In a Limassol-born Turkish Cypriot film director, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man with a persistent side and a love of Cypriot rhythm
My phone rings, the ‘90’ country code denoting a Turkish number. “Did we not say 11 o’clock?” comes the pained, polite voice of Dervis Zaim. I’m initially puzzled – there’s still 40 minutes to go – then deeply mortified, zooming off to Zoom with profuse apologies. I didn’t realise Istanbul was one hour ahead of us, a mistake that’s perhaps understandable (it looks the same on the map; they’re further to the west, if anything!) but also reflects something deeper, the way we in Cyprus tend – consciously or unconsciously – to approach Turkey as a kind of black hole, a wilful gap in our worldview; it’s almost like knowing even basic information about this huge, multi-faceted country would be unpatriotic in itself. He’s lucky I don’t call it ‘Constantinople’, like most Greek Cypriots.
Dervis himself is Cypriot rather than Turkish, but has lived there since he went to university in Istanbul in 1982. He actually studied Business Administration at Bogazici University, the Turkish equivalent of Oxbridge (“one usually has to be in the top one per cent of the entrance exam” to be admitted, says Wikipedia) – but then something went wrong, or more properly right. “Many of my classmates are now CEOs and directors,” he admits in fluent second-language English – but Dervis Zaim is another kind of director, not the kind who sits on boards but the kind who makes movies, his latest (and 10th) feature Flash Drive having already won a prize at the Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival in anticipation of a proper release post-pandemic.
He’s now 56, compact and bespectacled, bushy eyebrows beneath a clean-shaven dome, with a rather professorial manner broken up at intervals by an unexpectedly warm smile. You’d probably peg him as an intellectual even without knowing that he’s currently re-reading Heraclitus – actually, he’s re-reading all the pre-Socratic philosophers – or that his films, by his own admission, are somewhat “arthouse-oriented”. He tends to pause and think before answering questions, and is notably good at remembering dates (most people aren’t, at least in interview mode). It was in 1993-94 that he went to Britain for a year on a scholarship, he tells me, for a Master’s in Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick; it was a year later, in 1995, that he published his debut novel Ares in Wonderland.
The book made his name in Turkey, winning the prestigious Yunus Nadi literary prize – and was surely a big reason why he was able to make his first film, Somersault in a Coffin, a year later. That film, in turn, was a big festival hit, winning 17 awards as far afield as Torino and San Francisco (most of his prizes tend to come from Turkish festivals, though Mud (2003) won the Unesco award at Venice) – but even so, it wasn’t easy. “Look,” he says, tugging at his ear thoughtfully as if wondering where to begin, “there were – many barriers. Hundreds and millions of barriers.” Dervis shrugs: “I continued”.
What kind of barriers? Financial?
“Everything, everything…” He shifts in his chair, his mind ranging back to the image of himself as a thrusting young man. “I was an outsider. It’s not easy for a young outsider, coming from Limassol, to make films.
“Look – for my first film…” He breaks off, the unexpected smile creasing his face again. “My mother retired. And when she retired, they paid her a little amount of money. She gave me this money, I buy 60 cans of Agfa [film]. 60 cans.” Each can held about 10 minutes’ worth of film, in those far-off days of celluloid; you had to be very frugal and organised in your shooting methods, if all you had were 60 cans. “One of my teachers lent me his camera, and two lights. Nobody was paid – including actors and crew. And I shot the film. This was my introduction.”
Did he think it would do as well as it did?
He gives a drawn-out, expansive shrug. “I just thought that, if I may be able to finish it – I mean finish the shooting, not the whole film – if I manage to finish the shooting in 17 days that’s enough for me, it’s a miracle. Ahmet Ugurlu and Tuncel Kurtiz were the actors of the film, and they were brilliant actors. Top actors. And they read the script, and I tell them, ‘I’m broke, I don’t have money. I couldn’t raise the money. Can you come?’ They said, ‘Let’s try!’.” Kurtiz, in particular, was a well-established actor who’d won a major prize at Berlin some years earlier; he was naturally a bit reluctant to work with an unknown director who was barely in his 30s – especially without being paid, especially when Dervis offered him a secondary role instead of the lead. “He made me suffer a lot,” recalls the director, “he refused me, [but] I knocked on the door many times, numerous times, and in the end he said yes.”
That’s something you wouldn’t necessarily guess from a Zoom call, that this bookish fellow who looks like a teacher (he actually teaches filmmaking at two universities, Near East in north Nicosia and Maltepe in Istanbul) also has a steely, persistent side, knocking on doors and refusing to be put off. “Rule number one,” intones Dervis, “you continuously, as a director – whether wannabe director or established director – you continuously have ‘No’.” He smiles again, a rueful note creeping in this time, like the light from a bleak winter’s sky peeking through the white lace curtains behind him. “This is the rule of the game. Always! Each and every project, it’s a must, you will have many ‘No’s. The master is the person who can still continue, even though he got millions of ‘No’s from many places.”
What makes him continue? Where does the confidence come from, to persist in the face of rejection?
“You have certain thoughts about life,” he replies airily, “about yourself, about your rhythm. These are the ones – all together – that make you continue.” He stops, as if feeling the need to add something important: “If I had a chance to be an insurance broker, or a lawyer, in Nicosia, I would be. I would like to! But I am not good at doing these things, I am not good at insurance, business administration and so on. This [career] is the place where I feel that I am home.” Dervis raises both hands in a gesture of amiable resignation: “So…”
His lifestyle may not always match that of his old college friends who are now CEOs. “I have a humble life,” he shrugs. “I am happy.” He’s a married man and an empty-nester, with a 20-year-old son who’s now at uni (not studying film). He likes reading (hence Heraclitus), walking, meeting up with friends, nothing too strenuous – yet he also spent two months last year recreating a war zone for Flash Drive (it was shot partly in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria), the film’s hero being a mute Syrian soldier trying to flee so he can testify about the massacres he’s witnessed. Dervis’ films are indeed rather heavy – asked about influences, he replies that he always loved Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, “like every young film buff” – but it doesn’t mean they can’t be dramatic, or audience-friendly. Could he make a popcorn movie someday, or at least a comedy? He does hope to make a comedy, he replies slightly evasively – but of course it would have to be “a dark comedy”.
Is he pretentious? Some of his students may think so, given young people’s taste in film nowadays – yet I also imagine he’s a popular teacher. He’s a little forbidding, but warm too. On the one hand, film directing is a lonely business, forever having to cut through the thicket of ‘No’s. I’m struck by something he says about film students, that a teacher can only help if they already “have a project in their mind”; Dervis seems quite stern about creativity as a kind of personal battle, a fixation that takes hold in your mind – no-one else can put it there for you – and demands total fealty, even at the price of foregoing a career as insurance broker. He himself seems to have found success early, I note. “I think I am lucky,” he replies with a touch of irony. “I’m lucky that I work a lot. I work day and night. Systematically.”
All this on one side, a driven, exacting, potentially grumpy man who takes his work seriously and likes his films popcorn-free. Yet there’s personal charm there too – and film directing, lest we forget, is also collaborative. Unlike literature, where you do everything yourself, “if you are tough enough to raise a certain amount of money and begin to make a film, 10 or 15 clever people may help you,” points out Dervis. “As a filmmaker you should have three important characteristics,” he enumerates. “First, you should have a system: a semiological system as a director, as an artist… Secondly, you should be able to raise money, find contacts. And thirdly, you should be able to create an atmosphere where people can communicate with you”. An artist, a hustler and a people person – the third being perhaps the most important.
And what about when he’s not working? Is he also quite sociable?
He shrugs, the smile playing on his lips again: “I am Cypriot…”
He is indeed – born in Limassol, raised partly in Famagusta after the invasion (artillery sounded on the morning of July 20, the Turkish part of town surrendered to the Greek army in the afternoon: “This is the short story of Limassol”), and one of those semi-emigrants who’ve never lost their links to the place (then again, he didn’t go very far). Three of his 10 films are Cyprus-related – they include a documentary, Parallel Trips, co-directed with Panicos Chrysanthou in 2004 – and he’d like to make more. What does the island mean to him? “The place itself talks to me,” he replies, a bit mysteriously. “Rhythm is important, and the Cypriot rhythm – in the streets, in the place – is very important for me.”
What’s it like, this rhythm? Where does it come from?
“Smells. Colours. Weather. The buildings. The ugliness!… Dirty, frustration, beauty – all together. This is life, with all beauty and chaos. I would like to listen to this rhythm. It feeds me. It feeds me.”
And the politics? I ask, of course, but Dervis is too canny to offer much, beyond a few platitudes about “mutual understanding”. Being a Turkish Cypriot is hard enough, never mind being Turkey-based and not wanting (I presume) to sound like he’s speaking for the whole community. Besides, what could anyone say about our intractable problem? “Let’s talk about this after the pandemic,” he offers, and smiles.
Ah yes, the pandemic – and ‘after the pandemic’, that conveniently vague phrase that’s become a bit less vague in recent days. What will happen after the pandemic, to films in particular? Will cinemas ever come back, or will movies now be streamed in bedrooms and living-rooms for perpetuity? His answer is typical, both intellectual and sociable: “10,000 years ago, we sat down all together in front of the fire and wanted to watch something – a shaman, or something… In the long run, I believe [people] will come back to theatres because, as a characteristic, humans would like to watch all together. They like to sit in a dark salon – in a cave! – and like to see the shadows on the walls.” Despite our digital loneliness – and despite the evidence from divided Cyprus, some might add – “togetherness is an important characteristic of humans”.
He himself is a bit like those Stone Age shamans of old – making the “shadows on the walls” for people to watch, trying to rewrite “the old stories” for his students’ generation. “I do my best to open the way about feeling, thinking,” says Dervis Zaim. “About people. Without ready slogans and ready formulas.” He bids me farewell with a nicely Oriental gesture – hands joined under his chin, as if in prayer – and we separate, I back in Cyprus, he (one hour later) in Istanbul.