Taksim Hold’em – Interview with Film Director Michael Önder

Michael Önder Director interview TIFF 2017 Taksim Holdem

Taksim Hold’em (2017) is the full-length directorial debut of Michael Önder. The film, which received its world premiere at Tokyo International Film Festival, is set during Turkey’s chaotic Taksim Square protests of 2013. I talked to Önder and actor Kenan Ece (Alper) during TIFF 2017. 



First of all, the film Taksim Hold’em seems to come from a very personal place. Were you involved in 2013?

Michael Önder: Yes, I was very enthusiastic and involved. Then slowly, as time progressed, it started to create different feelings. First, you feel that what you’re doing is changing something. And then, the cynicism – which was always there – sets in, and you start questioning yourself and that enthusiasm. I felt like a part of a group, and that made me lose my rationality.

Kenan Ece: Yeah, it’s group psychology.

Michael Önder: Yeah, and it’s the kind of thing that I thought would never happen to me because I’m more of a cold and calculated person. But suddenly I found myself completely blind to what may or may not be reality. So this film is my reflection on that, looking back to my enthusiastic self.


So when did you start making the film?

Michael Önder: Three months after the Gezi events. So they were still a recent memory, which was a problem. You said the film isn’t very preachy, but the first draft was a bit soap-boxy, with characters shouting their opinions.  That’s because I wasn’t only trying to write the script but also still thinking about what happened.


I definitely got that when I was watching the film. It was interesting to see – it must be difficult to simultaneously write a film about something when you’re still in the middle of processing it. Yet the film turned out really well. I was especially impressed by the dialogue, which felt very natural, reminding me of conversations I’ve had with friends. Was there any element of improvisation or how did you craft the dialogue?

Michael Önder: You know David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, how they tend to write very stylized dialogue, but within context, it sounds very real. That’s the kind of thing we used, where the audience experiences the dialogue in a very particular context. When the actors deliver their lines, there’s like four kinds of lines intertwined, so you’re always a step behind. So it’s difficult to catch up, and the audience stops noticing the artifice. Actually, when you read it, it doesn’t feel that natural at all. A lot of the work we did together was trying to make that unnatural dialogue feel realistic. Because it is packed, it’s very packed – nobody actually talks that way.  Kenan Ece had to do a lot of bodywork as well, to make his character seem genuine. And he does a lot of work with his eyes – if you watch the film again, you’ll notice it. That serves to give the impression that there is a process happening, not double-playing the emotion but the subtext. What the character says and what he really thinks can be totally different, and Kenan does a great job with that. And I think that’s why it sounds natural and realistic.


This film really depends on the characters and the dialogue. You said you rehearsed a lot, and the characters were quite full-fleshed before you even started shooting.

Michael Önder: Yeah, that’s partially because I know them as people. In my mind, the characters were like bits of different people, and there were also bits of me in everyone.


So would you say the film is autobiographical?

Michael Önder: Well, if the film was autobiographical I would have chosen a more handsome lead actor.

(Kenan Ece laughs)

Michael Önder: It’s not really autobiographical in the sense that in 2013, I was more on the idiots’ scale in the events. I wasn’t the cool guy looking at things from a distance, I was out on the street.

Kenan Ece: I think every one of us was.

Michael Önder: Yeah, and I emphasize with all of the characters.


The film is set literally in the middle of the revolution – no, not revolution (although I guess it might have felt like that at the time) – but the mass protests. Yet all the action happens inside a cozy apartment and not on the streets. So it’s actually got a very distant feel to it.

Michael Önder: Yeah, the characters are experiencing the events through their gadgets, phones, and the TV, but never really in person. The decision to confine the events into the apartment became clear when we decided it’s Alper’s story. It wasn’t a financial discussion, it was about him not wanting to leave the house and not wanting anyone in. That’s the basic spine of the story. And the house represents your comfort zone. We all live in our comfort zones and are willing to discuss politics only if it doesn’t affect our comfort. That’s also why the house is very lush and nice. As an audience, you’d understand why he doesn’t want to leave.


Yeah, it also made me think about class issues, but I don’t really want to go there because that would get boring very fast.

Michael Önder: Yeah, and I think we touched the topic of class before. And rather than being about the class situation, I think that the house, in film, represents something else. It doesn’t have the same impact as if you’d see that house in real life. The outside world is represented as very bluish and cold, while the inside of the house is red and warm. It’s to make the outside world seem uninviting.


And of course, there’s also the fact that people are screaming and getting hit by batons outside.

Michael Önder: Yeah. 


I also wanted to talk about the theme of polarization, which seems to be the central theme of the film. I know there is no easy answer to this, but kind of conversation did you want to raise with your film?

Michael Önder: As we were doing a film about something that was still happening, we could not give an answer – because there was none. And it’s still alive. Giving an answer would just reduce the discussion. But what I thought can be done is portraying people within a specific group, and the main character is allowed to be self-critical. This kind of hypocrisy doesn’t just concern a specific class, it’s actually all groups in Turkey. There is obviously a gap between what you present yourself as and what you really do in everyday life. It’s a problem across the line in Turkey.  

We were thinking that if we criticize ourselves to a certain degree, that could allow discussion to happen and everyone could be self-reflective. The problem with polarized discussion is that people are just going “I am right, you are wrong”. So if you go, “I am wrong”, it changes the game. Well, it might not change the game – I don’t think we can solve the problem.


So you wanted to let your characters find some common ground?

Michael Önder: Yeah, and to say that we’re all human, we’re all feeling this problem. We’re not claiming to be the moral authority. We’re all part of the problem.


Well, I thought it was very well done. This isn’t just a problem in Turkey but in so many places these days. I thought this film was refreshing to watch because it wasn’t trying to preach to the choir but actually allow conversation to happen. What kind of a reaction are you expecting when the film opens in Turkey?

Kenan Ece: I think it’s probably going to get some criticism from all sides. But maybe that’s the point. I think that at its core, this movie is saying there are no absolute rights or absolute wrongs and nobody is a moral authority. If you think something is right, that doesn’t mean that you can force other people to live according to your opinion. Opinions are just thought and thoughts are just –

Michael Önder: Air.

Kenan Ece: Yeah, they’re just mental constructions. Nobody has the right to force anyone to think in a certain way. So this movie is just trying to stay at the center. I mean, it’s trying – of course, in one way or another, it’s impossible to escape that. Life is about polarities. But I think this movie is doing a very good job in trying to stay in the center and ask, “Okay, what if I change the game? If I say “OK, I’m wrong”, then what will you say?”. I hope the film is going to be received as such in Turkey as well. But both sides – or all 4 sides, or however many sides there are – are going to backlash the movie in some way.

Michael Önder: Yeah, I definitely won’t check the internet for a month.

Kenan Ece: I mean, pro-Gezi people will criticise it and say “okay, this is not what it was”, and then the others will say, “oh look at these idiots”. But I think that’s exactly what the movie is trying to achieve.


It does seem like what you wanted to do was start a conversation.

Michael Önder: Hopefully not at the cost of us.  


Well, I do hope so too. Thank you for the film.