Ulya is a 2018 alumna of Emerson College where she received her MFA in Film and Media Art. Currently working at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ulya’s work has been recognized at festivals and she continues to work with college students while working on her own projects that reflect the impact of culture and how cinema is a vehicle for telling global stories.
Coming from Turkey, what has your experience been like academically and professionally in the United States as a filmmaker?
Ulya: “The United States is where I discovered my passion for making movies. I come from a place in the world where there’s so much turmoil, and this really shaped how I view the world politically as I was growing up. So I decided to study sociology in the US in order to understand humans and cultures better. But it wasn’t until a film analysis course I took in college where I realized I just loved viewing society, human emotions and decision-making through cinematic art. Cinema’s power to influence people and alter societies blew my mind.
Thanks to the freedom the US college education offers, which enabled me to enroll in any course I wanted in any department in CLA, I declared film analysis as a sociology major. Later, I declared my second major in Studies in Cinema and Media Culture, and my minor in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. This academic combination set the fundamental values and themes I continue to discover in my films.
An artist who makes controversial art that features marginalized characters needs to be able to express their voices. I need similar conditions, and In the United States, I have this freedom. While working on my movies, I also teach screenwriting at Rhode Island School of Design and media courses at Community College of Rhode Island, where I have a chance to give a large group of diverse students a chance to tell their stories that are driven by their cultural identities. I feel very proud to see the transformation of my students who become mindful and strong individuals that are ready to inspire more people at the end of the day.”
As an alumna that has their Master’s degree from Emerson, how as your program helped you in elevating your career?
“Emerson, first and foremost helped me achieve my goals in grad school and realize my visions for my thesis films, and believed in me when I said I wanted to make two of them. All my professors focused on how to make it work with me and give me directions accordingly instead of questioning if I could fo it or not. My 1st thesis, Shut Your Eyes I’m Gonna Dance is about a trans man’s fantastical journey. After getting in a coma, he finds himself trapped in an artificial garden where he is visited by his female alter-ego. His memories are hidden all over the place to be discovered, and he has to reconcile with the garden and his female alter-ego in order to liberate all, including himself. I designed a felt garden for this film and built-in the soundstage with my art team. The production had lots of logistical challenges but Emerson always supported me in so many ways that made this film’s execution become possible.
My second thesis, My Nature is a story of war, told by a woman. In the film, a Middle-Eastern minority group creates a secret language to protect their endangered culture, and a woman recollects her memories at her home that slowly turns into a maze as the war escalates. Time becomes indistinguishable and a mystery leads her to an underground tunnel where she feels closer to her loss. I shot this film in Turkey, at a location where there are so many ancient underground tunnels and cities. Emerson supported me by giving me equipment and constant availability when I needed help with things even when I was overseas.
Studying at Emerson really has been an incredible experience. Especially the mentorship, the culture of collaboration and support in my department, and my friendships set the perfect environment for me to make my films and expose myself to new things that I have so much passion for. The films I made at Emerson are the ones that are in festivals, making their rounds and spreading words about political change, women’s rights, trans rights, and immigrant rights. After graduation, when I needed to find a job, my Emerson professors, friends, and the Career Development Center helped me so much as well. I also really encourage current students to use the Emerson resources, travel to all of those film festivals, conferences and events that Emerson arranges. That was part of the learning experience that still contributes to my professional work today. Emerson Mafia is also an excellent resource, I met so many incredible and talented people, took advise and learned things that kept me up to date about the independent cinema and the industry.”
There is a lot of conversation about professional allies, both for women supporting one another and men supporting women. What do you think makes for great allyship?
“Ursula K. Le Guin says, ‘We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.’ To change the world, fixated opinions and prejudices, these stories and their tellers must be supported, have their voices heard and spread. I think great allyship comes with shared powerful passions like one. I am so lucky to be living and making films at a time like this in which we see lots of women getting together and supporting each other. I love working with my female colleges. When I was hiring crew members and looking for the best in their fields, I found them. And when we energize one another, we create healthy dynamics and environments for everyone, and it’s beautiful.
Men supporting women is just as amazing as women supporting women. If humanity is going to fight for women’s rights, it has to be by all humans. Men supporting women has a dimension of significance too: Male allies can help those who struggle understanding feminism, empathize with the male allies and eventually work towards gender equity. I am proud to work with all my male crew members and coworkers who help me bring my cinematic visions to life and share similar ambitions for our world. And when this is the case, it is excellent.
Our allyships with men should be about joining in something greater, changing the culture, and the minds of masses of people. This is about social action and designing future sociopolitical systems. And therefore, men should ally with us and this mentality. Because otherwise, helping can become using patriarchal power over women by and serve back to the status quo, even if it might have all the good intentions. So, my point of view on this for both women and men is that becoming politically and culturally aware of the gender dynamics and mindfully moving forward to tell purposeful stories that encourage gender equity and social change is the way to go.”
With your current successes getting your work into the Boston Turkish Film Festival, and the Queer Kampala International Film Festival you’re already making your mark in the film community. What’s up for you next?
“I am on a visa at the moment and am looking forward to getting my work permit to stay here. In the meantime, I am finishing post-production for a music video that I wrote, directed and choreographed. It is called Change Takes Courage. In the video, a fictional woman faces violence in a form of energy and transforms it to seed a peaceful future for the next generations of humanity. We will release this on March 8th, International Women’s Day.
For the next year, I will be directing a feature documentary about musicians from Turkey who travel to the US and find themselves in worlds across the country that are completely different from what they imagined. I am also working on my first narrative feature film that is inspired by my grandma and our conversations growing up. Excited things are ahead of me and I will be producing these as I continue to teach.
My biggest goal is to get an Oscar, I have reached my goals so far and hopefully, I will reach this one too! Sometimes I even wake up from dreaming receiving an Oscar, and those days go really well!”