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Directing With Bifocals

Photo by David Ehrenstein"It's like a fairy tale," says Fatih Akin. "He's asleep, and she wakes him up. ‘Sleeping Beauty,' with the sexes reversed." Few moviegoers, however, are likely to find anything storybook-like about the She and He in the Turkish-extracted, German-born writer-director's dark comedy-drama Head-On. It centers, after all, on a manic-depressive nymphomaniac (Sibel Kekilli) who meets a suicidal alcoholic (Birol Ünel) in a hospital emergency ward and, the better to get out from under her repressive, patriarchal family, persuades him to marry her. Winner of the grand prize at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, Head-On was subsequently a box-office hit in Germany, where it reverberated with both native Germans and the Turkish-immigrant population, while inspiring no end of comment about the onscreen antics of its volatile characters, and about the fact that its leading lady is an "adult film" star. "I always say in interviews, especially in Germany, that the characters do not represent the Turkish minority in Germany," says the 31-year-old Akin, who has several films prior to this breakthrough to his credit. "I said that to protect me and my actors, but also because these are such extreme characters. But the louder I said that they didn't represent the Turkish minority, the more it came to represent them." The emotional restlessness his characters embody, in other words, struck a cross-cultural chord. "I got a wonderful gift by growing up with two cultures," Akin observes. "I was born in Germany, and I'm German somehow. At the same time I have my Turkish parents. "They always spoke Turkish. And they cared that we spoke Turkish, my brother and me - ‘Don't forget your language!' It's perfect for an artist, because you get two views." This "two views" aspect, with sex as the linchpin, has become a widespread cinematic phenomenon, beginning in 1985 with the gay punk love story My Beautiful Laundrette, written by the British-born Pakistani Hanif Kureishi (and the film that made Daniel Day Lewis a star), all the way up through the other film titled Head On, a violent Greek-Australian coming-out tale directed by Ana Kokkinos in 1998. Akin's Head-On, while heterosexual, is every bit as provocative as its predecessors. Take, for example, the scene where the heroine's brother thanks his thankless in-law for making his sister "respectable" through marriage. Akin says that really touched a nerve. "We had an Internet home page for the film and a guest book. Fifty percent of the Turkish viewers, mostly female, really loved the film. ‘Thank you for the film, this is the first time we've seen someone on the screen experiencing the problems as we do.' But the other 50 percent said it was like someone throwing shit into their living room: ‘You must be killed for this film! Why are you letting a Turkish girl do this?' I had a lot of fun doing the scene with the brothers." That scene spoofs Turkish social tradition. Yet for all his iconoclasm, Akin has an abiding respect for both of the cultures that nourish him. "I'm not German in that I don't have family members connected to the Holocaust, for example. When the film about Hitler [Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, scheduled to open here in February] came out and there was all this controversy about ‘Do we go see it or not?' - that was not a problem for me. I have another view. I see things differently. The same in Turkey. When I'm there, I have my German glasses on." He'll have his Turkish glasses on again for his next film, about writer, actor, director and political prisoner Yilmaz Guney, whose most famous film, Yol, was directed by proxy while Guney was in a Turkish jail. "It will take a long time because it's such a huge project. I love Guney's films, he's a really big influence," says Akin, who also counts John Cassavetes, Billy Wilder, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese among his models. "I was in Turkey making a documentary and I got a call from the Yilmaz Guney Foundation. Head-On was a huge critical success in Turkey. They wrote, ‘There was a time before Head-On and after Head-On.' You get dizzy when you read that, you know?"