Urban Cinefile
"I got completely intimidated by it and I was totally afraid of it. "  -Laurence Fishburne on playing Othello
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Finding one soldier’s gravestone at Gallipoli reminded filmmaker Tolga Örnek of why he was making this film: to show all the soldiers at Gallipoli as human beings, whichever side they fought on, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

After six years of research for his documentary about Gallipoli, months of preparation, weeks of writing and shooting, activity that demanded focus and action, there was one important moment that filmmaker Tolga Örnek will never forget. “After having immersed myself in the diaries and letters of these soldiers and Oliver Cumberland’s in particular, it was when I finally found his headstone at Gallipoli … I just stood there. I felt I knew him. And it dawned on me then what the film is trying to do. It revealed the deepest personal experiences of these soldiers. It was an important moment…”

We are, incongruously enough, sitting at a small table in a homely restaurant in Scone, NSW (popn 5,000), having a brief dinner before the Australian premiere of the film at the town’s art deco Civic cinema. Scone is where Oliver Cumberland was born and raised, along with his brother Joe, whose letters also feature in Gallipoli. They are two of the three Australian soldiers whose written words have carried 90 years across time to be brought to life by Örnek’s film, with the help of Sam Neill’s readings.

More than 120,000 soldiers lost their lives in the deadly Gallipoli campaign in 1915. To capture the human spirit of the campaign through the experience of the soldiers, the film tells the story simultaneously from both sides, within the general structure of the battle. The film focuses on the diaries and letters of two British, three New Zealand, three Australian and two Turkish soldiers, ordinary men forced by history to do extraordinary things. In addition to newly uncovered diaries, letters and photographs, the film incorporates interviews with international experts, on-location landscapes, underwater and aerial photography, 3-D computer animations and dramatic re-enactments of trenches and battles.

Örnek is a tad nervous, even though he’s done this before: Gallipoli was premiere in Istanbul, Turkey on March 15, 2005 and in Gallipoli on March 18 the day that it was also theatrically released in Turkey for the 90th anniversary of the Campaign. This was followed by several special screenings around the world: on April 13 at the Imperial War Museum in London; on April 18 at Te Papa-The National Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington; on April 21, 22 and 24 at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – where he was, for the first time, moved to tears by the feelings in the room.

"where private grief is borne most deeply"

But this one is different, here in the small country town home of two of the young men whose spirit and humanity is so eloquently captured in their own words through this film. Here, there are no officials and military historians, no politicians and no pomp. This is the real thing; the home of their families, where private grief is borne most deeply. (There were tears at the end of the Scone premiere, too, from members of the Cumberlands’ distant relations, like great, great niece Jeanette Cronin.)

The screening is preceded by some black and white newsreels, which not only help to adjust our cinematic mind set, but help create a mindset conducive to the film. Anzac biscuits have been lovingly made for the guests, and take on a new significance; no-one can be left unaffected by Gallipoli the film, just as no-one was left unaffected by the campaign.

“It was in 1997 when I was producing my first feature-length documentary on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey, that I first travelled to Gallipoli,” Örnek notes. “I was there to research Atatürk’s involvement in the campaign and photograph the sites where he commanded his troops and fought against the Anzacs. I was immediately struck by the magnificent landscape and the unique topography rising from the beaches. How could such a bloody battle take place on such a breathtakingly beautiful place?

“As I researched the subject more and tried to discern Atatürk’s role more clearly, I came across many personal accounts of ordinary soldiers from both sides: Turkish, Australian, New Zealander, British or France. I slowly began to notice that although fighting on opposite sides, the Turks and the allies shared a common horrific experience on Gallipoli. For both sides it was their first encounter with industrial warfare and it was the end of the romance of war. The conditions and the battles that the ordinary soldiers on both sides had to endure created in me sympathy for all of them.

Örnek and his team knew that the real life characters (their diaries, letters, photographs, and memoirs) would be the stars of the film. “As filmmakers, we would just open the pathway for these soldiers’ own words. They would tell their own experience with their own words. Our responsibility was to recreate the setting and mood of their time. What was it like to be in a deep narrow trench for days with the constant threat of shell fire? What was it like to eat your food with millions of flies swarming your fork? What was it like to crawl to the latrines with crippling dysentery? What was it like to experience one of the hottest summers in years followed by the coldest winter in decades?

“To portray these and to really pull the audience into the story, we decided to shoot re-enactments and visually support the soldiers’ own texts. This immediately set the style of the film; it would be a docu-drama on Gallipoli intercutting photographs, archival films, and interviews with dramatic recreations. To make the film as even as possible and to find the most suitable ten characters out of hundreds, we began our extensive research in seven countries and more than seventy archives guided by our sixteen historical consultants and fifteen researchers. We wanted to gather as much information on the campaign and concentrate on personal accounts.”

Several advisers were drawn from Australia. “When you ask around during your research, we found these Australians so sent them emails with details of the film and told them how it would be different – it isn’t a film about strategies and tactics and diplomacy. It was about what the soldiers wrote, not what the generals said.”

"I relied on the most personal and emotional response to the material on first reading"

The hardest task, he says, was selecting the material; “We had an embarrassment of riches,” he says over coffee. “You have to follow your instinct in these cases. But what I was especially looking for was an insight into the characters of the person writing. And I approached the subject as an amateur. The further you get involved you tend to lose that … so I relied on the most personal and emotional response to the material on first reading.”

By the time he reached the scriptwriting stage, Örnek’s outlook on life had undergone a change. “I began appreciating all the things I had. Even a cup of tea, a glass of water … these are all crucial.” And perhaps especially, one of those Anzac biscuits made in Scone.

Published November 3, 2005


Email this article

Tolga Örnek


At the Scone Premiere: Tolga Örnek with actress Jeanette Cronin, who is the great, great niece of the Cumberland brothers from Scone, whose diaries from Gallipoli are used in the film.

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020