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Documenting The Hittites: Turkish-American Collaboration Makes Film, Not War

By Tolga Ornek

Two and a half years ago, as I was working on an English-language documentary about an ancient monument located in Eastern Turkey, I received an email from a producer based in California. I had no idea that would be the beginning of one of the most fulfilling and satisfying experiences of my life.

In 1996, after seven years of undergraduate and graduate study in engineering in Turkey and the United States, I decided to pursue filmmaking––my first love––at American University in Washington, DC. By 2000, I had moved back to Turkey after making two documentaries, one in Turkish and one in English. My decision to move back to Turkey was influenced by a personal need to be close to friends and family, as well as the professional opportunities available due to the status of documentary filmmaking in Turkey. 

Turkish documentaries mostly exist in academic and art house circles, where filmmakers produce films that deal with social and political issues of the country, with only a small minority concentrating on personal stories. There is no theatrical release or paying television broadcast opportunity for Turkish documentaries. Total government funding for documentary films is $200,000 per year, compared to Portugal's $10 million. The result is low-budget documentaries produced with sponsorships and a filmmaker's own funds. The latter is mostly avoided because it's almost guaranteed the filmmaker will not make any of his money back. Since almost all documentaries are produced in Turkish and deal with very local subjects, they don't have the benefit of international distribution.

This is very unfortunate in a country with a 9,000-year-old historical heritage containing the best––and sometimes the worst––of Eastern and Western worlds. The opportunities for historical, social and political documentary filmmakers are endless. I believed I could produce documentaries on Turkish subjects that captivated me and also had universal appeal. My game plan was simple: I would look for corporate sponsorship to partially finance the films and simultaneously shoot training films and commercials to raise the rest of the money. The sales of the films to international broadcasters would be my main source of income. In the past five years, I made six films: three in Turkish and three in English for international distribution. The Turkish films have been mostly works-for-hire to finance my English-language films. I have worked with four companies for the worldwide distribution of my films: Landmarkmedia and Tapestry International for my first film, Ataturk, and Solid Entertainment and Documentary Educational Resources for Mount Nemrud: The Throne of the Gods.

During production of Mount Nemrud, I received that fateful email from Robert Kirk, an Emmy Award-winning director/producer and the president of Digital Ranch, a production company based in Sherman Oaks, California. Coincidentally, it was also producing a film on Mount Nemrud for The History Channel. After countless emails and phone conversations, I ended up licensing some of my footage to Digital Ranch, and Kirk later asked me if I had any other projects that would be appealing to American audiences. 

At that time, I was doing research for a film on the Hittites, an ancient civilization in Central Turkey. The Hittites had ruled a vast empire between 1650 and 1200 BC and held sway over most of the Near East during that time. Their language was the oldest known of the Indo-European language group, to which English, French and German belong. Their laws were the most humane and advanced of that time. Their myths were considered predecessors to those of the Greeks and Romans. They had fought against the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II in the Battle of Kadesh and later exchanged letters with the Pharaoh written on clay and stone tablets.  They were a civilization that functioned as a pathway between the ancient East and West, and they have a unique legacy in the 25,000 tablets and fragments that were deciphered and transferred within the last century. But the Hittites are virtually unknown by the general public. I thought a film on the subject would not only shed light on the ancient history of Turkey, but also provide a general audience with a new and fresh perspective on the ancient Near East. Kirk said, "Let's do it!"

Our arrangement was relatively simple: my company and I would produce the film while Digital Ranch would assist in the editing and revising of the script, find a first-rate actor to do the narration, organize the post-sound and handle all promotion and distribution activities. This was the beginning of the first American-Turkish film co-production in history.

As director and writer of the film, I wanted to transport the audience to the time of the Hittites, where it could witness the civilization as it existed and transformed. To achieve this, we would rely on many re-enactments and visual effects besides the conventional tools of documentary filmmaking. I wanted the film to be emotionally engaging, seamlessly meshing drama and documentary. 

Although the Hittites have a unique written heritage, the same cannot be said of their visual legacy. The limited artifacts that contain visual representations of Hittite life and people are not very descriptive. But Hittite tablets written in the first person are very moving, speaking to us directly, enabling us to see the Hittites as people, not just distant names from the past.

I wanted to reinforce these texts with visuals. I know that re-enactments are risky and there is always debate on their effectiveness, but I am a strong believer that if they are done well––with accuracy and close attention to detail––they can be very useful. One decision I made was to base the re-enactments on actual events accounted in the tablets. I also decided to avoid abstract re-enactments and show as much detail as I could, treating each scene as a short film. Kirk and I also decided to have the characters speak in the original Hittite language in a few scenes and have subtitled translations. Deciphering the Hittite language was very crucial in revealing many aspects of the Near East. We believed that hearing Hittite would be another way of re-creating the civilization. I picked out four excerpts from the tablets and the actors memorized the Hittite translations. They spoke with their own pronunciation, since the phonetics of the language is unknown.

Since this was a docu-drama, I knew that I had to write a detailed script before the shoot, with all the scenes described in detail. Of course, the script was revised after the shoot, once I cut in the interviews with the experts on the Hittites. Kirk and I went over the script many times and he made suggestions that made the film better in many aspects––and accessible to a general international audience.   

I wanted to shoot the film in all the places actually related to the Hittites, which included a total of 34 locations in Central, Eastern and Western Turkey, as well as Syria and Egypt. I wanted to emphasize the importance of geography and climate in the lives of these ancient people, so I also shot during the winter when the historical sites were covered with snow. Since I would have a lot of dramatic scenes and many different scenic and historical visuals, I decided to shoot on Super-35mm film. This would give me incredible depth of field, color and texture, and would have an amazing archival quality. Super-35mm was also the best way to go for compositing the visual effects shots.

We contacted experts from Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Germany, England, the US and the Netherlands for assistance in our film. We formed an advisory committee of 15 experts, actually flying 11 of them to Turkey and Egypt to provide on-site interviews. They reviewed, corrected and approved the script before and after the shoot.

To recreate the lives of the Hittites, we built five exterior and six interior sets with props, based on historical research and archaeological finds. Our art department also built a 300-square- foot model of the Hittite capital city of Hattusa based on topographical studies, historical remains and archaeological sketches. We later composited CGI people and scenery into the model plate shots. We shot for a total of 141 days in Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Post-production was four and a half months long––seven days a week, 18 hours a day. 

As soon as the first rough cut and final script were completed, co-producer Peter Hankwitz from Digital Ranch cast Jeremy Irons to do the narration. We recorded in London, while the other voiceovers were recorded at Woodholly Studios in Los Angeles. 

Since the film would have an epic feeling to it, we knew the music had to as well. Our composer, Tamer Cıray, and I decided to use an orchestral score on everything dealing with grand subjects, such as the empire, the Near East and the battles. We decided to use simpler, more ethnic themes when dealing with characters and personal stories. Cıray chose to use instruments close to those of the Hittites, such as harp, flute and drums. We hired the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to record the score.

As I'm about to wrap the sound mix in LA and finish the film, I cannot believe what an incredible journey it has been. Spanning six countries and consuming every waking minute of my life for the past two-and-a-half years, it has been a truly learning experience, made all the more fulfilling by my collaboration with Digital Ranch. I cannot wait to finish The Hittites and move on to more international co-productions with my friends there.

Tolga Örnek is the founder of EKiP Film, Ltd., Turkey's premiere production company specializing in feature-length documentaries and multi-media products.