2016 Berlinale Interview: Mete Gümürhan Director (Young Wrestlers)

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YOUNG WRESTLERS explores the friendships, triumphs, and struggles of a group of fiercely determined youngsters, most of whom come from poor families who see wrestling as a path to a better life; including the motherless Baran, who struggles with his weight, Harun, a strong contender who is bulimic, and Ahmet who is in awe of his older brother, an Olympic wrestler.

This documentary marks a directorial debut forMete Gümürhan, a veteran international producer whose unique background blends diverse cultures, and who has created award-winning international cinema that is a perfect bridge between East and West.

‘Young Wrestlers’ debuts at the 2016 Berlinale on Wednesday, February 17, with additional screenings that Thursday and Saturday, as part of the festival’s Generation KPlus program. Anticipating its debut we caught up with the film’s director Mete Gümürhan to get a better understanding of the academy and the film.

Find more information and tickets to ‘Young Wrestlers’ at the 2016 Berlinale HERE

Genç Pehlivanlar/Young Wrestlers Berlinale Teaser #1 from www.kaliberfilm.nl on Vimeo.

How were you first introduced to Amasya Wrestling Academy? What is/was your relationship with the school (aside from filmmaking)? Why did you feel there was a story behind the school that you wanted to tell at the feature length level?
Originally we wanted to follow two boys, who had just been selected to join the Amasya Wrestling Academy. These were two brothers from a very poor family. Although the father of the boys seemed to be ok with his children being filmed at first, he suddenly completely turned around and claimed he thought I was coming to abduct his children. Did he really think I flew from Amsterdam to Istanbul and drove for 9 hours just to kidnap his kids?! So because we couldn’t film his kids, we went to the school they were supposed to go to and started filming there. In the end it turned out the father had just wanted money, and had made up the kidnapping story to get us to pay. But by that time I had fallen in love with the school: it was stunningly beautiful to me – both the surroundings and the relationship of the students with each other and their trainers. And there were 26 kids! So there was enough material for multiple feature lengths films.

Who are some of the academy’s most esteemed graduates?
The best example of a very esteemed graduate is probably in the film: trainer Ramazan himself is a former Olympic silver medalist and European Champion. And the principal of the school was Ramazan’s former trainer. Actually, there are so many amazing stories at this school that also have to do with the trainers. It was hard sometimes to stay focused on the story of the children and not get distracted by the stories of the adults. But the stories of the adults were just that – stories. They could tell them, but the children were living their stories at that moment. That was both emotionally and visually so much more powerful.

In your experiences with the professors, students, and families, how do you gauge the competitiveness of the academy? What I mean here is, not so much “in the ring,” but rather amongst the students and their families. Do you say it is a “healthy” competition?
You know, every environment in life is competitive. The older we get, the more competitive life gets. So I believe that this competition is actually a good preparation for the rest of life. And while the training is hard and tough, after the training the trainers really tend to the kids. They tell them that they are doing well, that they are strong and can take this, that they will be able to achieve what they want to achieve. So although the trainers are always fair and encourage competition, the overall atmosphere at the school is actually very homey and loving. I think that is very healthy, indeed.

Was there a single moment where you thought to yourself this was the film you wanted to make? What I mean by that is: did anything particular happen or did you hear a particular story that you wanted to explore deeper?
Well, as I told you we ended up at the school almost by accident. But I got excited about it right away, already when we drove into the town. It was this grey town, surrounded by these beautiful green mountains. And when we drove up to the school – this place where this very macho sport was being practiced – the building turned out to be pink! All of these contrasts were very interesting to me. But I guess what triggered me most was the alternative family the kids and the trainers made up. The fatherly principal, the trainers taking on the parts of both father and mother, all of these kids living as brothers.

With many subjects, was there ever a story that was particularly memorable (or, impactful) on you? Perhaps a human story that you may have not seen coming but one that elicited a strong emotional response from you as a filmmaker and human?
I think it was the image of Baran that, unfortunately, didn’t make the final cut of the film. He was late for the first training, and he literaly came running. This kid with a belly wobbling along, holding his soccer shoes, his clothes hanging out of a ripped plastic bag. I recognized myself in this kid. Even more when I later learned that Baran’s mother had passed away and he was raised by his grandfather and a very absent father. Although my mom is alive, I really identify with him and his situation. So I guess I identify with Baran physically now, while emotionally I recognize myself as a kid in him.

As a documentary filmmaker, what was your approach to constructing the narrative of ‘Young Wrestlers’? Did your approach to the narrative ever change or evolve over the course of production? How did you envision the visual aspect of the film when you first started? How did that strategy evolve over production?
You know, although my focus changed from the two brothers to the 26 kids, my plan was always to tell the same story. The story of these children forming an identity in a country that itself is experiencing an identity crisis. And the same goes for the visual aspect: I always wanted to avoid talking heads and a reportage-like style. So I always planned on a very cinematic approach, that didn’t explain much and just showed the lives and experiences of the boys.

Is there anything in particular you would like audiences to know/understand about Turkish wrestling or the academy?
Young Wrestlers was never meant to be a sportsdocumentary, so there is nothing in particular related to the sport that I would like viewers to take away from it. Moreover, ideally I want people to take away very different things from it. The film was intended as a slice of life of these very different boys, set against a background of political events that have transpired or are happening right now. I don’t want to impose anything on an audience. It’s they audience that decides what they see in the film. There are many things that go wrong and many things that go right, both in a political sense but also on the level of the lives of these boys. It’s for the audience to decide what they think about this. I’ve found that different people identify with different kids. So I hope that different people take away something from watching the film, too.

I have to ask (and, in no way do I bring this up out of disrespect or even playfulness) but oil wrestling in many Western countries has taken on a completely different connotation, whether it is highly sexualized or exploitative. Is the Turkish tradition aware of this? If so, how do they view it? Do they take offense to such depictions of such traditional activities?
I don’t believe that everybody in Western countries attaches this sexual connotation to this sport. As above, I think that different people see different things in the film. If they see or feel this connotation, it’s up to them. As for me, I don’t have this connotation, never have had this connotation and also did not film in a way to elicit this connotation.

What I do want to say, is that I think this connotation some people have may come from the fact that being physical with each other isn’t part of many Western cultures at the moment. Hence, sexual connotations are quickly made when people – and in particular men – touch. But I really see this touching as a very playful and loving thing that has nothing to do with sexuality and has everything to do with a parental and brotherly bond.

Aside from the film, you are Dutch of Turkish decent and your production company has offices in Amsterdam and Istanbul. Though I am American and our publication is mostly based out of NYC, I actually live in Amsterdam, so I wonder, how do you view the filmmaking infrastructure of Amsterdam. Also, what elements of what you learned/experienced as a film professional in the Netherlands did you bring to your Turkish projects and vice versa?
The Netherlands has a very strong youth film and documentary tradition, Turkey has a strong arthouse tradition. In Young Wrestlers I saw an opportunity to bring these two together. This was very natural for me, as these countries shaped me – both as a person and as a filmmaker. Hence I can’t really separate them, neither on a personal nor professional level. They make up too much of a whole: me as a filmmaker, living in Rotterdam, working in Europe.

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