Wednesday 14 May 2014

A Walk on the Hills Above Ortakoy

In the first week of April, 2014, I took a long and refreshing walk on the hills above Ortaköy, one of Istanbul's picturesque seaside neighborhoods. Although Ortaköy is surrounded by the masses of ugly urban sprawl, this certain hill was spared due to its proximity to a historical Jewish cemetery.

Spring was beginning to assert itself and scores of tiny animals were frolicking among the green grass and the blooming flowers. It was a welcome respite from the soul-grinding chaos of Istanbul's traffic and rude people. Here re some animals I encountered:

I was familiar with these fleet-footed spiders since childhood. My friends and I even had a name for them - to us the yellowish, improbably fast spiders that ran, jumped and hunted among grass blades were cheetah spiders. This was my first chance to take decent photographs of them.

The "cheetah spiders" were known commonly as nursery web spiders, Pisaura mirabilis. This individual was a male, as evident from its patterned back and boxing-glove-like appendages on its pedipalps. The males pumped these organs full of sperm and inserted them into the females' genitals when mating. I'm not kidding. The human equivalent of this action would be someone ejaculating into his hands and fisting his partner in order to get her pregnant!

Another beautiful arachnid I saw was this brightly-coloured jumping spider of the family Salticidae, sucking on some sort of fly while basking on the marble of a 30-year-old Jewish tomb. I love jumping spiders - their faces are adorned with cute, owl-like eyes and they have an incredible variety of rare species. Identifying them was an arachnologist's nightmare. I's never seen a jumping spider of this colour before, it could even have been a new species.

Two other spiders, from the crab spider family Thomisidae were displaying to each other, perhaps as a mating dance, perhaps as part of a territorial battle, or perhaps a bit of both.

These two dazzlingly-coloured flies, Diptera sp. were getting it on on a milkweed leaf. They sat without moving, mounted together in a statue-like embrace. They reminded me of ravers with colourful sunglasses. Note how the male's eyes had a touch of red, compared to the female's blue-green tincture.

There was a sudden rustle from the tall bushes behind me. I first thought it to be a cat, but then out came this old, friendly-looking tortoise, possibly of the species Testudo gracea. I felt very happy that such an animal could live to old age in the middle of Istanbul's concrete inferno. Perhaps all cities needed more cemeteries to preserve what was left of their wildlife.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Childhood Games, Movies and Adventures

Recently, my father, an esteemed photographer, sent me a batch of childhood photos showing the various crazy "games" me, my brother and other friends played as we were growing up. I had always been a creative and mischievous kid, and had no shortage of interesting games and adventures to put my friends and little brother through.

This photo, taken all the way back in 1991, shows me and my baby brother turning a fireplace into an "altar to the snake-god" with plastic toy snakes, seashells, candles and other natural paraphernalia. My brother and family friends would sing and clap, while I would utter nonsense riddles and incantations, supposedly conveyed to me by the "master of the serpents."

It all sounds very esoteric, but I clearly remember being inspired by the Mumm-ra character from the epic early 1980s cartoon show, Thundercats. Far from mysticism, this game was all about cartoon fandom.

We really liked playing with plastic snakes of all sorts. I had a bag of about 8 or 10 such toys, and carried it everywhere I went.

I also had faint memories of these weird, fish-like toys, a gift by our grandfather from a business trip to Paris. We would bury them in the beach and pretend to "uncover" them in front of shocked onlookers.

By the mid-1990s, my interest in "weird stuff" was growing considerably. This photograph, taken in 1996, showed me and my brother chilling in our double bed. I had decorated our room with H.R. Giger prints and images of animals.

We were also big movie aficionados. After watching Back to the Future Part 2, I built this fake "howerboard" out of cardboard, aluminum foil and parts of discarded electronic devices. Too bad it couldn't fly for real.

One of our family friends, Necdet "Neco" Sahin, (now a successful graphic designer,) was with us through most of our games and adventures. In this dream-like picture, the three of us are exploring the mirror-like surface of the great Salt Lake (Tuz Gölü) in the middle of the Anatolian plain. The hypersaline water, only an inch deep, was covered with a brittle layer of salt crystals at the bottom. Beneath the salt, there was a sticky layer of dark mud. We all ruined our shoes during this particular excursion, all the way back in 1997.

I used to collect broken computers and other electronic garbage, and use them to build an altar-like "master computer" in our parents' storage closet. I'd then line up my brother and friends in front of this insane contraption, and force them to undergo a "trance," claiming that the machine could read their minds.

Here is a close-up of the insane "master computer." Circuit boards, broken keyboards and hard disks, and parts of a flip-display clock are visible.

As we grew, it occurred to me to film our games, and a bustling mini-industry of weird movies developed in our household. We shot dozens of funny adventures and short sci-fi stories with our father's Hi-8 camera. The method we had for "editing" the movies was simple: we simply rewound the tape to a desired part of the shot, and filmed the countershot on top of it, praying that the segments would match.

Our adventures in this "MemoWood" can fill dozens of blog posts like this. Here, I am testing a "superhero costume" made out of aluminum foil and fireproof gloves.

In this picture, I am helping my brother put on an improved version of the aluminum suit shown above.

In 1999, a great earthquake struck Turkey and thousands of people, including my grandmother, perished in the disaster. In this dark period, MemoWood shielded us from the traumas of the earthquake. My father shot this picture only a day after we had found our grandmother's body in the rubble. We were keeping ourselves busy by filming a DIY version of The Matrix in a construction site. I can only imagine the harrowing feelings my father must have been going through when he took this photo. Perhaps, our games may have given him hope.

As we matured, so did our films, with more detailed props, better cameras and improved storylines. But they were still about outlandish heroes and crazy science-fiction battles. An example: this movie was called "Triangle Man vs. Nazis." By this time I had decided to become a film director, but I could simply not bring myself to shoot a boring film about emotions, or "strangers whose lives intersect," and so on. My movies had to have explosions, chases and weird villains, preferably played by myself. Perhaps the earthquake (and the subsequent tribulations of our family,) had cauterized my feelings about people - MemoWood was our way of escaping that reality.

On the set of Kırkayak, with friends Can Evrenol, Melis Aydan and Kerem Sevinçli, in 2008.

In one form or another, MemoWood lasted until 2008, when I shot my last and most complicated picture, "Kırkayak" (The Centipede,) about a drug dealer who turned into a pointy-headed superhero who could shit out explosives and battled an army of supernatural ninjas.

The closest I got to being a professional filmmaker was in the mid 2000s, when I directed music videos, short commercials and was featured in a TV show about life as a college student. Films like Kırkayak gave me a limited "cult" recognition among young arts and film enthusiasts in Istanbul.

Afterwards, I drifted away from films and was interested more in art and books. I still want to make more films, not just crazy MemoWood adventures but also documentaries as well. Time and circumstances permitting, MemoWood may rise again. But sadly, we will all have outgrown the cheerful innocence of its earlier incarnation.