Filmmaker and Turkish born-and-bred North Carolinian Onur Tukel knows how to keep jokes coming fast and furiously. Anyone on his social media feed will recognize scathing, truthful quips in response to current news headlines, most recently aimed at white supremacists at the Charlottesville riots in August.
“I once thought having Muslims banned from America was a form of punishment. Now, it seems like an act of mercy.”
“White bread has never had any significant nutritional value.”
“State of emergency should have been declared everywhere on January 20, 2017 at approximately 9 a.m.”
Tukel has never been one to mince words. It’s apparent in his everyday discourse and especially in his catalog of films, which just received a retrospective at the Istanbul Modern Museum in Turkey last month. Yet, Tukel wasn’t allowed to attend the event, as he never applied for shared citizenship. Both nations, the U.S. and Turkey, have banned visitors from their respective countries.
“Like Trump, Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is loved by some and hated by some,” Tukel tells. “Years ago, I would have complained about being shut out of my own retrospective. Now, I have to take responsibility for not having Turkish citizenship; it’s my own fault for not being able to get in.”
Instead, Tukel has been traveling the U.S. to represent his latest work, “The Misogynists,” which stars leads Dylan Baker and Lou Jay Taylor (encore’s cover models). The film will screen as part of the 23rd Cucalorus Festival, and show Thursday, Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m., at Thalian Hall. It deals with the hyper-critical, paranoid nature of citizens post-election 2016—the night Donald Trump beat out Hillary Clinton as the 45th President of the United States of America. It’s one for the history books, since practically every poll predicted the opposite would happen. More so, the aftershock last year infiltrated Cucalorus 22, which launched the day after Trump’s win.
“There was certainly an edge to the general mood last year,” Cucalorus artistic director Dan Brawley confirms. “I’m not sure I can quite explain it—a bit of shock, a sense of needing to come together and celebrate grew out of that. So the festival ended up being a very important moment of solidarity and community for many of us.”
“The Misogynists” is a headliner for the 2017 festival, but not necessarily to take people down a PTSD-ridden path as much as provide a lens to look at the overall effect and picture it has drawn of U.S. politics and how citizens react to and interact within it.
“We sometimes need a story or a myth to help us understand the wild things that happen in the world,” Brawley adds about art inspired by history. “A re-packaging of sorts that helps us adapt our own world-view in relationship to a dynamic and shifting landscape—economically, politically, and culturally. That’s why events like Cucalorus are so important; it is a chance to redefine the way we see the world.”
The film takes place in a hotel room with two men celebrating Trump’s win, as one of the fella’s wives has a nervous breakdown at home and begins to succumb to the paranoia of living in a Trump-ruled world. Various characters, including two prostitutes, with myriad political affiliation, soldier in and out of the room to illuminate different values and reactions. At its heart, Tukel hones in on hypocrisy across all sides of the political spectrum and showcases excessiveness that plagues so many—whether in the form of money, power, emotional bankruptcy, dour judgement, safe-space coddling, or apathetic inaction.
A self-described political junkie, Tukel calls 2016 the year everyone became involved in politics. Though, his personal fascination began long ago. “I was a political junkie when George W. Bush was in power,” he says. “I read the magazines, I watched the news shows, followed the pundits, had fervent political debates with people, mainly conservative North Carolinians. When Obama got elected, like many liberals, I just tuned out and assumed everything would be OK. In 2016, it was impossible to ignore the election; it enveloped the culture like a toxic cloud. Everyone became political, from the pundits to the small-town football coach.”
Tukel began the first draft of “The Misogynists” on Nov. 9, 2016 and finished it in a week or so. “I have to write my first drafts quickly; I want it to spring from my unconscious, where all my dread and fear lie,” he says. “This one was easier to write in many ways because I was appropriating broad political talking points. . . . I wanted to make a dialogue-driven picture that could appeal to the broadest audience possible.”
After several script readings with actors and friends, nine drafts later he began shooting the film and finished it in 10 days. And as an antithesis to the movie’s title, Tukel actually used mostly females in its production. The producer, casting director, set designer, director of photography, camera operator, and costume designer were women. He wrote the roles of Baxter for Lou Jay Taylor and Amber and Sasha for Trieste Kelly Dunn and Ivana Milicevic—all of whom starred in the NC-filmed “Banshee.”
Ideas from author Morris Berman snuck into Tukel’s script. The filmmaker had read Berman’s trilogy (“The Twilight of American Culture,” “Dark Ages America,” “Why America Failed”), which point toward the end of America’s influenced superpower. Compared to the vibe of the nation, it seemed an appropriate parallel to the fall of the Roman Empire. “[The trilogy is] a wonderful indictment of American foreign policy, degradation of intellectual discourse [and] hypocrisy,” he says. “I started reading Berman right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his ideas have influenced many of the themes of my last few films, ‘Applesauce’ (2015), ‘Catfight’ (2016) and ‘The Misogynists.’ If you look at the United States as a failed country, you can begin to understand how someone like Trump can get elected. He’s the perfect leader for us: arrogant, entitled, loud, obnoxious.”
The latter appropriately describes Tukel’s heavy-handed dialog in the film. It’s not for the faint of heart—especially for anyone dependent upon safe-spaces or who cries micro-aggressions.
As its title states, “The Misogynists” shuns the idea of political correctness altogether and portrays Trump’s base as tell-it-like-it-is, asshole patriarchs that will continue to keep women in “their places.” However, it also shows left-leaning liberals projecting with the same amount of vitriol and venom. It leaves the audience witness to pretty gross behavior.
Early on in the film, Baker’s character asks, “Do you know who gets labeled an asshole in this life? Those who tell the truth because the truth hurts.” It’s a comment the film explores—and it’s not one-sided. It makes sense for Tukel to delve into it, as he’s always worn hard-edged truths on his sleeve and wielded them wildly with a pen, lens and abrasive lip. “I’m an outspoken loudmouth,” he admits. He was even barred from attending the second Q&A of “The Misogynists” in Bend, Oregon, a few weeks ago because of his acerbic verbosity.
“He’s not afraid to dive deep into the difficult stuff,” Brawley explains. “And he’s really honest about it—he’s sincerely interested in what people think and also brave enough to say what no one else is willing to say—even when it’s right on the tip of our tongues.”
“I had friends accuse me of having Tourettes,” Tukel quips. “I’m always looking for the elephant in the room. When I spot it, I try to bring it up. Because, hell, if the people you’re talking to are intelligent and self-aware, then they’re thinking about the elephant in the room as well. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting talking about the things that make people uncomfortable than the same old bullshit.”
Tukel admits “The Misogynists” very much focuses on the grandiosity of language, some balderdash. While it’s not a dissertation on culture, per se, the film does go somewhat deeper. “It plays around with broad ideas of feminism,” Tukel notes. “What is the role of prostitution in our current debate on gender [and] sexual politics? Is there any credence to the idea of ‘locker room talk?’ What is the mother’s role in teaching her daughter about the world? What is the responsibility of a father to his family? To himself?”
A reader of Camille Paglia’s “Free Women, Free Men” and a fan of Richard Linklater’s film “Tape,” Tukel notes each as inspiration feeding his worldview, artistic output and even humor. “I mix all the high-brow I ingest with my own low-brow sensibilities,” he says. It’s apparent in his choice to shoot the movie primarily in one hotel room and focusing on power of words over visual aesthetics, much like Linklater. Once the audience is introduced to the two female sex workers in the film, Paglia’s paradigms come in and push away the focus from bombastic men basking in glorified sexism to women owning their own choices regardless of how society chooses to box them in.
“Paglia is tough,” Tukel notes. “She’s funny, confident to the point of arrogance, a proponent of pornography. She understands sex and nature are linked. She’s fucking erudite. . . . In fact, Paglia sees women as all-powerful sexual goddesses and feels feminism got neutered after the ‘60s, when women became infantilized by playing victim to men. . . . I’ve been both misogynist and misanthrope in my life. I have a terrible temper and I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve been in long-term relationships . . . and when you’re in a relationship, sometimes people yell, things get broken. I’ve said horrible misogynistic things. I’ve had drinks thrown in my face. All very dehumanizing. All very humiliating. Am I ashamed? Sure. And if I was to write about all the other things I’m ashamed of, I could publish an encyclopedia.”
It’s precisely why Tukel directs, writes, acts, paints, and makes films. He clearly chunks all of his thought pieces and experiences from life into work. In “The Misogynists,” scenes between the prostitutes and two men hiring them bring to light a woman’s worth and her deserved respect in the throes of “locker room talk.” Audiences will not be able to avoid the POTUS’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” remarks made public last year, as the film shows how Trump’s base follows a dog whistle in literal ways.
“Actually, there’s a long section on ‘grabbing women’s pussies’ I cut out of the film,” Tukel tells. “And I regret it. Because I know the scenes would have played well today. Baxter is talking to his wife on the phone, and she’s asking him how many pussies he grabbed in college. He has to defend himself, claiming, ‘I’ve never grabbed an unsolicited pussy in my life.’ It really does speak to what’s happening now with the #metoo movement. There’s no gray area when it comes to physical abuse. If you touch someone without consent, it’s wrong—end of story. If you talk someone into giving you a blow-job and they regret it later, that’s another story. I honestly felt Trump was finished after the ‘grabbing pussies’ comments came out. I thought he was toast. But you have to hand it to women: Many just didn’t care. Maybe because there’s a little truth to it. Wealth and power are an aphrodisiac. Many women will let a powerful man have their way with them. Look at Weinstein. And I know I might get in trouble for saying this, but you know, ‘An honest man is always in trouble.’ This is from Hal Hartley’s ‘Henry Fool.’ Great fucking line.”
If anything, “The Misogynists” challenges audiences to take a hard look at themselves and the morals they uphold but also to consider how it interacts with freedoms, more specifically, freedom of speech. Can we say whatever the hell we want without repercussion nowadays? Sure. But the stakes are higher. Recording devices are at everyone’s fingertips, and access to the World Wide Web means a push of a button can make it viral—which means also upholding accountability.
“Free speech is imperiled by the fact that privacy no longer exists,” he says. “If I tell something to a friend in the privacy of a hotel room, it’s not the same as recording it for public consumption. But if that conversation is recorded and shared, the public doesn’t care. They’re like vultures swarming in to pick apart a carcass. Context is dead. In a lot of ways, truth is dead. It’s all just righteous indignation.”
The comedy of “The Misogynists” makes many of its real-world topics bearable. Tukel barely scratches the surface on major issues like a border wall, post-election protests, and reactionary fatalism. He wanted the conversations to be as easily relatable as if two people were having them over dinner. “I’m trying to capture an overall mood of election night in the first 45 minutes,” he details. “On the left, there was panic. On the right, excited smugness (understandably). After that, we go into dime-store sexual politics for 15 minutes, then everything converges in the last 25 minutes or so. As a whole, I think the movie is profound and relevant. But I didn’t want the conversations to ever feel too didactic or self-important.”
Such can be seen in some of his favorite characters in the film, particularly all the ones who seem aloof. The Mexican waiter, who just shrugs off Trump’s victory, after not voting at all, is a good example. “That’s what millions of liberals did on Election Day,” Tukel tells. “They shrugged because they didn’t think Donald Trump could win. Now that he has won, it’s as if they were campaigning for Hillary the entire time. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of themes in the movie. There’s a wonderful theme on sentient technology—the kind that invades and mesmerizes without warning. Many of us have forfeited our mental sovereignty to screens and video. Are we free? The movie asks this question throughout. In a way, the hotel room in the movie is a prison. The characters are also prisoners of their own closed-mindedness. In 2016, so many Americans have embraced the negativity, and in doing so, have said ‘no’ to eternity.”
Nov. 9, 7:15 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 301 Chestnut St.
Onur Tukel will have a second film showing in Cucalorus, which he made with filmmaker Bob Byington. “Infinity Baby” stars Kieran Culkin, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman and will screen Sun., Nov. 12, 7:15 p.m. at Thalian’s ballroom.