Grain (2017) is the new film from acclaimed Turkish Director Semih Kaplanoğlu. Set in the near future where the agriculture has collapsed and cities are surrounded by barren land called the “Dead Zone”, Grain sets out to ask difficult questions about humankind’s relationship with nature. I was able to speak to Kaplanoğlu, the film’s main actor Jean-Marc Barr and the producer Bettina Brokemper about the film during the Tokyo International Film Festival.
I found Grain to be quite a grim and dystopian film. Was it a depressing mindset to work in?
Semih Kaplanoğlu: First, I started to think about the atmosphere. I needed to find locations that would seem stark, like after a disaster. First, I found Detroit in Michigan. I then looked for other locations. My German co-producers helped me look around Germany as well, Northwest Germany. After finding these locations, I felt like we can do it, we can create the right atmosphere and produce it. We then managed to get companies involved from various countries, Qatar, Sweden...
Bettina Brokemper: Yeah, it’s a Turkish-German-French-Swedish-Qatar co-production.
Jean-Marc Barr: I think the depression in the film comes from our real lives. The reaction to that depression is this film. Its main purpose is not to entertain but to make you wake up. It’s the responsibility of culture to at least communicate a reality, and instead of escaping that reality, to confront it. Because if you don’t confront it, humankind – in the next two hundred, three hundred years - might disappear. In the last 30 years, films have become just commercial entertainment. They don’t take that responsibility anymore. Whereas when we grew up, in the sixties and seventies, films were the complete opposite. They were trying to make culture because they were confronting the reality, what was going on in our lives. I think that in the capitalistic culture in which we live in, the corporations don’t want us to think. And they are the ones that are responsible, basically, for this mass industrialization. So this is not a film that would ever get produced in Hollywood.
It’s a difficult film to watch if you let it get close to you.
Jean-Marc Barr: If it does get close to you, then we’ve won. That’s what it’s about. Your generation didn’t have the same opportunities as our generation because we were brought up when cinema was everything.
Well, we can still watch old films.
Jean-Marc Barr: I know, but the problem is that if you don’t have that influence in your life, you can’t know.
Bettina Brokemper: To go back to the initial question, Semih was traveling with his last film Bal (Honey), and he saw many places in the world and that everywhere they had the same problems. That also inspired him to write this film.
These places you mentioned, like Detroit, are mostly post-industrial places – they have a very particular atmosphere which I find striking. And in the film, they are contrasted with the natural landscape of Anatolia, and the end result is very beautiful. The visual style also made me want to ask, have you watched a lot of Tarkovsky?
Semih Kaplanoğlu: Yes, of course. For me, Tarkovsky is the biggest director in the world. Tarkovsky opened the door to filmmaking for me. I first watched his film in 1985. It was “Mirror”. Afterwards, everything changed. Collapsed. About education, filmmaking, my taste of film, it changed everything. And now I’m assuming his seat. There is morality in his filmmaking – Tarkovsky put the roots of morality in his films. I find that very important. I feel so.
Jean-Marc Barr: When you watch a Tarkovsky movie, there’s a rhythm of the soul he’s giving to you. You are treated as a human being, as someone who’s intelligent and sensitive and doesn’t need everything underlined to understand but allows you to participate. And it’s really something that is being lost over time, that quality. With most movies.
Jean-Marc, did you find your own relationship with spirituality changed at all by doing this film?
Jean-Marc Barr: No, it just gave me the satisfaction that for once I was doing a film that actually confronting today’s problems.
I read that this film was inspired by lines in the Quran. How would you describe your relationship to spirituality and religion?
Semih Kaplanoğlu: All religions come from the same soul. But my tradition is Sufist. Sufi tradition comes from Quran. Sufism believes all religions are the same. All prophets are prophets. So this movie has many traditional aspects.
Based on what I’ve understood, Sufism is not as rigid as many other religions. Do you think it allows people to find their own path?
Semih Kaplanoğlu: Sufism doesn’t have strict rules. The source is Quran and Islam, but it doesn’t have borders. It’s just about being a human. How can you be a good human? It’s the path, but it costs. In a scene of the film, the characters carry a heavy bag of soil. If you’re a Sufist, you carry that bag all the time. It’s not that easy to be a human.
Do you think you need spirituality to have morality? Can you be a complete atheist and still be a good human being?
Jean-Marc Barr: That’s a good question. I think we’re all influenced by our religion. Religions that over the course of history have become deformed by power, like the Catholic church over the past thousand years. But religion links us to our past. It links us to the morality over these past 2000 years – for Christians. And we, Muslims as well as Christians, are a little bit divided because some people take it literally and some people see the beauty of it and try to live the beauty of it. Parts of our religion are authoritarian, and religion is something that links us with our parents, our grandparents, the people who came before us. I think also with the Sufi Muslim religion, they were an opening from what it used to be.
Semih Kaplanoğlu: And I think religions, all religions, cover the truth – they hide it. Because the truth is so big, so powerful, it’s not easy to see. It’s not easy to face. So religions first cover it. With that cover, human beings can take it.
Well, that’s some big stuff we’ve ended up talking about. To ask a lighter question for a change – what’s your favorite post-apocalyptic film?
Jean-Marc Barr: Stalker.
Semih Kaplanoğlu: But I don’t know if Tarkovsky intended to make a post-apocalyptic movie. I think mine is that film by Kubrick where young people make a disaster out of everything – Clockwork Orange.
Bettina Brokemper: I don’t really have one. I don’t see Grain as a post-apocalyptic or even dystopian, just contemporary. I think it’s about the journey that we have to be willing to take, the questions we need to ask ourselves, to reach conclusions and change behaviors. So I didn’t really seek out post-apocalyptic films as points of reference. But I like the mention of Clockwork Orange because that’s a film where humans did the most awful things.
Jean-Marc Barr: But that was no apocalypse, that was just the reality of the seventies.
So after seeing this film, what do you hope your audience starts doing or thinking?
Bettina Brokemper: I wish they’d question themselves. I never want to give them a manifesto. It’s about making people ask themselves what’s going on with the big corporations, food security, grains...
Jean-Marc Barr: Maybe they don’t need to drive a car anymore, maybe they can start eating less meat and participating less in the mass agriculture. We have to go through a big change now to try and give the Earth a chance to live again. Because if we continue to live as we are living now, we’ve got eighty, maybe a hundred years until there’s going to be no more food, no more bees – we can’t grow things like we do now. The catastrophe is not far. So maybe this film will help people understand the individual responsibility they have, give them a change of consciousness.
Bettina Brokemper: But it’s not like a medicine where you get a prescription that will help you get better, this film doesn’t do that. You have to do the work yourself. You have to go on a journey and allow to question yourself and think how you can make the world a better place. It’s not easy to say, “If you stop eating this, then everything will be okay”.
A question for Jean-Marc - your character, Errol, is a scientist in a big corporation who goes on a journey to find himself and ends up losing his position to reconnect with nature and spirituality. That made me think about the relationship with science and spirituality in the film, and whether they are in conflict. Personally, I think that using science to try and produce food more efficiently – like using GMO – is not a bad thing in itself. What do you think about that?
Jean-Marc Barr: It’s maybe not a bad thing but the thing is, people like Monsanto, are more concerned about profits than they’re concerned about humanity. So in the end, it’s more about exploitation. Food is now a weapon. You know in America, we store grain. We are waiting for the time when all of a sudden, parts of the world will have no more grain and we can sell it to them at a good price. That mentality is wrong.
Yes. I’m aware that there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet many people go hungry – there is an obvious paradox.
Jean-Marc Barr: Yeah, millions of people are still hungry, in places like Somalia. People are dying of starvation, yet just 20 miles away, there are beautiful fields protected by gates and guards. The grain from those fields will be sold to Europe, America or China. So the thing is, there is a responsibility – when people see that crime yet decide to not say anything, not protest against it. They need to confront it. If millions of people would do that, then maybe these corporations could no longer keep this up. Capitalisation today is an evil thing, because it’s based on profit, and it controls all our governments. Corporations are stronger than our governments – they are telling us how to live. So we’ve got to understand that if you want things to change, you can’t hide and turn away your eyes, you’ve got to confront the reality. This film is trying to make you understand, in your own individual soul, why you should do that.
While watching it, I kept thinking about the relationship between science and spirituality in this film. I guess it’s not that they couldn’t coexist, just that science shouldn’t be subjugated to profit.
Jean-Marc Barr: And science is actually trying to help us out of this. The problem is mostly that our governments are not taking scientific proof and changing things. They’re blinding us with flashy movies, flashy magazines, flashy cars...
Just one more question – a simple question. What are you doing next?
Semih Kaplanoğlu: I’m writing a historical story set in the Ottoman time. It’s about a rebel poet. I’m writing his story.
Jean-Marc Barr: I’m gonna go skateboarding and smoke pot.
If you do that in Tokyo you’ll get arrested.
Jean-Marc Barr: I’m not, I’ll do it in California.
Well, of course. Thank you very much for the interview.