Interview by Angela MacKenzie
Portrait by Allison Staton
There may be less government funding for documentary filmmaking these days, but Selin Murat is optimistic about the future. She is a co-producer for her own production company, Parabola Films, with fellow documentary producer Sarah Spring. Selin sat down with me to talk about how she ended up producing films, her thoughts on the industry today, and how she found herself in the midst of the Gezi protests in Istanbul earlier this year.
Angela: What was your childhood like?
Selin: I was born in Geneva, Switzerland. My mom is French, originally from Italy but grew up in Paris, and my dad is Turkish. They met while she was on holidays in the 70s and fell madly in love. He was working for the United Nations and that’s why my brother and I were both born in countries we’re not necessarily nationals of. We were in Geneva for five years and then we moved to the States to New York City, which is why my English is the way that it sounds… pretty native. After New York we moved to Libya and I lived in Tripoli for three years. There’s a great story about Gaddafi actually walking into my French primary school, peaking open the doors of our classroom and looking in. The teacher was completely freaked out and mesmerized but all of us kids were in third grade and didn’t quite know who this big man was with his hat. And that’s my story of having met Gaddafi once.
We were actually kicked out of the country in ‘91 at the same time as everyone else, when the international community placed an embargo on Libya after the Lockerbie bombings. Then we returned to Geneva and I graduated from high school there. In my graduating class of 80 about 50 went to the U.K., the other 20 or so went to the U.S. and three of us went to Canada. It was sort of a given that I would end up in somewhat of a North American university context. Montreal was my last choice because I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college in New England. I don’t know why I had that idea in my head but it sounded really good at 17. When I got into McGill my parents sat me down and let me know that tuition in Quebec was a lot cheaper for French citizens than it would have been in the U.S. and that the legal drinking age was 18 as opposed to 21. I’d be able to have a normal adult life throughout all of my university years instead of waiting until my fourth year to have a drink legally. Coming from Europe I have to say that ended up being a big factor! I loved going to McGill. I studied Political Science, Women’s Studies and Development Studies with the idea of also becoming a big United Nations development civil servant as my career.
How did you decide that you wanted to make docs?
So after I graduated from university I moved to Istanbul for the first time where I learned Turkish. I worked odd jobs and ended up being a production assistant on a shoot in southern Turkey because at that point I spoke Turkish, English and French. I did that for six months and that was my first foray into film. When I came back from that I decided that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to combine film and my feelings about politics, social justice and human rights. Living in Turkey I had learned to be critical. I have to admit that McGill is a pretty conservative university so it was only after McGill that I developed a better consciousness of issues. I knew that wanted to combine these interests through documentary, through film.
What is it about documentary that you feel makes it the best medium for combining those fields and for looking at the issues critically?
When I first started in documentary more that 8 years ago, I felt it was because documentary could reach a broad audience. To me, people were more likely to sit down to watch a film for 45 minutes, be visually told something that they didn’t know about and be touched by it easier than by reading an article about it or something too academic or too complex. In documentary if you did it right you could very well reach people who didn’t necessarily read the news and people who wouldn’t otherwise have cared. I’ve since learned a lot in terms of the point of view of the director, the subjectivity of film and the fact that there’s no such thing as an objective documentary and that documentary isn’t journalism. It’s not straight up, it isn’t pure and there’s no way to show your audience footage and expect them not to be mislead in some way.
Did you learn most of what you know about documentary filmmaking on the job or did you study it?
I learned it mostly on the job, starting with my work with a TV producer in Istanbul whose name shall not be mentioned because he was an awful boss. We had to produce two shows a month and they had to be filmed in foreign, mainly war-torn countries. They were about what happened in the history that led to a war or a major crisis and we had to say that in a 55 minute, broad-audience kind of way. You’d have to pump it out really fast. We’d go there with a script and if he didn’t find what he wanted he would just make it up. So working with that man told me immediately the things that I would not do in film and the ethical issues that I was immediately confronted with. And working for a man, being at the beck and call of this big ego, also taught me that I did not want to do that ever again either.
I came back to Canada to do the Communications Diploma at Concordia, which was perfect for me. I tailored my courses to documentary filmmaking, alternative media, and the ethics of documentary.
Now we’re getting into a place where documentary film is in a hybrid form. You know, fiction meets documentary meets intimate points-of-views about the world. Propagandist, anti-propagandist… it’s all over the map, which is amazing. I think this is why so many people are starting to watch docs, not just for informative reasons but as cinema.
It does seem that more people are watching documentary, but it also seems that there’s a lot less funding for docs and broadcasters are purchasing them less often. What do you think about the gap between what people may want to consume or access versus where the industry is right now?
Canada has always been known as the country of documentary. The NFB/ONF were making so many docs in the 60s, 70s and 80s and there was place for them on television. Today, there are a lot of festivals and art house cinemas that show documentaries as theatrical runs as they would a fiction film. In general, televisions are making less money. Canadians still love documentary and broadcasters are still loving what they’re making or commissioning but they have smaller and smaller envelopes to commission with. There’s also the fact that the industry used to be heavily supported by the government, and now those envelopes are drying up. The entire funding system is getting smaller and smaller. And you can say that about all the arts. I’m starting to talk to people about how they fund their movies and it’s more and more creative!
I was going to say, if there’s less and less funding but people are still making docs, how are they doing it? Is it maybe that the medium is more accessible now? That we don’t have to shoot on film so it can be done on a smaller budget?
There’s that. People can shoot on a smaller budget in a shorter time with minimal amounts of equipment. Some filmmakers work on their own, they don’t need a lot of crew. It’s a different kind of film, also very beautiful. But you know post-production is still very expensive. A lot of American filmmakers I met just had a few private donors who believed in them. Co-production is an option— finding a bit of money here or there, with countries that have an interest in the subject or the filmmaker and you piece together the budget that way. More and more you see crowd funding but I don’t know how I feel about that. For me the big thing is the subject or content of the film. As long as there are people who are interested in seeing the story be made, that’s a way to fund the film.
In Canada we’re still functioning within the traditional model of broadcaster, tax credits, distributors, etc. That’s how we build these budgets that we have but the competition is fierce. At Parabola Films, every time that we close a budget at 100% we’re so excited. We’re still in that model, we haven’t let it go, but we’re also looking at alternatives and how to continue to produce the films we want to make and be paid for it, pay the director and the labour.
So how did you meet your partner, Sarah Spring, and get started on your film production company?
I met her at a job interview, basically. I had just finished the program at Concordia and at a birthday party this guy Sergeo said he had heard that I was just out of school and that I was looking for a job so he gave me his card. I interviewed with Sergeo and Sarah who were two producers in a documentary production company called Loaded Pictures. At the time they were working on a film called H2Oil by Shannon Walsh. They needed help in the office so I kind of became their producer’s assistant and office manager. At one point Sarah and I just became really good friends and we sat down one day and decided that we really wanted to make our own projects that we were really passionate about. Loaded Pictures was a collective so there were more people with whom you had to contend with for any kind of decision, which was fine, but we had projects that we really just wanted to make and we didn’t want to have to ask anybody whether we could do it. So we started Parabola Films in her kitchen and worked on St-Henri the 26th of August , Shannon Walsh’s second film. We decided that we were going to shoot it that summer, then the ONF came on board, Canal D came on board and all of the sudden we had a full production on our hands. Sarah and I solidified our relationship that way, became producers together and we’ve made two more films since. It’s been probably five years now that I’ve been working with Sarah.
And what is the mandate for your company? What kinds of films do you aspire to make?
Well, we really love cinematic point-of-view, auteur films. The kind of films that are really powerful because the director is so driven by storytelling, so passionate about the films that they’re making. They’re probably the hardest to fund but so far we’ve been able to fund them. As much as we can we want to make feature length films that are both for television, festivals, and to be watched as cinema. Films that make you leave the cinema thinking that you have to research the subject more, or change your ways, or that you are changed.
You recently went back to Turkey for a visit, which happened to coincide with the big Gezi uprising. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
That was a big moment for me, such a big moment. I’d only really been living in Turkey since after university and I didn’t really understand Turkey and it’s culture until I moved there. I really fell in love with the country and felt at home, like I belonged… there was something in my genes that just made sense there. After four years of living there and having a lot of friends who are educated, smart, subversive and really involved, I started to sense this repression. It’s an obvious repression. I mean, there’s no freedom of speech in Turkey— there are more per capita journalists in prison in Turkey than there are in China. It’s obvious. At the same time we had just entered an era of government that had taken us out of debt, that had build a much stronger middle class, and we were booming. So even though I felt a certain amount of repression, the news coming out of and even within Turkey was one of economic growth and security and the country as a role model for the middle east.
As a young woman wanting to make it in film I didn’t necessarily feel like I was going to do that as well there, which partly led to my move back to Canada. Every time I went back to Turkey I felt that wave of repression get stronger and stronger. This past May, the government had just put in this new law where the sale of alcohol stops at 10 pm. In Montreal we’re like, Yeah, it stops at 11 here. So what? However in Turkey it’s a normal thing that you can go to the corner store and buy a beer at three in the morning. More importantly, the law also stopped the advertising of alcohol and this advertising is a major source of funding for the arts in Turkey. This means no more funding for galleries and art festivals, which would basically cancel a lot of cultural events that allowed alcohol consumption. So now there was the repression of people in Turkey who were not anti-alcohol. My friends were feeling like a minority.
After the alcohol ban, the Gezi Park incident happened. These activists wanted to stop the destruction of this tiny park but I think it was a symbol for stopping this government and municipality from destroying what’s left of Istanbul. So that incident started the uprising. All of the sudden everyone that I knew, and didn’t know, my neighbours, the conservative shop owner downstairs, were upset and in the streets. I’d never seen that before. It’s been a while and I’ve read a lot of analyses since. I think a lot of it was that Turkey hadn’t lived an uprising or a protest movement in at least two generations and people in their 20s had never been in streets before. Once they started there was this feeling of euphoria, of being able to stand up.
It was just brewing under the surface.
Exactly. The euphoria for me was from understanding that we were all angry about what was going on and we were tired of it. It wasn’t just people of different groups or political parties, it was a huge section of the population coming from all different walks of life. I was lucky enough to be able to attend some of the first three days of the protest. I got a little tear gas like everybody else. It was a beautiful movement, I followed it relentlessly when i came back to Montreal, I was obsessed with it. Now the major protests are finished and have turned into something more rational and thoughtful. People are getting together in parks for public consultations to try and come up with solutions and tactics to actually vote out the AKP party. For me it’s a renewed faith that I wasn’t alone in thinking all of these things and that we weren’t just a small liberal minority. A lot of people feel that we need change and it gives me hope.
Would you want to go back and produce documentaries about Turkey?
Oh definitely. I have good friend in Istanbul who is also a film producer and he and I have been talking about the kinds of stories that we want to tell. I think that for a long time I was a little afraid of making films in Turkey because anything that would have been really critical, stories that need to be told, I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to come back after making it. I have a French passport, I’m not stuck in Turkey, but it upset me that I might not be able to come back. I was admittedly afraid of coming up against that repression myself. That still exists, but I just don’t care anymore. Again, that sense of if it doesn’t happen now it won’t happen. So yes, Mustafa and I will be looking for filmmakers who have important stories to tell. I’m really hoping to do a project in the near future about it.