Three actresses, three generations: Aysima Ergün, Sesede Terziyan and Sema Poyraz talk about where they are right now.
Let’s begin with Sema Poyraz. You have something to celebrate, because forty years ago, your first film was released. It was called Gölge – Der Schatten (Gölge – The Shadow). It was the first German-Turkish film in Germany.
SP: It’s been forty years? It was my final project at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). I made it together with a fellow student who was from Greece, Sofoklis Adamidis, it was a DFFB co-production with the Freies Berlin broadcaster.
Sesede Terziyan was born a year later in Nordenham in Wesermarsch and Aysima Ergün in Berlin in 1994. Sema Poyraz was born in Zonguldak on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea in 1950. Sema, please tell us a bit about the film.
SP: I can barely remember it. It was the first fictional film at the DFFB. Most students were working on documentaries at the time. 80% of the film takes place in a flat that we built up ourselves down to the last detail. I had no idea about technical aspects at the time, and I still don’t know much more today. Sofoklis took care of the camera, my sister played the lead and the rest were all my friends. Amateurs.
In 1976 you had already acted in Helma Sanders-Brahms’ film Shirins Hochzeit (Shirin’s Wedding). A film that I was quite excited to watch at the time.
SP: Ages ago. I was studying directing at the film academy at the time and was acting just to earn money. It was sorely needed because there were no scholarships for the children of migrants at the time. The first series with Turks in them were showing up on TV. So I slid into the »TV business«. But for years I mostly made my living as a social worker. We wanted to save the world. At some point I noticed that the other guest workers were buying houses in Turkey with the money they earned here, and I still didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent.
In Gölge – Der Schatten one of the lines of dialogue is »If you were to go to Turkey now, you wouldn’t know if they’d let you live«.
SP: We had a military dictatorship every ten years.
Don’t we have to ask the same question today?
SP: It’s mad. I’m often interviewed by PhD students as the first filmmaker with Turkish origins. They all know the film better than me. I haven’t watched it again since then. A few years ago, I was asked if I didn’t want to shoot another film. My answer was: That side of my life is over. I can’t anymore. I also don’t want to anymore.
You, Aysima Ergün, completed your acting studies this year, got a job at the Gorki, appeared in Yael Ronen’s play Death Positive – States of Emergency twice and then came Covid. Isn’t that terrible?
AE: No, I wouldn’t describe it as »terrible«. It’s a great privilege to have a job, or to be allowed to perform in these times. I keep thinking about many of my colleagues that don’t have this privilege and I’m just thankful. I’m definitely not going to complain about the second lockdown.
Don’t you have the feeling that Covid has stolen your life from you?
AE: Covid hasn’t stolen anything from my life but added to it instead. Of course, it’s a difficult time, and I don’t want to minimize the struggle that is this pandemic. At the same time, I’m trying to see the good in this situation, to be thankful for the things we have or to understand that we are responsible for this world. Sometimes I have fun with it and think: At least I now have something that I can tell my children sometime. Before this, I don’t think I had something to talk about that affected the whole world.
You’re rolling your sleeves up: Getting ready to fight?
AE: Of course it’s a fight to stay calm and collected. I have to tell myself out loud that I will get more from Covid than it takes from me. One wants to have experienced something. One wants to live life, after all.
I thought: Actors are people who want to experience many things without having to undergo anything.
AE: That’s true.
Is that why you became an actress?
AE: I think so. But what do I know? I’ve been an actress for two months.
Sesede Terziyan, do you still have the feeling that you could be at home anywhere in the world?
You’re married, have a child?
And still no place to call your Heimat (homeland*)?
ST: »Heimat« – that limits me. That’s not how I understand myself. These ridiculous debates about borders, about occupied areas, about international recognition! People identify with that, fight for it, sacrifice their children! It bothers me even more than it used to. Perhaps because I’m now a mother. It doesn’t matter at all which children they are – here on my doorstep or in the Moria camp on Lesbos: They could all be my children.
A very bold thought.
ST: What is bold about it? They could all be my children. It’s just pure coincidence that I landed here. I am also a refugee child. If my parents hadn’t been recognised as political refugees, I wouldn’t have grown up the way I did. That’s all interchangeable. A very different fate could have landed in my lap. It affects me a lot. It hits me below the belt. It’s always the same stories. Always this aggression. Why aren’t we moving beyond it? What isn’t happening in our evolution? It’s all infuriating! Being a mother helps me with that: I have to cook, wash, put the child to bed. I have a very strict daily schedule that doesn’t allow me to let myself go. And love of course.
Aysima Ergün’s agency answers the question of where she could live and work with Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Istanbul and Izmir. That’s almost the opposite of Sesede Terziyan’s anywhere in the world.
AE: Hamburg should also be on that list, by the way.
But that’s very few places.
AE: Few? That’s far too many. Truthfully, I probably cannot live anywhere else but Berlin. I named those other places because I had to name a few and that’s where I have friends that I could spend a few days with. But not months, nor the rest of my life.
And what about you, Sema Poyraz?
SP: My ancestors fled from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1870. My mother came from Zonguldak, which was, to an extent, the Ruhr region equivalent in Turkey, my father from Istanbul. That’s where we lived until I was 11, 12 years old. I grew up with Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Bosnians. We didn’t know any Kurds. Today Istanbul is different. From this multicultural metropolis I landed in a little city near Stuttgart in southern Germany! Later I lived in England as well.
Sesede Terziyan’s parents didn’t come to Germany as guest workers but as political refugees instead.
ST: My parents came to Germany as political refugees in 1980, a few months before the military coup in Turkey and were conveyed to the North Sea. As political refugees they weren’t allowed to work. So they worked under the table. My father was a proud man. He didn’t want to live on benefits. He did everything: He worked in the shipyard, on farms, in a dairy, as a barber. Everything illegally. My mother had her sewing shop in the kitchen. That’s how she made ends meet. But they wanted to work legally. So they applied for recognition as guest workers. Then they got it. We lived with our bags packed in case we would have to move again. We didn’t identify with the country we lived in nor with the jobs that we had. We lived with the firm belief that everything could be taken away from us again. My grandfather always said: What’s important is what’s in your mind and your heart. And your hands need to function. Then you can work out everything yourself.
SP: I lived in Schorndorf. Where did you grow up?
ST: On the levee at first, then we went south to Swabia, I did my Abitur in Backnang, 30 kilometres away from Schorndorf.
SP: Oh God!
ST: I’m still more of a “fish head” than a Swabian.
SP: The teachers forbade the other students from speaking Swabian German with me. So I learned written German right away. My father was a trainer. He went to Schorndorf to teach boxing in the local club. My mother didn’t want to come with him to Germany at first. She had a good job working in a bank. Then she stayed 20 years. She’s buried here in the cemetery in Gladow. My father with his family in Istanbul.
ST: I stood in front of the grave of my grandmother in the Armenian cemetery in Ankara. On the gravestone was Sesede Terziyan….
SP: I did do something: I brought earth from Istanbul and put it on the grave of my mother here and took earth from here with me to Turkey and put it on my father’s grave. At the same time, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything. But I like rituals like that. They do me good.
Aysima Ergün, you’re sitting there listening to this and thinking: There they go with their old stories again and all I’ve got is Covid.
AE: But what does »all I’ve got is Covid» even mean. It’s an enormous pandemic. I’m not going to let you talk it down for me. But what’s completely mysterious to me is how anyone can say that they could live anywhere. We’re already being labelled here. What would that be like elsewhere? I’m not at all interested in living here or there at some point. A year abroad! A horrible idea! I’m far too shy for that, or too scared.
SM: Where are your parents from?
AE: From Samsun on the Black Sea, known as the city of Amazons.
What do your parents do?
AE: My mother manages a care service provider, and my father drives a rickshaw for tourists. You’ve definitely seen him around. He wears a cowboy hat and usually a beard like a Santa Claus.
How did you decide to start acting?
AE: Because of the play Verrücktes Blut (Mad Blood) here at the Gorki. At first, I was appalled, I wanted to leave because someone insults Islam in the play. You have to understand, I had no idea what theatre was back then. My friend grabbed me, convinced me to stay and I stayed. Thankfully! When the play was over, I knew: I want to do that! That was the first time I could imagine myself on a stage.
Are your parents religious?
AE: My mother is.
There’s a God who looks after you?
AE: I do believe: There is something there. Something that is connected to everything. Call it God, nature or Allah. That doesn’t really matter to me.
*Translator’s note: the German word Heimat is roughly translated as ›homeland‹ or ›home place‹ in English, but many have argued that it shouldn’t be reduced to that.
Interview: Arno Widmann