Meet the film director and documentarist with a uniquely compassionate perspective
Eylem Kaftan has been a leading figure within the world of journalism and documentaries for the past twenties years. Her confrontational storytelling is balanced between emotional intelligence and human compassion. From capturing the aftermath of an earthquake in the nineties to investigating urban farming within Turkey today, Eylem has a vast back catalog of docufilms.
Eylem's lifelong dream to be a director of feature films came into reality recently when she birthed her debut script and film "Keeping the Bees". With more of her work reappearing on platforms such as MUBI, Eylem Kaftan's personal stories are creating a ripple effect amongst global audiences. With her timeless approach to creating and a passion for supporting fellow cinematographers, Eylem's productivity is, in itself, a work of art.
We had the joy of meeting Eylem while visiting Istanbul, and discussing the development of her career. Tune into the podcast to hear how Eylem's upbringing has shaped her matriarchal approach to life, as well as her journey from documentary journalism to feature films, one frame at a time.
Moving through journalism, documentary, and fictional features, Eylem is capturing globally relatable stories. "I have a variety of interests in different fields. I made several documentaries over 20 years, issues related to women, social justice, refugees, migration, urban farming, nature versus human, and identity memory - violence." She has also done lighter films in balance to heavy documentaries. She has an interest in alternative health and spirituality.
I'm a filmmaker, I've done it since I was very young. I love this whole process of communicating with the public through original stories and I just want to produce good inspiring films, whether they're documentary or fiction.
Having worked for news platforms such as Aljajeera, Eylem originally started off wanting to create fictional films. However, she explains that "Somehow my path was more directed to documentaries - maybe because I find it easier, or because I started my career in Canada" a country which values documentaries highly meaning more funding is available. "My first film was about the earthquake that happened in my hometown. I found myself capturing the moments of what happened in the aftermath, and so that somehow carried me to documentary filmmaking". This organic experience led to Eylem creating a string of docuseries across the space of 19 years before she came full circle and finally made her first fiction - Hive: Keeping the Bees
When discussing her journey to creating this feature film, Eylem explains how it is was inspired by a documentary she had been making about urban farming. Having worked as a presenter and director visiting different farms, exploring the narrative of people moving from the city back to the countryside and the challenges they faced in getting to know the land and industry of farming. "It inspired me to write this story based on some real characters I met on the way". Keeping the Bees tells the narratives of a female beekeeper and her struggles with nature when inheriting a hive from her mother in the mountains of the Black Sea region. "It's a minimalistic yet powerful story about nature versus women which created a very strong buzz in Turkey and elsewhere. I traveled the world with it and won lots of awards - it was beautiful to meet with audiences from different geographies".
With Vendetta Song, I wanted to create this memory that transcends time and death and glorifies her indestructible soul...It's a very powerful film in the sense that it's timeless
Another film that has made Eylem stand out was her personal documentary filmed twenty years ago called Vendetta Song. Based on Eylem's real story of going on an epic journey from Canada to the distant Kurdish villages in the Eastern region to trace the steps of her murdered Aunt, resulting in Eylem being face to face with the suspects of her Aunts murder. "It was a deeply personal and intense project", profiling the narrative of Eylem's Aunt who was forcibly abandoned from birth, raised as an orphan, and then sold to another village as a ceasefire offering. "What's so special about it is my Aunt wasn't registered at birth, her photo was never taken, she was killed and yet no interrogations were made about her murder. She didn't even have a tombstone so it was as if she never existed." Eylem goes on to explain how "She had no records of her presence and this touched me a lot. I wanted to create this memory that transcends time and death and glorifies her indestructible soul." The moving impact of Eylem's film was recognised by MUBI who recently bought and released Vendetta Song on their platform "It's a very powerful film in the sense that it's timeless. Even now, the feedback I'm receiving from people who said how they watched the film in tears, how they led similar lives, and that we need more stories like this about women". With continual interest in the characters she met twenty years ago, Eylem is now thinking of doing a sequel to the documentary to find out what happened to the people she met during the shoot and make a fiction film "Vendetta Songs seems it will be the mother of other projects"
Reflecting on her upbringing, Eylem explains how her Father was an intellectual 'leftist' man, from an artistic family (his grandfather was a poet,) who taught her to "read absurd comedy books before I even started school". This encouragement to question life and look at it through an open-minded perspective was echoed in the University Eyelm went on to attend. She explains how it provided her with a high-quality of education - "I had some really incredible teachers and professors who taught me how to ask radical questions about life, existence, and identity at a very early age. I think it's important to have that abstract thinking ability so as to create stories, making them deeper and more multilayered." Alongside this, Eylem credits growing up amongst a large matriarchal family with many Aunts on her Mother's side and a "colourful grandmother whose a storyteller, singer and very high energy". These familial settings have had a fundamental impact on the liberated approach to life Eylem now takes explaining how "I grew up in open-minded set up which is pretty special for Turkey because I wouldn't say the whole country is giving this privilege to women and girls, to grow up in a free-spirited context. So I think that empowered me."
I had some really incredible teachers and professors who taught me how to ask radical questions about life, existence, and identity at a very early age. I think it's important to have that abstract thinking ability so as to create stories, making them deeper and more multilayered
Today, Eylem continues to share the same encouraging and open-minded perspective she received with younger generations. "I teach cinema and am a coordinator at a cinema academy here in Istanbul. I think I inspire them to be filmmakers, cinephiles and to write stories, but also to be confident in mastering, creating their own road and unleashing their creative juices". This takes us back to talking about Eylem's university years and her involvement with a feminist group she was part of. She started publishing a feminist magazine with other members created from their own resources and sacrifices for a few years. But now, "looking back, I sort of pity myself for putting so much burden on me. I was extremely sensitive to social issues and sometimes we were tormenting ourselves for not saving the world enough....I think I felt all the pressure of the world at the time." Eylem's trait of caring about sensitive issues continues to feed the work she makes but with a more calm and trusting mentality. This is apparent in her latest project which, tho she cannot reveal too much, explains is "going to be shocking for a global audience, its about girls who go through something terrible. But it's also about stopping the fear, taking action, and getting justice. So somehow that little girl who was publishing the magazine continues her mission in life but through creative mediums. I'm not making politics in a didactic way but through a more artistic way which I feel really uplifting and healing".
I'm not making politics in a didactic way but through a more artistic way which I feel really uplifting and healing
The importance of creating a balance of working on heavier subjects and stories while being upbeat and positive in life is something that Eylem says comes with practice and conscious decision-making. "It's important for an artist to have a mentally healthy state. I meditate, I do sports, I'm really interested in psychology and I take courses in positive psychology. I try to be constructive about the challenges of life and I cope with these through self-awareness and working on myself really hard." She tells us how "seeing images, and the capacity to visualize is an amazing tool to heal yourself and be positive. Because even tho the stories can be dark, you create a world where...somehow there is a transformation, a climax, a catharsis, somehow there's hope at the end of the tunnel"
"Through films, I reflect my Sassy side but I don't do it deliberately to provoke people. I just think, as humans, we have so much pressure on us - societal, family, and one-to-one relationships - which creates a lot of burdens. We have difficulty being ourselves and expressing real opinions and emotions. But I think to free ourselves from everything, to be loving and respect each other, we should be able to talk about everything in an honest and genuine way. And for me, I think film is the best medium. In life I try to be as genuine as possible - to open my heart and mind and have heartfelt conversations with people, in a deep way."
To free ourselves from everything and be loving and respectful of each other, we should be able to talk about everything in an honest and genuine way. For me, I think film is the best medium
We end the conversation by asking Eylem what she is motivated to achieve in the future. She starts her answer by referencing the French documentary filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Agnès Varda who pushed people to think outside the box. "She is my source of inspiration. She deals with a lot of feminist issues. So I aspire to be like her, to have a great filmography, to touch upon many different subjects with my own style, with my own way of seeing the world and storytelling techniques. To inspire and communicate with people tha tackles any kind of subject in a loving way." This is something we see exude out of Eylem, bringing a harmonious combination of passion and playfulness, sensitivity, and strength. As we dig into more of her work, exploring the many stories she has shared, we leave feeling the steady energy of her awareness, carrying her creative ambitions under our wings as a tool for inspiration.
When do you feel most confident?
During a Q&A when I meet with the audience - it's a whole other embodiment of energy which is a combination of their emotions and my own. But also when I'm with a friend that I can trust.
What key experience has shaped you positively?
Making Vendetta Song - that was great for my journey, it opened a whole new way for me
One dream you wish to come true?
I want to have split my time between two places, to have two lives, one in Europe and one in Istanbul
What law do you want to change?
I don't want any censorship in Turkey - there's a lot of societal pressure and they're trying to pass a censorship law. But I wish the institutions encourage us to be more free-minded, especially for the youth, that's really important.
What's the best thing about being you?
I think there is this playful childish energy I have, and tho the films I make are sometimes dark, for me it's like a game for adults - it's the most fun, the most beautiful, the most fascinating thing to make films. So the best thing about being me is to be in love with filmmaking.
Interview and portraits by Bethany Burgoyne