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‘Growing Up Married’ Director Eylem Atakav on accessible academic filmmaking

As well as being Professor of Film, Gender and Public Engagement and Associate Dean for Internationalisation at the University of East Anglia, Dr Eylem Atakav has become an acclaimed filmmaker in her own right. The Director of Growing Up Married spoke to Indy Film Library about making theory accessible, and breaking out of the dreaded ‘ivory tower’ via collaborative film projects.

While communicating academic ideas through film can make them more accessible, on the other side of that, do you ever worry that by applying complex methodologies to film, academia can end up alienating wider audiences from work meant for to them?

Applying complex methodologies may not be challenging for academics, as we are trained to do precisely this, but writing or disseminating our research findings in ways and in a language that is accessible to all is the key challenge. There is value in theory and heavily theoretical writing, but there is even more value in writing in an accessible manner, avoiding jargon and most importantly with diverse readers/audiences in mind.

If film theory is to play a larger role in helping shape the way people think about the culture they engage with, are there any ways the academic community could open itself up to a wider audience in future?

Yes – lots of ways. Exposing audiences to texts and contexts that they would otherwise not be exposed to is, I think, at the heart of public engagement. As academics we do research, we put research into practice, but this act of turning theory to practice can only be strengthened through engagement with non-academic partners or stakeholders. This connection needs to be delicately nurtured. As a feminist film studies scholar, I have been encouraging all those in academia to think about not just critiquing films but also making films, thereby offering new images and new voices. Feminist praxis, to me, is the answer to making a difference.

Our role as academics is not to sit in the so called ‘ivory towers’ and theorise about society and the media, on the contrary, it is about understanding the media and society and offering diversity as well. If we want to see a change in reality, we ought to change the ways in which that reality is represented through the media. This would offer a great way to offer alternative messages. For feminist media studies; offering feminist media practices as new cultural products, with academic underpinnings, is the way forward I think.

In your book Women and Turkish Cinema, you made the case that the feminist movement in Turkey was able to flourish despite the enforced de-politicisation of the post-coup 1980s, “precisely because it was not perceived as political or politically significant.” With Turkey currently moving in an authoritarian direction (though where in the world isn’t?), would feminism still be viewed in the same way now, or do you expect it will meet with greater pushback from the establishment from here-on-in?

I am indeed seriously worried about the political discourse used around womanhood within Turkey. The increase on the number of domestic violence victims, the rise in ‘honour’ crimes, the changes in law that forces women/girls to marry their rapists… it is endless. According to 2015 Turkish Population Research, 1 in 3 marriages there is a girl under 18! We need to act. We need to act very quickly. And academics play a hugely significant part in this case. Particularly, film studies scholars. Media studies academics. Film has the amazing power of making stories and experiences visible and audible. It allows stories to travel at speeds faster than one can imagine.

As Professor of Film, Gender & Public Engagement at the University of East Anglia, you seem to have come to filmmaking from more of a theoretical than practical background. What did you find to be the biggest challenges when coming from that background to make Growing Up Married?

It has been an amazing journey so far, with some snagging issues at the beginning regarding internal university politics and bureaucracies, but my biggest challenge was after I made the film. Once I had an understanding of how powerful a film can be, for about a year or so, it was incredibly difficult to sit in front of the computer, to write a theory piece. There is great value in theory, of course, but ethnographic research makes it way more meaningful, cause you get a sense of what people you are theorising about really think. So, going from theory to practice was not as challenging as going from talking to real women about their brutal real experiences of violence to theorising about women, media and violence.

The film features some incredibly harrowing testimony from women in Turkey who were forced into marriage when they were children. What was the hardest part of the filmmaking process for when handling such a sensitive subject?

One example keeps coming to my mind. I was doing an interview with a woman who was raped twice. And during the recording there was terrible background noise and we could not get rid of it. But, she was telling us about rape. You cannot stop her in the middle of her telling her experience, and say, ‘sorry! Can we do a second take on that rape story!?’ That would have been unethical. Also, I ended up having a nervous breakdown after finishing filming the interviews. I felt like a sponge listening to it all, and suddenly all these experiences overwhelmed me to the point of collapse.

And sometimes people ask me about the power relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee and how my position is supposedly more powerful than the women I interviewed. I never felt that powerless in my life. They lived through the experiences they were telling me about and managed to remain alive! I didn’t go through any of those experiences, and just listening to them resulted in a breakdown. They are powerful women. We need to challenge ourselves about the image we have in our minds as to what a powerful woman looks like. And I sincerely hope that the film helps with painting new images of powerful women.

What can people do to help with the issues talked about in the film?

There are some really amazing charities (in the UK) like Girls Not Brides, Freedom, Karma Nirvana, IKWRO. They provide excellent support and help thousands of women in danger. But, also, I encourage people to tell their own stories in film form. Record experiences. Make them visible. Make them audible. The safeguarding teams at different constabularies around the country do amazing work, too, same with the NHS (Safeguarding Children Team).

What was the reception of the film like? Did it differ inside and outside the UK?

It has been great so far. The film travelled from the UK, to the US, to Japan, Bangladesh and Turkey. What fascinates me is that in most (if not all) of the screenings there are disclosures. People who watch other people speak out about their experiences seem to feel more comfortable to speak out about their own experiences. The reception overall has been extremely positive.

Having survived your first project, do you have any advice for other academics approaching their first foray into filmmaking?

Most universities which have Media Studies degrees will have editing suites and cameras you can rent for free. It can’t be difficult to get access to these opportunities as faculty. So, grab a camera, and think about what the value of your research is and how you can visualise it, how you can answer your research question with a visual artefact. Partner with your students – students are active and they like putting theory into practice. So, work with them. Involve them. Involve other colleagues, too.

And once you start the process, think about the dissemination process. Think about how many people you have collected over the years, from non-academic communities or policymakers. Think about the kind of stakeholders who might benefit from your research. Get in touch with them. The rest of the process is likely to be an amazing adventure.

Do you have any plans for a follow up film, or a project on another subject in the pipeline?

Yes. I have been working on a second documentary project – forced and child marriage in Norfolk. I like the idea of challenging people’s perceptions of Norfolk. I am repeatedly told that ‘these kinds of things don’t happen round here!’ and yet they do! So, I have been working with a number of organisations including the Domestic Abuse Partners Forum of Norfolk Constabulary. Exciting times ahead!

Eylem Atakav is giving the UEA London Lecture on this topic on 12th March 2020. For tickets and information, see here.

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