It's no fluke that the two previous films by writer-director Fatih Akin were called "Head-On" and "Crossing the Bridge." Akin was born in Germany to Turkish parents and his films directly reflect the cultural exchange and conflict that have become such a hard-wired part of modern life around the world. His most recent film, "The Edge of Heaven," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, further explores these tumultuous themes, but with perhaps an added dose of newfound grace.
"Heaven," which has drawn comparisons to the work of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski and Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, follows two story lines that don't so much intersect as spiral around each other, as vital connections are never quite made even as coincidence seems to bind the characters ever closer.
A German man of Turkish heritage, a university professor, returns to his family's homeland looking for the daughter of a woman hurt by his father. The daughter, meanwhile, has headed to Germany, where she is taken in by a female college student. This back-and-forth interconnectedness slowly strips away the characters' obvious differences, leaving only their common humanity as everyone winds up back in Turkey, putting together the pieces of lives shattered by events that seem to have skidded irreversibly out of control. Among the roundelay cast is actress Hanna Schygulla, best known for her collaborations with German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
"If there is a common thing in all my films," said Akin, "there is this idea of people who have left their homes to find another home. I always return to this. And even if I made a science fiction film, it would probably be about people who are leaving the Earth to start a new life on Mars.
"I always come back to that. I've always considered myself a child of this planet, I belong to everywhere, not just where I make films."
In making films that grapple so directly with the repercussions of his own cultural identity, Akin aims to speak not only to those with the same background, but also to share that unique perspective with a broader audience.
"I hope that I speak for a larger group," Akin, 34, said during a stopover in Los Angeles. "But saying that, I don't mean that I represent a larger group. No, no. As an artist, I just speak for myself but I try to reach the largest audience possible and I hope I can reach people who are not just in that cultural framing I chose.
"It's the framing I know the best, and I think and I hope that those issues I'm talking about are exchangeable, that there also would be similarities between a Mexican and American framing, or with Koreans living in Japan. I think you can find these examples anywhere."
Akin, who next will shoot a segment of the anthology film "New York, I Love You," lives in Hamburg, Germany, with his wife and young son. He made his feature debut in 1998 with "Short Sharp Shock." After a few more features, he landed his artistic breakthrough and international acclaim with "Head-On," a punk rock romance about a couple of emigres who meet after attempting suicide. It made many critics' top 10 lists for 2005, when it was released in the U.S. He followed that up with "Crossing the Bridge" in 2005, a documentary on the percolating and diverse music scene in Istanbul. Perpetually drawn to this exploration of the cultural distinctions between Turkey and Germany, Akin has -- both for himself and in his films -- found a way to navigate the divide.
"I never felt myself torn. Never, ever," he said. "I am complete with those things. My parents are Turkish and I was born in Germany. And I always felt myself not in between, but with both.
"Over the years, as I've had some success and attention from the media, I started to be torn, because [my attitude] doesn't fit with the culture clash that's going on today. It's not the fashion to bring the people together. It's boring. People are not interested in peace; people are interested in conflict."
Yet there is one cultural gap that even someone as sincere and Zen-cool as Akin may not be able to bridge, and that is the seemingly ever-widening gulf between those films celebrated on the international festival circuit and those that attain even modest art house success in the U.S. "Head-On" won the top prize at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival but made less than $1 million at the box office in America. "The Edge of Heaven" won best screenplay at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and both films won multiple other awards.
A production's nationality
It SEEMS that only at places such as Cannes would people like Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne be photographed signing autographs, while in the U.S. their films will barely eke out a limited theatrical release, if any. "Unfortunately, the art house audience that used to seek and find foreign titles in the U.S. has greatly diminished," wrote Marcus Hu, co-president of "The Edge of Heaven" distributor Strand Releasing, in an e-mail from Cannes. "Hopefully, those people that used to go to the art house theater are putting the titles in their Netflix queues."
The clash of cultures that plays out in Akin's films can at times go on behind the scenes as well. There was some dispute whether Turkey or Germany could rightly claim "The Edge of Heaven" -- a co-production of both countries -- as its Academy Award submission. Germany, where the film opened first, won out, while a film Akin co-produced, "Takva," became Turkey's submission.
"Other people have these problems. I don't have these problems," Akin said of how sometimes the world seems to want to force a choice on him, a choice he himself has no desire to make.
"I'm comfortable in both places. Whoever wants to claim the film for their own should do it. It's OK with me."