Alphan Eşeli on The Long Way Home

Filmmaker Alphan Eşeli presents The Long Way Home, a gruelling tale of survival in the wintry wastelands of Eastern Anatolia inspired by the experiences of his grandfather

The battle of Sarikamish, a duel between the Turks and the Russians in the deadening winter of 1914-15, caused the death of tens of thousands of soldiers, and left the wastelands of Eastern Anatolia embroiled in political chaos. Filmmaker Alphan Eşeli’s grandfather was one of the few survivors of the conflict, and his experiences, the tales he told of his struggle to return to his homeland, were relayed to Eşeli by his own father and are the inspiration for his feature film debut The Long Way Home. Shot on location in the same brutal mountainscape that his grandfather traversed nearly a century ago, the film traces the progress of a tiny band of survivors, who are fighting to make their way across the most inhospitable of wastelands to safety.

At once awesome, brutal and staggeringly beautiful, the film is an intense and chilling portrayal of humanity stranded in a lawless and apocalyptic landscape while war rumbles just off screen. As the food runs out, and the unrelenting cold hardens its grip, the seven characters and their decisions become absorbed into the wider question of the immorality of war and the lengths to which humanity will go to ensure survival. Due to show tomorrow as part of the London Film Festival, where it has been selected to compete for the prestigious Sutherland Trophy, here we speak to director and co-writer of The Long Way Home Alphan Eşeli about the personal story the film relates, and the gruelling conditions he and his crew experienced to create it.

What inspired the project?
The Battle Of Sarikamis (December 1914-January 1915) which took place in the eastern front of Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) against the Russians has always been a very tragic chapter in Turkish history. The Ottoman army consisted of 118,000 fighting men. More than 60,000 men died from frostbite, hunger and illness in almost 3 weeks. My grandfather (whom the movie is dedicated to) actually fought in the Battle of Sarikamis, and was one of the few who made it back home. I never met my grandfather, but I grew up listening to his stories told to me by my father, stories that had a very deep impact on me over the years.

I knew that to make the movie of such an epic story would be very expensive, and very difficult to produce. Then came the idea, to depict this tragedy, this story of the horrors of war in general, centred on only seven characters. It would be challenging and difficult, but the idea really appealed to me as a filmmaker.

Is this a story that is close to your heart?
Of course, it is a very emotional and personal film for me. My father, who is now 90-years-old, still gets very excited and emotional when he tells these stories about my grandfather and the war.

How was the experience of making the film, especially in such extraordinary conditions?
It was extremely difficult, brutal and very, very cold. The filming took place in the winter of 2012, in the mountains of East Anatolia and a deserted 200-year-old village. Logistically it was a nightmare. We were driving for two hours every day to the locations, on tiny village roads which were covered with snow most of the time. And then we had to get back, often at night. Sometimes it was really dangerous and scary. The shoot lasted for five weeks, and the experience was physically and mentally very difficult for the whole crew.

But the moment i started writing the screenplay, I knew I was going to shoot the whole film in real locations. There was no other way to capture the realism of the story. And I think shooting in real locations made the job easier for the actors. Everything that was written in detail in the script: the snow covered mountains, the brutal snow storms, the forests, the deserted old village, it was all there, in front of them, and real.

Where did you find your actors?
The main character Sami is played by the highly respected Turkish drama actor Serdar Orcin. He was the first person I had in mind for the role, and I approached him when I first started writing the screenplay. He was deeply touched by the story and agreed to take part in this crazy adventure, working really hard for his role, doing a lot of research and losing 14 kilos. I think his performance in the film is amazing. The other two leading actors are also well known respected Turkish theater and films actors, and for the remaining parts, I did a lot of screen tests. In the end I am very happy with the choices i made. 

This was your first experience of filmmaking – is it something that you would like to do again?
Of course, there is nothing else I would like to do. I went to film school and started out directing commercials and music videos which I did for 13 years. I was having fun and making good money, but making movies was always my dream and ambition in the first place.

The Long Way Home is showing this weekend as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

Text by Tish Wrigley