Aycil Yeltan-The Artist and the Art

Kait LeonardBy Kait Leonard

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Aycil Yeltan-The Artist and the Art
Poster for Aycil Yeltan's short film, Topanga.
I last touched based with filmmaker, actress, and artist, Aycil Yeltan, in May of 2020. I had the privilege of meeting her in her Topanga Canyon home, which she refers to as “the most creative place on earth.” We discussed her second short film, Topanga, which was and still is screening in festivals internationally. Topanga had won four awards at that point. It now has six and is up for more. Topanga has been accepted to compete in the Irish short film festival, Still Voices, and most impressively in the seventeenth International Short Film Festival, “In the Palace,” one of the events that could qualify it to be considered for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it impossible for Yeltan to be present at these festivals. She will attend Still Voices online and is eagerly waiting for news as to whether a virtual option will be available for In the Palace. I first interviewed Yeltan in her tiny bungalow nestled in the natural beauty of Topanga Canyon. Though her home has the usual kitchenette, mandatory writer’s desk, and bed, it is far from ordinary. Original artwork covers almost every available inch of wall space. Some of the paintings are of Yeltan, some are by her, and together they draw you in to see, to consider, to appreciate. Art is profoundly important to Aycil Yeltan (which she writes as “aYcil yeLtan”), and though her time is now spent making films, the cinema is not where she started. Yeltan’s creative life began in childhood when she began studying the cello. The next big step was getting accepted into The State Conservatory in Turkey, her home country. She entered as a music student, but soon the stage called to her, and her passion for acting propelled her on. Yeltan eventually moved to the United States to “become an international artist, as a Turkish woman, and inspire others.” She dreamed of elevating artists from her part of the world, but to do this, she first needed to establish herself as an actor. She paid the typical dues of working for minimum wage, living with roommates, and waiting for significant parts to come her way.
The filmmaker at Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival 5
Finally, when the roles she wanted didn’t come quickly enough, she took matters into her own hands. She made her own opportunities by writing and producing films. This decision reveals so much about Yeltan. She believes fiercely in her art and will not let anything deter her from making it. “I am from a little town in Turkey,” she says, when asked where her artistic drive comes from. “I started studying music. From then on, my life was changed. Art has the power to transform.”

Yeltan had no experience in filmmaking and knew only what she had picked up as an actress sitting on sets waiting for her character’s scene to come around. But she didn’t let her lack of formal training slow her down. In 2016, she wrote, directed, starred in, and co-produced her three-minute film, Marie: Clementine. Foreshadowing Topanga, this story touches on women’s relationships, vulnerability, objectification, and art. Not a single word is spoken, but the interaction between the two female characters feels real and complex and stark. Only a few minutes are projected onto the screen, but the story haunts the viewer for much longer.

Fueled by the positive reception of her first effort, Yeltan began searching for her next story.

Fate seemed to step in when Yeltan passed a homeless woman begging on the street. The woman, pretty and fairly well kempt, looked out of place. Yeltan couldn’t shake the desire to know more about her. Eventually the two sat on a curb, talking, and eating deli sandwiches. They met a few times, and from these interactions, Yeltan found her story. She began to write.

The resulting film, Topanga, is profoundly disturbing. The assault scene is excruciating to watch, a tribute, in large part, to Yeltan’s acting. But the story is not brutal. By the time the lights come back on, the character has moved from the edge of death through physical healing and self-discovery, to ultimately find her own creative potential. This all happens in 15 minutes.

It’s hard to imagine where one goes from Topanga, but Yeltan is already planning her next film. It will be a feature shot in Turkey. She says she won’t be the star this time. She wants to keep her director’s eyes on each shot, something she can’t do when she is also in the scene. Undoubtedly, the film will benefit from Yeltan’s focus, but it’s likely audiences will miss her presence.

No matter. Anyone who gets to know Yeltan’s work will trust the artist and eagerly wait for whatever comes next.
Kait Leonard

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July 24, 2020