far, it becomes clear that more films have lost this fight than have asserted their own vision. But every year around the world there are always new films that prove that the fight for good, complex films with their own vision is worth it. I take this as a good example.

What directors have inspired you?

In general, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are my absolute role models when it comes to their radicalism in their cinematic and human search as well as their depiction of social realities. But for “Hysteria” I used two other grandmasters as models: Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski. I even feel like I’ve compressed two Polanski films into one film — the psychological thriller elements with the chamber play elements of his films.

What are you working on next?

I am currently writing several projects. I would like to film “Mephisto” by Klaus Mann in the present, a great book about the lack of ideas, empty phrases and lethargy of artists in the face of the increasing right-wing threat and their subsequent adjustment after the seizure of power. And then I want to make a film in Hagen in which five cousins want to start a security company, but increasingly become what they actually wanted to protect the city from.

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