Filmmaker Fatih Akin is always moving in and out of cultures — and being caught between them. His parents immigrated from Turkey to Germany in the 1960s, as part of the "guest worker" program. Now, 2.7 million Turks reside in Germany, forming that nation's largest ethnic minority.
Akin makes films about Turks, Germans, punks, drunks, restless students — all manner of people uneasy in their worlds. Critics say with The Edge of Heaven, he looks ready to join filmmaking's top tier of directors.
At 34, Akin has already been nominated for an Oscar. The Edge of Heaven, which opened today in New York, took the prize for best screenplay at Cannes.
The film is part of Akin's ongoing inquiry into Europe's sometimes turbulent multiculturalism.
"Filmmaking is a sort of therapy for me," Akin acknowledges. "It helps me answer certain questions I have on my mind."
Those questions, at least as they surface in The Edge of Heaven, are about connections across generations and countries, about relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. About Europe — and the Middle East.
One character is a professor, a German-born Turk who teaches Goethe to German students. Another is a political activist who flees Turkey. She falls in love with a young German, whose mother disapproves.
The activist has her own reservations: Fleeing a regime she finds unjust, she's landed in a European Union that she doesn't entirely trust.
Still, it's Germany she's turned to for asylum. And despite their tension, the Turks and Germans in The Edge of Heaven feed each other, shelter each other and help each other in heartbreaking tragedy.
This tale of Turks in Germany and Germans who find their way to Turkey is part of a global story about immigrants fitting in — or not — says Deniz Gokturk, a German professor at the University of California at Berkeley. The heroes of this global story: "people on the move, who are speaking multiple languages, who are easily moving across borders across different spaces," Gokturk says.
That's true of Akin's entire body of work, which ranges so far from a music documentary to a sweet romantic road comedy to his breakthrough film, Head On. Three years ago that rough love story, about two young Turks in Hamburg, won a prestigious European film award called the Golden Bear.
"It was the first Golden Bear for a German film in 18 years," Gokturk points out.
"Nonetheless, there were also questions about whether it was really a German film," she says. "Are we talking about German cinema, Turkish cinema, European cinema, world cinema?"
Akin, who grew up in Germany, was surprised to find himself embraced — in Turkey-- as a Turkish filmmaker.
"It's OK with me, because I love my parents," he says. "I love the country of my parents. If my parents want to consider me as Turkish, I don't have a problem with that. So I'm both."
But Akin is a child of Hollywood, too. His biggest inspiration, he says, might be Martin Scorsese.
"I come from this Muslim background," he explains. "My parents are very faithful people, and I respect that. [So] when I saw the early work of Scorsese, like Who's That Knocking at My Door or Mean Streets, I was so happy to see those films and see the struggling of the characters with religion."
Akin's bicultural background confers a kind of authority when it comes to telling stories about a world filled with people who came from someplace else. But the filmmaker doesn't want to be anyone's spokesman.
"I never had the feeling I want to be a messenger or the guy crossing the bridges and link the two worlds — no, no, no," he says. "I just want to do good films — whatever that means."
Akin just finished shooting his first film in the United States. It's a short about an immigrant, set in a place where the borders melt in front of you — New York's Chinatown.