Director Emin Alper on Tackling Political Manipulation And Turkish Homophobia in ‘Burning Days’

Turkish screenwriter and director Emin Alper, whose dystopian drama (“Frenzy”) in 2015 made a splash in Venice and who more recently helmed hit TV series “Aleph” about two detectives on the trail of a dervish-turned-serial killer in Istanbul, is in Cannes for the first time with incendiary drama “Burning Days” screening in Un Certain Regard.

It’s about a young and earnest prosecutor named Emre who gets pulled into corrupt populist politics while investigating a murder and forms a bond with the owner of the local newspaper.

Alper spoke to Variety about how “Burning Days” reflects the rise of authoritarian populism and mounting homophobia, and not just in his country. Excerpts

This is pretty explosive stuff. What drew you to the subject matter?

Over the past years I’ve been surprised to see that similar things are happening around the world. We experienced Trump, for example. It was really shocking for me. So I decided to write a story about our desperate situation.

So, the initial point was: I want to show how these types of neo-populist or neo-fascist people can exploit the very basic needs of people and keep their corrupt system in place.

That was my starting point. My main inspiration was Ibsen’s famous play “An Enemy of The People.” So I started thinking about this, and then the story evolved from there.

Tonally you seem to have shifted more towards genre.

Atmospherically this film is similar to my second film “Frenzy.” In that film I wanted to create a rather unrealistic and very oppressive atmosphere. Yet the genre elements are much more obvious in this film. In terms of tone I can say that from the very beginning I wanted to create a kind of hellish atmosphere for the young prosecutor. A very uncanny, insecure atmosphere in which he never feels comfortable. Actually, initially the genre element was not very big in my mind. It evolved as I was writing the story. I wanted there to be a kind of crime element. These public figures, these populists in many countries are often involved in crimes. But it was really surprising for me to see that the common people are generally neglecting [to be concerned about] their criminal side.

Did making the TV series “Alpeh” make you veer more towards genre filmmaking?

The initial point was that I wanted there to be a crime in which the mayor and the son are involved. I always liked genre films, and I always liked using or borrowing some genre  elements. With this film it’s the first time it’s become so clear. Maybe it’s related to having more self-confidence, since this is my fourth film and maybe it’s because I’ve shot a TV series. But I had written the script before doing the TV show.

There is a gay relationship and a denouncing of homophobia in this film. This is sensitive in Turkey.

Yes. In the first draft this issue was missing. But in the past three or four years homophobia has become a kind of state policy in Turkey. Aside from there being homophobia among the common people, the state developed a homophobic policy, especially against new digital platforms. They really put pressure on Netflix about a show [titled “If Only”] which had an LGBT character. And it really made many of us angry. Because five years ago it was not an issue. LGBT characters were relatively free. But to create a conservative agenda in an effort to bolster the government’s [electoral] base they suddenly came up with this issue.

But, again, what interested me about this is that it’s not just a local issue. It’s universal. Look at what’s happening in Hungary, in Russia. This is one of the things about our neo-populist times. So I decided to incorporate homophobia into the story and it became a really good fit.

Will “Burning Days” play in Turkish movie theaters?

It will definitely be screened in Turkey. We don’t have a problem there. The problem starts if streaming platforms want to play it. They could be hesitant [about buying the film]. But our theatrical screening conditions are relatively free. It’s really rare for a film to be banned in Turkey. 

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