I wanted to begin this fresh new blog for 2018 with a positive story about writing—specifically about script development—or some other uplifting aspect of filmmaking. However, 2017 was dominated by a rather negative event that I wish to publish to the wider world and perhaps then it will have a positive outcome or at the very least bring some degree of closure.
The story concerns a group of Turkish artists (including myself although I don’t feel too comfortable referring to myself as an “artist”) living in self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom. They ought to be supporting each other in their new foreign home and at the start that is exactly what they do. They help each other with their creative projects and form a cohesive family-like existence together. Until, one day, it is all over in a hail of recriminations and bile.
The ball on this whole sorry saga gets rolling when Turkish actress Pınar Öğün, her Turkish-TV star husband Memet Ali Alabora and their close friend and mentor Meltem Arıkan discover that Meltem’s husband’s nephew (me) has written a project about a Turkish writer coming to the UK after fleeing persecution in his home country. In exile, he slowly loses his mind over the course of the psychological thriller as he wrestles with demons from his past that haunt him. The film project is selected to take part in a UK film funding body’s project development programme where 10 projects will be developed over the course of 9 months and then 3 will be put into production, fully-funded at micro-budget levels. With another feature film being supported financially by the same publicly funded organisation, I was on a roll.
Exciting times! But wait…
Just after the shortlist is announced and I have proudly (and naively as it turns out) posted the news on social media—the CEO of said funding body receives a telephone call from none other than Pınar, whom I had cast in my debut no-budget feature back in 2007 when she was fresh out of a London drama school, claiming that my project—entitled THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY—is based on their lives. The next thing I know, myself and my producer are summoned to a meeting with the CEO’s top executives first thing in the new year to what I am expecting is an ordinary script meeting.
Boy, was I wrong.
“Would you be willing to ask for their life rights?” asks one of the executives with a benign smile.
“No way,” is my immediate response. “The story has nothing to do with them, no living people are being depicted and the bits that I took from real life that inspired the premise—the starting point of the plot and no more—are in the public domain or from my own experiences. We don’t need their life rights, this is ridiculous—”
“The thing is Oz,” chimes in the other executive.”The thing is that our in-house lawyers have had a look at the material and their assessment is that it is similar enough that this could go to court—”
“I’m the Turkish writer in the story not her—” I splutter.
“But—” the executive goes on, “we just don’t have the budget for any legal costs that may arise so…”
“You want me to change the plot?” I say, as the news sinks in.
“Just to remove any elements that could link them to the project in any way.”
“What did they say exactly? Is there anything in writing?” I continue, shell-shocked.
“Look, Pınar basically said that they did not want to interfere with your creativity but that what you had written resembled their story,” says one of the executives who are by now blurring into one.
Didn’t want to interfere with my creativity? What a joke—that’s exactly what they were doing. I felt lightheaded and the meeting suddenly felt so unreal that I’m pretty sure I was smiling like an idiot when I said, ‘I don’t believe this.’
The executives made sympathetic noises and bent themselves into empathic postures as I crumpled and squirmed with a toxic mixture of indignation and victimhood. They recited their lines from a pre-prepared script where one version ends with me capitulating and the other version ends with them having to drop the project from their shortlist. Bye-bye nine months of script development funding.
To my later, self-targetted, chagrin I agreed to change the synopsis—terrified that the project would be dumped. But I continued to argue my case in between bouts of depression and frustrated anger (lawyers forbade me from contacting my erstwhile friends) at the people who had hijacked my story, alleged that it was their story and now had gotten the public funding body in a spin about possible—though totally unlikely—legal action.
Their case that the protagonist in my story was based on any of them held no merit because—like I kept saying to anyone who’d listen—it was based on me and how I had to flee Cyprus once after being menaced over a film that I was trying to make there (more on that below). It was my experience of censorship and de facto exile in the UK that had been the germ of the idea. Yes, they had experienced something more extreme and similar but so what! As Zuckerberg rages in “The Social Network”:
“Somebody who makes a really good chair doesn’t owe everybody who ever made a chair!”
Or something along those lines.
By the way, everybody should know that being inspired by true life events is part and parcel of writing fiction and if people like Pınar, Memet Ali and Meltem (the Three-Headed Hydra as I have come to think of them) can scuttle a rival’s project based on the implied threat of legal action then it is a sad reflection of how public bodies are run in this country.
I cannot fault the funding body for what they had to do but their interests need not have suffered if they had allowed me to confront the Hydra head-on instead of treating them with kid gloves. So anyway, exhausted by the situation, I changed this and that element to appease the complainants, as advised by the lawyers who only wanted the issue to go away (who can blame them!). I was then made to wait a fortnight for Pınar et al to read a one-page synopsis only for them to come back and say to us, as related to me by the executives, “We do not give our permission for Özgür to continue writing this story.”
We do not give permission. Wow.
Apparently, Meltem Arıkan was the only Turkish writer allowed to practice in this town. I felt like I was being muzzled all over again and after months of stewing in my own juices I finally broke ranks and contacted them via social media. I was swiftly blocked on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. My emails asking for an apology were ignored for months—the best strategy for the guilty, I suppose—until very recently when Pınar finally wrote back to tell me that she was finding it very distressing and refuted everything. I told her that the “distress” she was feeling was more than likely remorse. Also, how do you deny doing something that is public record, I wondered:
She, doubtlessly at the behest of her mentor Meltem, called the CEO of the funding body and made a complaint. She didn’t call or email me or my producer or any of the executives she could have spoken to first in order to clarify what was going on—nope. She treated me as a hostile stranger and went straight to the top and strategically delivered a firm kick to my balls because the Hydra knows what it is doing. You may be wondering what their motivations were and suffice to say that it was not only professional jealousy but something rooted in the breakdown between relations vis a vis my uncle and Meltem and that’s all I’m saying about that.
I put in a Freedom of Information request so that I could see in writing what Pınar had alleged in her emails but this was refused on the grounds that information contained in the emails may “further distress the parties.” Whatever that means. The only snippet I was allowed to see from the emails was that, in the Hydra’s opinion my “plot line… closely resembles our own story”.
As mentioned earlier, I had experienced a similar act of censorship around 2005 when I was producing a film set in 1970s Cyprus. The UK Film Council, Eurimages, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and others were funding the low budget project. Then the Foreign Office in Ankara stepped in and vetoed our Turkish financial support for purely political reasons. The project collapsed during pre-production with me stuck on the northern Turkish side of the island unable to leave until I paid the thousands our production owed the hotel as well as being pursued by Turkish journalists maintaining that the production was “collaborating” with the Greek side, which was a fabrication.
I was even approached by an Islamic sect who promised to bail me out if I were to meet their leader the Sheikh and, I assumed, become an adherent. Eventually the monies were wired from the UK, I paid the hoteliers and left in a hurry. The whole episode confirmed for me in no uncertain terms that freedom of expression did not exist in Turkey and it has since gotten steadily worse. For years I have been mulling over that traumatic experience and that is what THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY was about at its core.
What was especially galling was that the Hydra had fled Turkey after their freedom of expression was threatened (BBC article). Ahead of their departure from İstanbul, they alleged that they were in mortal danger from pro-government agents, fearing for their lives and increasingly paranoid about shady characters hanging about outside their home. They asked for and received police protection and finally got so wrapped up in their own narrative that they truly believed they had no other option but to leave their families behind and go to Cardiff—a place that their matriarch Meltem Arıkan had been trying to persuade them to go since 2004. Finally she got her wish, severing Pınar and Memet Ali from their parents, friends and successful careers in Turkey.
Fast forward to December 2017 and here I am having not only removed the elements that the lawyers advised me to remove from my wholly fictional and original treatment for a feature film but having also completely abandoned THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY after I had to gut the premise and lose the essence that made me want to tell that story in the first place. Not wanting to give up and run for the hills, a brand new story called THE OX was birthed in a flurry of marker pens, index cards and typing.
It never really had a chance with the terminally short gestation period and the bad taste that the whole Hydra episode had left with me but I—as a writer with a job to do—knuckled down and wrote the first draft screenplay in a few weeks to a looming deadline. My producer was impressed by the results, the folks at the funding body were impressed and the feedback was positive and I, encouraged, made suggested revisions, ploughed on, kept writing and rewriting but…
We did not get picked for the final three—although a little bird told me that it was very close indeed, a “split decision” in fact. The decision had to have been affected negatively by all the commotion that the Hydra had caused and I was pretty sure that someone on the selection panel had been unduly influenced by Pınar because she had a connection to one of the panelists who served at the Welsh TV channel where she had recently been cast in a soap opera. This panelist was noticeably antagonistic towards me during the final pitch meeting and refused to even make eye-contact with either myself or my producing partner. Very fishy.
I felt from the start that THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY had a real heart to it that THE OX hadn’t had time to develop since I was rushed into conceiving it from scratch after suffering the anxiety and stress of having to pull my project from the scheme. The lawyers had won in a sense. It was their legal advice that influenced the funder’s risk assessment of the situation that compelled them to err on the side of caution and thus played straight into the hands of a calculating cohort of competitors I once called friends, nay, family.
Yet the project never dies, only the will to complete it can. I suppose I ought to thank the Hydra for all this new material that will no doubt feed into the development process for THIS IS NOT A TRUE STORY. Plus I have a brand new project called THE OX from the ordeal. So I guess there was a positive outcome after all.
If there is a lesson to be learned from my experience then it may be that one should JUST WRITE no matter what or who tries to stop you. Keep writing people, keep on writing…