SIFF Crafty Work: A Chat With Bülent Akinci
posted by June 15 at 15:56 PMon
One of my favorite films at this year’s festival was Running on Empty. Bülent Akinci’s striking debut walks a fine line between existential dread and mordant comedy. The film is beautifully shot and inventively structured, but style never overshadows substance. There’s French chanson, a surprisingly erotic shower scene (the woman is fully clothed, which somehow makes it sexier)—even some dancing. Yet Running on Empty is not—thank God—quirky. It’s a noirish picture about a salesman at the end of his tether.
Though the Berlin-based writer/director rejects the term “road movie,” Burkhard Wagner (Requiem’s Jens Harzer) spends the entire film trolling the Autobahn. At night. From the start, it’s clear something is seriously wrong with this wiry fellow with the crazy laugh, but he has a knack at this selling thing. Wagner’s plan is to off-load his insurance policies, then return to his neglected wife and child. But things aren’t quite what they seem, an impression reinforced by the editing, which makes it difficult to distinguish past from present, reality from fantasy. Then again, that’s exactly how Wagner perceives the world.
I met up with the soft-spoken filmmaker while he was in town with Running on Empty. Unfortunately, there are no more SIFF screenings and the film doesn’t have US distribution. That’s a situation that will, with hope, change at some point in the future. One way or the other, I’m certain you’ll be hearing from Akinci and Harzer again. The director was accompanied by a translator, but provided most of his answers in English. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation.
How did you end up in Germany?
Because of my parents. My mother came to Germany in order to work, so after six months, she took me also.
When was this?
In the 1970s. [Akinci was born in Ankara in 1967.]
Did your father come with you?
My mother was first in Germany, and then my father and I came later.
You seem to have a bit of a French accent.
Yes, many people say that. [laughs]
Did you take French as a kid?
Yes, but it's not so good, my French—like my English [laughs]
I've read that you're a fan of the French New Wave, and
there's French pop in the film. Was that just part of the story
or was it a combination of the story and your interests?
I'm a bit of a Francophile. I put many French things in the film, because the story also has to do with a little bit French...
Like the French-Algerian character?
[Mehdi Nebbou, who sells Chanel No. 5 knock-offs]
Yes, and the woman [Marina Galic] lives in the area—
the border between France and Germany.
Did you go to film school?
Yes, DFFB, one of the most famous film schools.
Wolfgang Peterson went there.
[According to his bio, Akinci was a musician, a security guard,
and—yes!—an insurance salesman before turning to film.]
What does the title mean in German?
The Life Insurance Man.
Do you get asked about Wim Wenders a lot? Because Running
on Empty is also a road movie, like Kings of the Road.
Yes, but it isn't a typical road movie. They normally have a goal,
like from A to B. My film just keeps going.
[Hence the name "Wagner."]
Yes. A life insurance man is a bit archaic. He also gives a promise to his woman [that he'll return home]. He's going out on "the sea." I wanted to make a modern version of this story, about a restless man on the highway... To me, my film is a little bit depressing. [laughs]
It's dark, but I didn't find it depressing. I guess to some people it might be. It has a lovely ending. I can't be depressed by that. And it's open-ended enough that people can decide whether it's really happy or not. I have heard it compared to David Lynch, and I love Lynch, but your film didn't remind me of his work.
That's typical. It's like when you read a book, and you can't understand it, everybody says, it's like Kafka. And in a film, when
you don't understand everything, everybody says it's like Lynch.
After I turned off my tape recorder, Akinci and I chatted for another 15 minutes or so, and he mentioned that he worked on Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Mâcon with Ralph Fiennes and Julia Ormond. I guess that's how he met Wim Mertens, who provides Running on Empty's effectively minimalist score (which will never appear on CD; apparently, Mertens abhors the practice).
We also talked about Terrence Malick (he's a big fan), Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE (which he can't wait to see; he was surprised to hear that Julia Ormond appears in it), and a few other directors. Interestingly, he didn't mention a single German, but otherwise seems optimistic about the state of filmmaking in Germany today. And he confirmed that he never would've enjoyed the same opportunities to pursue his craft had his family remained in Turkey. Akinci image from Film Portal, Running on Empty images from Kino Morgen.
Click here for part two (continues at my site).