A Creative Advisor Finds Inspiration in Istanbul

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Wesley Strick

Film Forward has three target audiences: underserved communities, student and youth groups, and artists. By partnering with other Sundance Institute programs Film Forward is able to enrich its program with workshops designed for artists. The artists component is important, as they are our storytellers, and their greater understanding and experiences will inform and inspire future audiences through the creation and dissemination of their work.

In Turkey, the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program joined Film Forward. Program Director Michelle Satter and Associate Director Alesia Weston traveled with filmmaker/screenwriter Advisors Wesley Strick, Bill Wheeler, and Etgar Keret, as well as filmmaker Cherien Dabis, who participated in both the Feature Film program workshops and Film Forward discussions. The program hosted by the !F Istanbul International Festival included panel discussions on the creative process for writers, case studies such as From Script to Screen, and discussions to learn about emerging Turkish filmmakers and their work.

Below is an account by screenwriter Wesley Strick.

!F Istanbul Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab – Inaugural Class (Advisors, Fellows, Sundance Staff, and !F Staff) Basak Callioglu, Sinan Odabasi, Orhan Eskikoy, Melisa Onel, Reha Erdem, Alesia Weston, Asli Ozge, Bill Wheeler, Michelle Satter, Wesley Strick, Serra Ciliv, Pelin Turgut, Cherien Dabis, Nesimi Yetik, and Betul Esener.

A Monday night in early January. I’m home alone in L.A., watching a movie, when I pause to refresh my wine glass and check emails. I’ve only got one message, a long one – but the subject line says it all: Invitation to join us in Istanbul. Before I look to see that Alesia Weston sent the email, I already know it’s from Sundance. Because who else would invite me to Istanbul?

I’ve been an Advisor at the Screenwriters Lab, off and on (mostly on) since 1995. Over the past 16 years, my attitude about the Lab has evolved from skeptical-but-willing to drank-the-kool-aid-committed. And I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at my job there: helping screenwriters figure out how to strengthen, structure, hone in, and dig deeper. Plus, it always feels as though I’m learning as much from my “Fellows” as they seem to be getting from me, via some mysterious process I can’t fathom. Somehow, summer after summer, Lab after Lab, good work gets done.

Only after I accept, do I carefully read Alesia’s letter and see that we’ll be linking up with !F Istanbul, a film festival now in its tenth year and growing fast. Our active involvement will span just three days, under the rubric “Spotlight on Sundance.” The Lab component is part of Film Forward, a Sundance Institute initiative spearheaded by Stacey Marbrey, dedicated to cultural exchange through regional independent cinema. It all sounds exciting! And confusing!

I spend the next days online, learning that experienced tourists and jaded travel writers agree that Istanbul is a fascinating, exotic, layered city where the word Byzantine refers to architecture as well as history. I download New York Times “36 Hours in Istanbul”-type pieces to my iPad and optimistically order a Turkish phrasebook (that I’ll later glance at exactly once before giving up).

In mid-February, two scripts arrive. My first relieved reaction is that the translations are excellent (which is not always the case). Also, the scripts themselves are quirky and ambitious, and each one quite different than the other. Best, the culture gap isn’t so wide after all – one quick read and I actually grasp what these scripts are about … and get a glimpse of how I might help inch them forward. Soon after, DVDs arrive of the filmmakers’ latest work, and this is even more heartening. Gritty, bold moviemaking on a shoestring. Damn the jetlag – I can’t wait.

We depart LAX on Tuesday the 23rd with Stacey, Alesia, and Michelle Satter, and reach Istanbul Wednesday at about midnight, local time. Though we’re all ready to check in at our hotel and fall into bed, the !F people have other plans – two charming guides lead us down a crowded thoroughfare called Independence Avenue (this, despite the cold drizzle and the fact that it’s mid-week and late). We arrive at “The Hall,” the venue that serves as the festival’s nexus for parties and panels. Right now, a party is raging. We nod and smile at the high spirits in abundance, marvel at the fact we’re really in Istanbul … then limp back to our hotel and crash.

Next day, ignoring our jetlag, our little group does a bit of sightseeing, hitting the Galata Tower for a panoramic view of the city, taking in the sights and smells of the spice bazaar, lunching at a wonderful fish place under the bridge … On Thursday night, at what is billed as a Welcome Dinner, I find myself sitting among filmmakers from all over the world who start fascinating conversations, then rush out to do Q&As for their work that just screened at a theater down the street. Here, we’re introduced to the young, passionate !F founders, Serra Ciliv and Pelin Turgut. As soon as you meet these two, you understand why their festival begins with an exclamation mark. I try to stay on my best behavior and stifle the urge to crack unfunny Serra/Pelin jokes. In the end of course I can’t help myself. But Serra and Pelin laugh, good sports that they are.

Fellow Asli Ozge and Creative Advisor Wesley Strick in one-on-one Creative Meetings at Screenwriters Lab. Photo by Alesia Weston.

On Friday, our little contingent is joined by fellow screenwriter Bill Wheeler, writer-director Cherien Dabis, plus short-story master, screenwriter-director (and absurdist comic provocateur) Etgar Keret, who’s just popped over from Tel Aviv. We four are set to do a panel on screenwriting Saturday morning, back at the multipurpose, ever-morphing Hall.

A healthy crowd turns up, aided by seamless simultaneous translation through headsets. Ably moderated by Bill, the panel goes well, though I come off as Mr. Anal Retentive with my 40-beat outlines and banker’s hours. Cherien winningly describes her first attempts at a new script as “my vomit draft,” and Etgar asserts the writer’s utter freedom as he faces the blank page: “I could kiss Wesley, or I could burn this place down.” It sounds even funnier with his Israeli accent.

Next, Alesia and Michelle speak persuasively about the Sundance Institute Labs, screen a few well-crafted mini-docs of the Directors Lab in action, then explain (to a rapt audience) the nuts-and-bolts of project submissions – deadlines, criteria for acceptance, etc. After, Cherien offers a detailed account of the challenges of making her debut film Amreeka, which was developed at the Lab.

Sunday morning, we cab across the bridge from the European to the Asian side (Istanbul being the world’s only major city that spans two continents). Here, joined by Turkish filmmaker and Advisor Reha Erdem, we’re led into an old building that’s been beautifully renovated for gallery and artist work spaces. We gather in a top-floor loft for a sumptuous Turkish breakfast where Michelle explains that this isn’t a full-scale Sundance Lab (where each of 15 Advisors works with 5 of 12 Fellows, over five immersive days), but a “taste.” She then reminds us all that Advisors are “not here to give notes” – only to engage the Fellows in an open and free-ranging dialogue. Then we split off into pairs for the first of our two meetings.

By everyone’s account afterward, these all go well (the filmmakers, already raring to get to work on their projects, appear even more focused and inspired now) and this time we ferry back to the European side. Some of us cram in more sightseeing, heading for the legendary steam baths, the Topkapi Palace, the cistern. That night we’re back at the Hall for a raucous !F awards party.

On Monday, following our second (and alas, final) meeting, we meet back upstairs in the loft for a splendid lunch. Alesia asks that we go around the table and articulate what it is we’re going to take home from this experience. My answer (“the baklava”) is not as heartfelt as it might be, so when we come back around, I feel compelled to add, “I’d wondered whether the Sundance magic would travel all the way to Istanbul. But I’ve discovered that the magic is Istanbul.” This seems to redeem me with the group (or at least with myself) and what’s more, I really mean it.

That night, though our work here is done, the ever-hospitable and energetic Pelin and Serra take us all out for one last ridiculously fabulous meal. Afterward, we exchange sloppy wine-soaked kisses and scrawled, illegible email addresses and straggle back to our hotel with the warm-glow feeling that we may be headed home, but haven’t seen the last of our newfound Turkish friends.

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