Friday 29 January 2016

Encounters with Mediterranean Geckos

Geckos are among my favourite animals. Wherever I go, I seek them out and try to take their pictures. I want to use this post to showcase the different species of geckos I've encountered in the Mediterranean world.

This is one of the most common species in Turkey; Hemidactylus turkicus, the Mediterranean house gecko. I'd written about these geckos before. This one was photographed in Istanbul, but these geckos are much more common around Turkey's southern coasts. They are among the most widely-distributed geckos in Eurasia, and they have been introduced to numerous other places as a result of human activity. Note the tiny, reddish mite on the right toe of this guy.

A species more common in Istanbul is Cyrtopodion (= Mediodactylus) kotschyi, Kotschy's geckoThese geckos are very easy to identify with their un-gecko-like feet, which lack the characteristic adhesive pads. Instead, they have long and kinky fingers that enable them to grip irregularities on walls.

I found this particular specimen under a log in Istanbul. It was very dark in colour, which meant it was resting. Kotschyi's geckos can change colour to a limited extent.

Cyrtopodion kotschyi is widely distributed in Turkey. Specimens from different regions show a lot of variation and some of these are doubtlessly different species and/or sub-species awaiting proper recognition. (As if the meaning of the term "species" wasn't complicated enough).

I found this particular kotschyi on the skirts of Mount Tahtali in Antalya. With larger eyes, prominent "eyelash" scales and a flatter head, it was markedly different from its conspecifics from Istanbul.

Another Kotschy's gecko, this time from Bodrum. This specimen had a brownish colour and more slender features.

I am very familiar with Hemidactylus and Cyrtopodion geckos in Turkey. Be it in Istanbul or Bodrum, one is never far from their presence during the warmer nights of the year. In Bodrum, I admired them as small, quirky "nocturnal companions" one could easily find when bored with the drudgery of people, the ritual of summer tourism and social life.

Despite my familiarity with these two kinds, one very famous species of Mediterranean gecko always eluded me - the tough and chunky Moorish gecko, Tarentola mauritanica. In September 2015 I had the chance of seeing them live in Sicily, Italy.

Compared to the timid and smallish Hemidactylus and Cyrtopodion species, the Tarentola of Sicily were big, brazen and fearless - they did not always flee when confronted with people, and they were absolutely everywhere - on walls, in rooms, in densely built-up areas and once even inside a cathedral. In the western part of the island I even saw them basking during the late afternoon - something nocturnally-adapded geckos almost never do.

With the Moorish gecko in my checklist, I completed the "big three" of Mediterranean geckos.

However, there are still a few species I haven't seen: In Europe the cryptic European leaf-tailed gecko; Euleptes europaea; plus a truckload of minor Tarentola species. Turkey I have yet to see the exotic eastern forms: The rough tailed geckoCyrtopodion scabrum; the leopard gecko, Eublepharis angramainyu; the Anatolian thin-toed gecko, Mediodactylus heterocercum; and the big-headed thin-toed geckoStenodactylus grandiceps... a world of discovery awaits.

UPDATE (2018):
On a trip to the Southeastern Turkish city of Mardin in September, 2018, I had the chance to observe the Anatolian thin-toed geckos, Mediodactylus heterocercum on the wall of a local cafe. Here are a few photographs of these adorable creatures. They strongly resembled the related Cyrtopodion (= Mediodactylus) kotschyi with their naked, pad-less toes; but these animals were larger, and had a more "rugged" look with saw-edged scales. Their fat, scaly "lips" also gave them funny expressions.

If you like my gecko portraits, you can also visit my gallery of Turkish herptile photos at the ADAMEROS Reptile and Amphibian Monitoring Society of Turkey.

Friday 15 January 2016

A Dog with Two Noses

In January 2016, I took this snapshot of a cute dog waiting by her homeless owner, who was sleeping on a public bench Istanbul's Kadıköy neighbourhood. Just one of the thousand similar scenes you could see in a big city like Istanbul. Nothing unusual, right? Check again.

The dog, against all reason, seemed to have two noses.

I did a double take and returned to photograph the dog. Not only did she have two noses, but the entire front half of her face was duplicated. The left nose was slightly smaller than the right one. Each nose had two independent nostrils, but the nostrils facing the interior side were smaller.

The dog seemed not at all disturbed by this curious deformity. I secretly wondered if her homeless owner had a similarly bifurcated face as well. (He didn't).

The deformity was most likely caused by severe inbreeding, and was rare enough to make the news, [1] [2] where it was referred to as a “one in a several million” incident.

I and a friend later played a frivolous "credit card machine" joke with this dog.

Alongside one-off sports like these, there are apparently breeds of dogs with a regular occurrence of twin noses. One of these was the spectacularly-named double-nosed Andean tiger hound.

A breed of double-nosed setter dog named çatalburun, (fork-nose,) was also bred in Turkey, near the district of Tarsus, where long ago, and completely unrelated to our story, Paul the Apostle was born. This dog was likely a çatalburun hybrid. 

What a strange encounter... People needlessly complain about genetic engineering and GMOs, as if modification of organisms is some blasphemous practice that only started two decades ago. This doggy was a reminder that people have been doing strange things to organisms through selective breeding, for centuries.

Thursday 7 January 2016

BASKIN: Wall Paintings and Cameo Acting in a Fantastic Horror Film

Just last week, in January 2016, my friend Can Evrenol's feature-length film BASKIN (the title translates as "The Raid,") started screening in Turkey, after a prestigious premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Back in December 2014, I worked at the film's production as a set painter and inadvertently, in a cameo role as a "cult member."

Now I can tell you my story on the set of this interesting film.

Baskın revolves around five Turkish cops answering a distress call from a "haunted house" and ending up in a protracted netherworld of fantastic body horror, gore and circular plot-lines. The film was shot partly at the abandoned docks near the Port of Haydarpaşa, on the Asian shore of Istanbul.

This was where I was called on to decorate part of the set. As you can see, the location already had a foreboding, dystopian feeling to it. Turn-of-the-century architecture, built by Germans trying to bolster the Ottoman Empire as an ally for the upcoming global conflict, were juxtaposed with depressingly utilitarian administrative buildings and grain silos built in the 20th century. To top it off, it was all abandoned as a result of a cancelled plan to re-zone the district as a commercial centre.

I was tasked with painting empty walls in this particular building with "demonic murals," for a scene foreshadowing the dark rituals taking place in the film.

A view of the room I worked in. 

I had brought some printed sketches to serve as inspiration and guidance. I spread them to the floor and got to work.

Can Evrenol wanted the wall-drawings to look extremely crude and primal, as if painted in cataleptic trance by half-human cultists possessed by demonic presences from the beyond. Accordingly, my supplies were also quite Spartan. Only three colours, red, black and white, with thick, damaged brushes to apply them with.

I was extremely happy to be able to go wild on all those empty walls, without care for spatial or contextual limitations. It was very refreshing to paint fast and dirty, improvised visions and demons growing from my brush as rapidly as I could swing it. I started painting with these twin serpentine forms.

In front of the twin serpents, which resembled escapees from an Egyptian papyrus of the dead

The final incarnation of the twin serpents. To get the atmosphere right, I photographed finished versions of my wall paintings in complete dark, illuminated only by a flashlight of the type the actors would later use in the film.

I then covered an adjacent wall with this rather over-the-top figure of a bird-demon taking up human sacrifice and splattering the blood of its hapless victim onto its sexually-perverted devotees. The figure was loosely based on the famous demon Pazuzu, from The Exorcist.

The bird-demon was a ludicrously exaggerated painting, but it looked quite scary with the right lighting. City-liner boats were plying the Bosphorus in the background, connecting Istanbul's European and Asian halves.

I continued painting, adding a scene of reptilian shapeshifter sex next to the twin serpents.

Here is the finished version of the reptilian shapeshifter love scene. To disturb the crisp look of the wall paintings, I later splashed buckets of mud and paint on them. The director, Can, seemed to like this scene a lot - a shot in the film focuses intensely on the spot where the lizard man is penetrating the woman.

Can Evrenol had told me there would be "something with frogs, transformation and stuff" happening in the film, so I played a little game of world-building with the reptilian sex scene, with the poor girl getting pregnant with the lizard-man's fearful seed, morphing into a frog and giving birth to half human, half-herptile abominations. None of these details were (directly) in the film's plot, but these mental exercises made the wall paintings feel more real and internally consistent.

I continued the "reptilian mythos," with the frog-girl's progeny crawling around the corner to another wall and there joining, or turning into an "ultimate demon" with blood on its hands.

Here is the ultimate demon in its completed state. The film's arts department placed a lot of trash and furniture around the wall paintings, heightening the scary atmosphere of the room.

A view of the many "little herps" I added around the main reptilian sequence for extra depth.

Here is me painting a frog!

A glimpse from the finalised reptilian sequence, with the extra frog figure, splatters of mud, dust and debris. Imagine running into something like this in real life!

I then painted a sort of lovecraftian deity on the left side of the reptilian sequence. The weather was quite cold at this time of the year and I had to work the night-round with a coat, scarf and cap.

Here is the lovecraftian deity, with accessory figures and various little herps, in its finished state.

The film was also to have lots of people and dead bodies cocooned and suspended from the walls, Aliens style. I thus painted some cocooned people, and toothed demons feeding on them.

Here is the final version of the cocoon people painting. Note the bird-demon figure in the background, on another wall of the room.

I liked the toothed demons a lot, so I painted a few more of them on a nearby concrete column.

Another toothed demon, it looks quite happy to see you!

More toothed demons...

These two red kings, based on the haunting rock art of Sego Canyon, USA, were almost painted as an afterthought. I was surprised to see them getting a lot of screen time in the finished film.

This figure, which I named Lilith of the Serpents, was painted on another column near the reptilian sequence. It was the final piece I completed on the set.

Here is a collated, high-resolution version of the reptilian sequence in its final incarnation. I was extremely proud of these paintings, I wished I could make more. You can download this picture here for a full view.

The paintings were done, but my time on Baskın was not over yet. A few days later, Can Evrenol, remembering my hyper-flexible joints, called me to ask if I'd like to play a cameo role as a weird cultist in a big scene he was filming. Never one to miss an opportunity for fame, I agreed and visited him on the film's set on Istanbul's historic Fatih district.

Can & his crew were filming inside a centuries-old, domed structure, left over from the Byzantine era. This led to some bizarre juxtapositions like this crew kitchen set up next to this ancient Byzantine column capital.

I played the role of a quivering, cataleptic cultist alongside a great crew of performers; Elif Dağ, Hayati Citaklar, Leman, Tuğba, Aslıhan, İhsan Öz and İhsan Ön, Sema, Kerem, Derin, and Burakhan. For our roles we were stripped nearly naked, doused with a cold, sticky concoction of fake blood and wore dark plastic masks.

Despite being extremely fun, working at this unheated set in winter was a very cold and tiring experience. Long times spent waiting for the crew to re-arrange the stage really stretched our tolerance. At one point I grew extremely tired and guiltily left the set after a few hours of filming. I later learnt that the rest of the cultist crew kept on working from late afternoon to dawn, for two more days.

I was not an official member of the cast, but I felt bad about leaving these people behind. To make up for my weak early departure, I gave tiny personal sketches to each member of the cultist crew.

A nice perk of the exhausting filming experience was this 3 AM visit to a historical Turkish bath to scrub off the fake blood covering all parts of my body.

In the end, I was delighted to have my gnarly fingers (seen here on the left,) show up in a few key shots in the final cut and the trailer of Baskın.

My wall paintings also made generous appearances, adding to the suspense of the film's first half.

Baskın is now playing in theatres around Turkey. After March 25, 2016, it will be screened in 26 more countries, including the US, UK and Australia. I'm sure it will be available online in the future too.

Baskın is not only of the more technically-apt horror films to come out of Turkey, but also the first Turkish horror films with thematical links to the global milieu of cult underground horror films.

There are dozens of horror films in Turkey, based mostly on cheap sound-effects and over-used "jinn" themes. Against them, Baskın is, if you will, a "thinking man's horror film." I recommend everyone reading this blog to go watch it as soon as possible.