North America TEN Exclusive
This is part 2 of 2 of the North America TEN exclusive interview with the founders of AZ Celtic Films in Istanbul, Alex and Zeynep Sutherland. AZ Celtic Films is a premier production service company that has worked extensively with international and local productions including feature films, series, commercials, documentaries and more. This second part focuses more on how their company has grown and what their vision is in the kinds of stories they wish to tell.
What makes you feel at home in Istanbul? How have you grown your local team?
Alex: I believe that Istanbul is a magical city for dreamers. I love my travel to the office every morning. It has so much richness and layers that you can discover and become lost in. I feel very fortunate to live in one of the world’s greatest cities.
I met my wife in 1996 while I was working on a big UK TV movie and we were filming it outside of Istanbul. My roots go back a long time and I have been fortunate to see the industry move forward at such a rapid pace. The core team has mostly been with us since we started the company in 2010 and by now our communication is honed enough that it is a seamless process. Friendships in Turkey are also different in that there is a sense of brotherhood and a bond, that stays with you.
Zeynep: I have grown up in Istanbul. The city and the country provide a confluence of stories that are Western, Eastern and or Middle-Eastern, providing many kinds of stories to be told for everyone. There is a rich history, with many important landmarks in a geographically diverse country. We also have a lot of physical diversity in our people. This allows not only local stories to be told but also lets Turkey double for many locations in the world, letting us tell diverse, global stories. The ability to tell such stories interests me and I enjoy helping to expand the understanding of my culture and nation.
I have been lucky in the opportunities I got as I built my career. I try to pay it forward by actively supporting young female filmmakers into our team.
You can watch a showreel of the portfolio of work AZ Celtic Films has done:
What are some factors that encourage such a high level of female participation in the Turkish filmmaking industry, even though the broader society is perceived to be quite patriarchal?
Zeynep: There are two types of women in Turkey. Ones who are quite empowered with access to education, who are well-supported by their families for success and more privileged than the others. More so in the urban areas, where we collaborate with men from a young age. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many others and I am aware of the challenges.
Within that, in the film business, there are many women. Majority of the people on my sets are female and we mindfully provide more chances to female candidates. More can be done because I believe that the success of a healthy nation lies in having women in professional and leadership positions.
What kinds of stories do you wish to work on?
Alex: Our aim is to make content in Turkey at international levels. Take local stories and produce them for the widest audience possible. We want to go for something that takes what Turkey has as strengths, and work closely with actors and directors to form a synergistic approach to create content that is powerful. I think that currently a lot of the productions tend to be driven by the production houses where most of the decisions are made at the top level. We would like to take a more collaborative approach with the stakeholders.
Most recently, we produced a hugely successful commercial for Pakistani cell phone provider QMobile, featuring Turkish actress Esra Bilgic Halime of Dirilis Ertugrul, a hugely popular show airing in Pakistan now. Being able to participate in such cross border projects is exciting, especially when it is so well received. You can see the commercial here:
Zeynep: We have a number of dizi projects in the works. Turkish people are very emotional people and the culture is intense, which lends to creating good human, relationship based stories. I am excited about bringing different aspects of our culture to the forefront. There are a couple of projects I am working on, that focus on the female journey that I am very excited about.
How are you dealing with the effects of COVID on the industry?
Alex: From all over the world people in the film business are usually so adaptable because our regular work flow is so fluid anyway. We don’t go to a static office every day. Our work environment changes all the time, and we cannot always rely on having a stable or reliable infrastructure around us. You learn to be diverse embrace technology and adapt in order to work around the problems. COVID is another thing that we are adapting to and has now been added to the set of variables we have to consider.
Having said that, it has had a huge effect on the entire business. Production stopped for several months and we only recently got back up and running a few weeks ago. It has certainly put us back but we have taken the time to do a lot of research for the new projects. We have had to relook at the way we work and adapt accordingly, recently we did a large scale one day commercial for Pakistan at the Ciragan Place. For the shoot we tested the entire crew, we imposed rigorous health checks and safety courses for everyone to follow. We have been very conscious about the working conditions and very strict on the amount of hours the crew worked. We have had to become even more efficient and precise about our process.
Zeynep: We have been going back to sets and using a lot of the industry wide standards established by the Film Union, which is good. We are adapting to the needs rapidly and providing real-time feedback to the Union as well.
Like everywhere else, we got affected immensely at the beginning of the pandemic, some of the projects we were already working on and about to go into shoot went into hiatus. It was tough but we’re at the end of August now and are able to get back up and running. Seeing how the industry has coped with the effects of COVID and taking the right measures, we’re also receiving a good amount of international interest in shooting here which is very positive!
Looking at the Turkish film industry through the lens of producers who are working on the ground to bring positive changes to how the industry evolves is illuminating. We see and fall in love with the end product and often underestimate the planning and effort that go into creating a seamless filming experience that translates into magic on screen.
I cannot say enough good things about how enjoyable it has been to know Alex and Zeynep Sutherland. Despite their many professional achievements, they have a warmth and humility that the North American audience has come to love about what we understand of the Turks (including adopted ones!). Family, friends and relationships are important to them, and Alex and Zeynep’s sense of integrity translates into the quality of work they produce.
I leave you with one of the things that I found particularly beautiful when Zeynep shares her motto: “Life is all about these nice, little moments. We have to enjoy the moment, flourish it and make the most out of it. In the intense world of making movies, where there are so many emotions that need to be captured within constrained time, we do not forget to hug each other as we create something together.”
Don’t forget to check out Part 1 of this series here.
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