Filmmaker Mu Tunc describes his film, Arada, as “Liquid Sky meets The Decline of Western Civilization,” which, of course, automatically makes it worthy of attention. Mu Tunc will present his film at the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” exhibit on June 6 and at the Philadelphia Museum of Contemporary Art on June 9. Burt Kearns spoke with the Turkish director for PKM on the eve of his arrival in New York.
The message showed up in my inbox on April 1. “Hi Burt, I hope my email finds you well. My name is Mu Tunç, a film director from Istanbul. I recently found your insane article, ‘Zeki Müren, The David Bowie of Turkey.’ And I want to share my story with you because what you wrote was in my film and we thought the same insight… In my film there is a record store scene where they talk about Zeki Müren and compare him to David Bowie. I thought no one think it this way, however reading your article literally made me have tears in my eyes…”
Mu Tunç, a 32-year-old filmmaker from Istanbul, had gone online and found the PleaseKillMe.com story about the male Turkish classical singer who performed in elaborate feminine costumes, makeup and high platform shoes, who lived his life openly as a gay man in the 1950s and 1960s, and was not only accepted but revered in the macho, conservative Muslim country. In Tunç’s film, Arada, Zeki Müren is cited as an example of the artists who foreshadowed Turkey’s punk scene. “This guy was taking the stage on platform heels way before David Bowie was even around,” the record store owner explains to a young punk. “Look at that outfit. He spreads his wings like a butterfly.”
Arada, released in April 2018 in Turkey before hitting the international film festival circuit, is considered Turkish cinema’s first punk movie. Set in the 1990s amid civil unrest and the rise of Turkey’s underground hardcore scene, it tells of a young punk, the son of a former Turkish singing star, attempting to leave Istanbul to pursue his punk music dream in sunny California. Tunc describes his film as “Liquid Sky meets The Decline of Western Civilization.” It’s an accomplished work with DIY touches, reminiscent of Sean Baker’s Tangerine and John Cassavetes’ Husbands. When the music hits, it’s like the fall of Eastern Civilization.
The story is autobiographical, Tunç explained in a subsequent phone conversation hours before he boarded a plane for New York City, where he’ll present Arada at the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” exhibit this week. Our talk has been edited for space and tweaked to avoid losses in translation.
MU TUNÇ: My father’s name is Altan Tunç. He was a famous musician in the 1970s, performing Turkish art music. It’s what Zeki Müren was a master of. But then the coup happened, and they forced everyone to join the Army. Even though he had a university degree, that was the law. He went into the Army for 15 months, and when he returned — this is a time there was like, only one channel on television — no one remembered him. My brother was born when he was in the Army and then basically my father just had to earn money in order to support his family. So I grew up with him saying, “I’m going to return to music one day.” But that day never came for him. I see sadness in his eyes now. He didn’t follow his passion.
PKM: That’s a universal story.
MU TUNÇ: And that’s the crazy part! My brother is nine years older than me. And he basically shared the DNA. I don’t know if it’s a curse or whatever, but he ended up with music, too. He became a drummer. However, my brother’s taste was different. He found speed metal, and heavy metal and thrash metal — especially thrash metal.
When the music hits, it’s like the fall of Eastern Civilization.
PKM: This was in the early 1990s. How did American punk make its way to Istanbul?
MU TUNÇ: Cassette tapes. This is crazy, this part! I put this into my movie, but it was very fast: basically, how punk entered the country is through pilots. A bunch of pilots bringing in these weird records.
PKM: Airline pilots, right?
MU TUNÇ: Airline pilots. Yeah, like normal pilots. At that time, there were not so many ways of going out and coming back. So these pilots are really special people. They were going abroad and bringing back these records with them. And they were giving them away to people who have cassette shops. Then (the shop owners) would pirate and compile songs from a bunch of artists on cassettes. So my brother went to this cassette shop one day and he finds a compilation with a couple of very important American hardcore bands. One of them is D.R.I. (Houston’s Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) and the other one is Methods of Destruction, M-O-D (laughs). Surfin’ in the USA. And through that, he found American hardcore music. My brother and his friends, they were like 13, 14 years old, and they wanted to form a band. And they started the band Turmoil.
PKM: Was there a scene at the time? And was it really happening underground?
MU TUNÇ: The scene was so underground that no one even knew it existed. The kids were having concerts inside my family’s apartment building, in the basement without other people knowing. And they didn’t know that there were other people like them in other cities. Think about them like a bunch of kids in Harlem and a bunch of kids in Brooklyn, but they don’t even know that they exist at the same time.
PKM: That’s how it was in the early days of punk in the 1970s. You’d go to a Ramones concert and see somebody with a Ramones T-shirt and talk to them. Because you knew a kindred spirit.
MU TUNÇ: Here there were not even concerts. They were making fanzines and putting those fanzines into the cassette shops. That’s how they first found each other. And afterwards, they sent mail to addresses they found on the sleeves of records. It was a very common thing in punk culture. You look for addresses on the album cover designs. And many American hardcore bands put their addresses on the covers. They started to write back and forth in order to find a connection. It was like searching the Internet before the Internet. These guys are understanding the idea of Internet — but through punk music! And my brother’s band found the connection and released one of the first Turkish punk records.
(In 1996, Turmoil split an EP with the anarcho-Mexican-hardcore band Regeneración. The disc was released in Belgium and Mexico, and is still available online. Mu’s brother Orkan Tunc is a successful producer who’s worked with Janet Jackson and produced the Arada soundtrack.)
The scene was so underground that no one even knew it existed. The kids were having concerts inside my family’s apartment building, in the basement without other people knowing.
PKM: So you’re from a very artistic family. What about you? Your bio on IMDb mentioned your work with the McCann ad agency. Have you worked in the States?
MU TUNÇ: I’ve never worked in the States, but my way of understanding grew with McCann, which is a very important American advertisement company. I was dealing with Coca Cola, Starbucks, whatever you name, I worked it for them. Sony, Mobil — everything that is against punk, I was in it! I was not sharing my background, about me, about my family, that my brother was one of the first persons into punk music in Turkey. I was not sharing these kind of things, because I was ashamed.
PKM: You put all that into Arada?
MU TUNÇ: It wasn’t easy, what was I was trying to tell in the movie. I grew up being different. And being different is painful in Turkey. It can be painful in places like New York. But here it’s literally double that, or even triple or four times more hard. In my film, there’s a scene, a conversation in my house, where my father — and he’s a very liberal person — tells my brother, “You’ll not going to get married if you keep on being punk.”
This is harsh. This is too harsh. My mother was a teacher. So (my parents) care about education a lot and they sent us to private school. And I studied with full scholarship all my life. However, when I was a little kid, I was into punk. I grew up fantasizing about Los Angeles. I was listening to Suicidal Tendencies and all these crazy bands from LA all the time, like I was a Chicano punk. I was listening to Black Flag, Santa Monica bands and all these San Francisco Bay area bands. I was obsessed with Dead Kennedys. I was listening to all this stuff, but my taste was also making me feel alone. Because there was no one to speak to.
I was not sharing my background, about me, about my family, that my brother was one of the first persons into punk music in Turkey. I was not sharing these kind of things, because I was ashamed.
The first girl that I liked, her name was Jamie and she was from South Africa. Somehow her family was moved to Turkey and I ended up in class with her. And the reason why I liked her so much is because she asked me what kind of music I like, and I responded that I’m listening to punk music. And she understood. She said, “Oh, something like Green Day?” And I was like, “Wow.” Like finally, a girl understands me. And Green Day is the worst thing you can say to a punk person. Green Day normally makes you vomit! But it was the most romantic thing that I have ever heard in my life. (laughs)
PKM: You went on to study cinema. Where did you study?
MU TUNÇ: Istanbul. I studied design first. I come from design perspective. And I have a master’s degree in cinema, so I understand cinemology. That’s where I actually come from, that’s why I am aware this background of punk movies, all this serious stuff. Like Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan. They were pioneers of anti-hero movies. I wanted to make an anti-hero movie. That was my mission actually in the beginning.
PKM: Have you seen the movie Tangerine?
MU TUNÇ: I love Tangerine.
PKM: I thought of Tangerine when I watched Arada. The two main characters were on a quest — and that’s the movie they shot on iPhones.
MU TUNÇ: That’s what I want to do right now! Yesterday, I just finished a documentary about the whole process of making Arada. The reason why I’m doing that, Burt, is just to give hope to my younger generation. Just follow your passion, and follow your dream, you know? I know this is a very cheesy word nowadays, like all the brands are saying, “Be an influencer” or “Inspire people.” It becomes like chewing gum. But especially in my country right now, young people are really desperate. They’re even nihilist. It’s like even the nihilism is good compared to their situation, because they don’t even have a dream anymore. And I want to become a case study. That’s why I’m very passionate. And going to New York, going to all these places, I’m not earning any money, Burt. Like literally, I lost all the savings for this movie. I know money will come. But I just want to become a hope in young cinema. That’s my mission.
PKM: Arada played in 20 cities, in 80 theaters in Turkey, and now it’s streaming there. What’s been the response as you take the film around the world?
MU TUNÇ: It’s really growing in a very interesting circle nowadays. I’ve been to a lot of film festivals. However, more cultural and art people understand me better than the critical film people. So it’s interesting to see this connection. It’s not like a typical movie journey that I’m experiencing. Turkish cinema is one of the most successful nowadays. It’s crazy, we’re in every major film festival in the world. But the storytelling is not experimental.
PKM: That’s where you stand out.
But especially in my country right now, young people are really desperate. They’re even nihilist. It’s like even the nihilism is good compared to their situation, because they don’t even have a dream anymore. And I want to become a case study. That’s why I’m very passionate.
MU TUNÇ: You can see in Arada, I’m influenced a lot by the John Cassavetes style of storytelling. Or Harmony Korine or the old Derek Jarman, all these experimental ways of telling things. I come from that perspective.
PKM: Now are you part of a filmmakers community in Istanbul, or are you on your own there?
MU TUNÇ: Let me put it this way: Arada is seen as one of the first punk movies ever be made in the history of Turkish cinema. I mean, punk movies is a very micro genre. Also the way Arada was made is also very punk. I shot the whole movie in 13 days. Almost every person working on the film was young. The sound recorder is a young person, my film photographer, it was his first film. It’s like everyone’s first film. I wanted it to come from the punk spirit of doing things by yourself. If you want to shoot a movie, do it. I know it’s hard, but just do it. John Cassavetes really affected me a lot. The way he approached film like, “I want to do it this way and I’m going to do it.” And challenging the narrative storytelling. I don’t want you to love the characters. I want you to hate them even. It’s not just a systematic formula to get your love.
And in Eastern cinema, you don’t see the cultural thing like you do in American independent cinema. When you watch Clerks, you sometimes end up seeing really random bullshit talk. But behind the lines, there are a lot of important cultural elements they share with you at the same time. You don’t see that kind of genuine approaches in Turkish cinema, and I want to bring it. And what’s interesting is that people are seeing that, too. One of the first serious academic books about independent Turkish cinema is going to be released very soon. Before it was always a problematic question whether there is independent cinema in Turkey or not, and now it’s coming up in this academic book. And my film Arada is on the cover.
GREATEST PUNK ROCKERS
PKM: Now, getting back to that record store scene. The shop owner points out the traditional artists from Turkey who were influential and were very punk-like in their attitude and expressions. Like Orhan Gensebay (a music and acting star since the late 1960s).
MU TUNÇ: Exactly, exactly. His lyrics are insanely dark. Like insanely. Literally it’s one of the darkest lyrics that’s ever come out at that time (in the late 1960s). And it was a very problematic time because the left and right in Turkey were having a fight in the streets. Almost like a civil war going on. Every day, random teenagers were killing each other in the streets of Turkey. So it was a serious time. And Orhan Gencebay, made this music telling that this whole world is fucked up. And that’s how he became famous.
It’s like everyone’s first film. I wanted it to come from the punk spirit of doing things by yourself.
PKM: In the record shop scene, they called him “the greatest punk rocker Turkey ever raised.”
MU TUNÇ: No! I just tried to make people to look at themselves from a different perspective. The problem with the Turkish people is that they think that punk music is a rebellious approach. However, in the movie, I try to show that the punk aesthetic is a way of existence. Of being true to yourself and being independent. And being just yourself is an approach of punk.
PKM: Yes it is. And it was always there. How is that that Turkey, on one hand it’s majority is Muslim and potentially repressive, yet it opened its arms to artists like Ohran Gencebay and especially somebody like Zeki Müren?
MU TUNÇ: That’s the crazy part! That’s why I put that scene into the film. Right now, we are having a lot of problems, too. But what I was trying to show is that these guys were making this kind of music in the ‘60s. And with Zeki Müren’s outfits! Guys, we’re almost in the 2020s. Just do something! Don’t tell me, “Oh, these people are in power and doing this.” Just do whatever you can do. Don’t say, “Oh well, we are losers.” No we are not. No one is losers.
When I found the story you wrote about Zeki Müren, you made my tear drop. Like literally, because I said, how come on the whole planet, someone like you can find out this connection, and my people are supposed to think these things that no one is speaking. For you and I to meet up, normally in this world is completely impossible. Fifty years ago, it was impossible. And you and I, we think alike, having completely different backgrounds. I put exactly your words into my movie, without knowing you.
PKM: It’s a small world, after all. (laughs)
MU TUNÇ: That makes me go crazy! Because this comparison — Burt, really, I never read it anywhere. That this guy was David Bowie before David Bowie — the first time I read it was in your article — and it was in my movie. It’s beyond wild. And think about it, this is a Muslim country, and I just want to show this to young people, teens. They need to hear these things, because whole cultures are nowadays dying.
PKM: Yeah. I think kids don’t have a sense of history because they’re constantly bombarded with so much information. There’s just so much going on, they don’t have time to process all of it. It’s a whole different language, it’s a whole different world with kids today.
MU TUNÇ: It’s a noise at the same time. When I was a little kid, I was a straight-edge punk and I was putting X’s on my hand. And my teachers were not understanding me. I was thinking, ‘if these people understand what this X is about, they will love me’. Punk and hardcore music, especially American hardcore punk, taught me so many important values that I should care about when I grew up. Such as pollution. Such as global warming. Such as human rights. Such as animal rights. That I should not use cosmetics. All these important humanistic elements, I learned through listening to punk and hardcore music.
PKM: It’s always been there.
MU TUNÇ: And when I grew up, people were telling me, “Oh, there’s global warming.” I was like, “Hello, guys! Everybody was speaking about these things more than twenty years ago.” Punk kids were speaking about these things. The first punk people were really emotional people. They were not at all into noise. Noise was just a tool to make people wake up. Like literally, wake up.
Mu Tunç will be there when ARADA is screened at 6:30 PM at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) New York’s “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” exhibition on June 6, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Contemporary Art on June 9.