Friday, September 3, 2010

Haute Cuisine with Fatih Akin

The Turkish-German filmmaker has made a career out of producing healthy alternatives to mainstream junk. Bringing food to the forefront, his new, easy-to-digest comedy Soul Kitchen is no exception.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

Fatih Akin

THERE'S A GREAT LINE in Soul Kitchen, a new German comedy and the latest from Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, that speaks volumes beyond its context. It’s uttered with damning authority by Shayn (Birol Ünel), a curmudgeonly, elitist gourmet chef whose need for a job brings him to the Hamburg restaurant of the film’s title — a greasy spoon owned by Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), the equally desperate protagonist.

“People don’t know what’s good,” Shayn growls to Zinos. “They stuff their bellies full of shit.”

Shit, that is, like the schnitzel, pizza, hamburgers and french fries Zinos regularly served to his fat and happy customers before Shayn showed up. Shit, like more than half of the titles served up in movie theaters these days. Akin — who’s been known for his outspoken political views and has explored such sober topics as his Turkish heritage in his 2004 breakthrough Head-On and his sprawling 2007 drama The Edge of Heaven — attempts lighter fare with Soul Kitchen, but he’s sure to offer his commentary on the way contemporary audiences gobble up media, and how films with actual nutritional value (like his) are increasingly scarce.

“More and more art house theaters are closing,” the 36-year-old writer/director/producer says while visiting Philadelphia last month to promote Soul Kitchen. “They don’t have any audience anymore. And it’s a shame, it’s a pity—the fewer art house cinemas you have, the more multiplexes you get. Some art house films are being shown in multiplexes, but it’s tough — you have the first weekend, and if you don’t have your audience by then, you’re out. In the past, these films were given time — people could discover them, talk about them. We don’t have that anymore. People don’t know what’s good; they just fill their bellies in.”

The struggle of the art houses, and Hollywood’s growing aversion to making risky, enriching movies, only increase the value of work from artists like Akin, whose films are lived-in and alive in ways the average Tinseltown junk food only pretends to be. Head-On, a wild relationship drama that deservedly won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival of its year, is one of those bracing oddities that’s passionately, perfectly, itself. The death-themed, interconnected tale The Edge of Heaven didn’t impress this writer quite like its predecessor did, but it seemed true to its maker, showed his ambition, and more than earned the enthusiastic acclaim it received from most critics.

Adam Bousdoukos and Birol Ünel in Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen, a zestful, sometimes farcical, departure from Akin’s other films, hits you with a liveliness straight out of the gate, and it appeals to your sense of humor, your sense of smell, your sense of taste. It’s the type of hilarious comedy in which a sympathetic straight man sits
in the eye of a tornado of antics and capital-C characters, set in a believable world that sees beef and beer collide with balsamic reductions. With its yummy close-ups of delicious dishes being prepared, and Chef Shayn’s condemnation of “uncultured peasants” and “culinary racists,” you’d think Akin was trying to have his bite of the foodie-movie craze, hoping his film would entice the audiences of I Am Love, Eat Pray Love and that other Julia movie from last year. But, in truth, Soul Kitchen was in the works well before it became fashionable to put cuisine on the screen.

As Akin tells it, the making of Soul Kitchen dates back to the fall of 2003, when post-production for Head-On was just wrapping. Drained of money after having to sign on as producer of Head-On (“It was the only way I could do the film I wanted to do,” he says), the then-fledgling filmmaker had the “naive idea” to make an inexpensive film to pay the rent. He’d write something very quickly, produce it very quickly, shoot it on video, improvise the dialogue and work with friends. He’d contact Bousdoukos, a collaborator and restaurant owner who knew the world of Soul Kitchen (and would ultimately become co-writer and leading man). They’d film at Bousdoukos’s restaurant.

“We thought, ‘this will save us,’” Akin says, referring to the three founders of indie production company Corazón International: Akin, Klaus Maeck and Akin’s dear friend, Andreas Thiel. “That was how it started.”

But, soon, Head-On became a sensation, nabbing the Golden Bear, two European Film Awards, a smattering of additional accolades and an outpouring of adoration from critics and international audiences. The pressure to craft a worthy follow-up was mounting, and Akin, “confused” and “inexperienced,” began to doubt his get-rent-quick scheme of Soul Kitchen and shelved it. He kept working on the script in his downtime, rewriting it repeatedly, but in the foreground he poured himself into projects like The Edge of Heaven and Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, a documentary about contemporary Turkish music and culture. Then, amidst the creative output, came tragedy. Thiel, Akin’s pal and partner, passed away, leaving the grief-stricken director “emotionally exhausted” and unwilling to make another potent, serious drama. The perfect time, it seemed, to revisit Soul Kitchen.

“Andreas always wanted me to do Soul Kitchen,” Akin says. “He’d say, ‘Don’t care what other people think! Don’t be the slave of your success, man! You have to liberate yourself and do what you want!’ That was the last lesson he taught me, and I’m very thankful he did. And I’m very thankful that I made the film. It was what I needed — I needed a comedy.”

And it turns out comedy is something for which Akin has quite a talent. The farce — and occasional fantasy — that Soul Kitchen veers into is, shall we say, a bit much (in one scene, an aphrodisiac-laced dish sends the whole restaurant into an orgiastic frenzy), but oftentimes the humor feels easy and effortless, which of course means a lot of effort went into it. Citing the great Billy Wilder as a major influence, Akin says his latest film is also his most choreographed, with many scenes having averaged 20 to 30 takes, as opposed to his usual three or four. The increased discipline came from his desire to control the timing.

“With Head-On or The Edge of Heaven, they have their own timing,” Akin says. “There’s a stream, and the only intelligent thing I can do as a director is follow that. Here, it was not like that. Here, I had to create the rhythm.”

All of Akin’s films have a very strong sense of rhythm, especially Soul Kitchen. One would assume the director — a slightly stocky, sincere-looking gentleman whose kind eyes are topped by black, bushy caterpillar brows — is a good dancer. The editing of his pictures has the continuous pump and flow of a pulse, and the music, carefully selected and utterly indispensable each time out, has become an auteur’s hallmark, and is enough to keep you plenty busy on iTunes. Soul Kitchen boasts the sounds of Kool & The Gang, Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Louis Armstrong and The Isley Brothers, to name a few. Akin says he and his team wanted to find the sound of Hamburg, a city that saw the rise of beat music in the 1960s, and has a long-standing identification with Afro-American culture.

The cast of Soul Kitchen

“The material was asking for a certain sound,” Akin says. “Hamburg is very much, in my opinion, a soul town. We collected the tracks in 15 months, and changed them around as the script progressed. Music is an emotional counter of a film. And when you have the chronological order of the tracks already, you have an emotional map of your film before you shoot it.”

Though the movie inspires a lot of foot tapping (its soundtrack sales are steadily climbing in Europe), with Soul Kitchen, it always comes back to food. And it’s hard not to point out that Akin, with his avoidance of junk and his consideration of choice ingredients and presentation, is something of a fine restaurateur himself. Feeding the analogy, he says Soul Kitchen is his film about filmmaking. He explains a chef is like a director, customers are like viewers, dishes are like films (gobbled up quickly) and the stressed, string-pulling restaurant owner is like a producer. He remembers a question he asked Bousdoukos on set, while shooting one of the many scenes in which Zinos scrambles to keep his passion project afloat.

“I was asking him about his performance and I said, ‘What were you doing there?’” Akin recalls. “And he said, ‘I was imitating you. Couldn’t you tell?’”

This article was previously published in the September 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

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