Project Spotlight: 'Nenekuş (Meditating with Flowers)', Intergenerational Healing via Storytelling

Elif Fatima Gorken is a filmmaker and writer from Istanbul. Her work focuses on gender and Islamic mysticism aiming to explore visual storytelling from a decolonial framework. Through her latest work 'Nenekuş (Meditating with Flowers)' she captures the deep relationship her grandmother holds with her plants. A filmmaker’s work is, by nature, personal but Elif’s manner of capturing her family’s history is something totally enthralling. Supplemented with family photos and a poetic voice-over, Nenekuş, is a beautiful snapshot of a matriarch’s life and sacrifice.

How did you discover film?

I became fascinated with cinema after watching Iranian director Majid Majidis films. I was in high school when I watched Song of Sparrows, The Color of Paradise and Children of Heaven. These films had a major impact on me and made me fall in love with visual story telling. I still revisit these films for inspiration.  Honestly, my mind was set on studying sociology and working in social justice movements. It wasn’t until I took a few film classes in undergrad that I decided I wanted to dive deeper into this art form and switched my major to film.

What roles in production do you gravitate towards? What rules and production would you like to learn?

I gravitate towards directing. I would like to learn more about the rules of cinematography and lighting.  

How supportive is your family of your career?

They are definitely more supportive than your average Turkish immigrant family. Though their support feels conditional at times. They are supportive of my career as long as its aligned with their values. My family has always encouraged me to follow the path that makes me happy and I am grateful for that. I was never forced into a career path I didn’t want. Their general take is they don’t fully understand why I chose the film path, and why it’s so important to me, but they support it as long as my films won’t contradict their traditional values. So I feel like I have to navigate their expectations of my work which feels restricting and even discouraging at times.   

How did you decide it was time to create a film about your grandmother?

She called me one day in tears because she had to give one of her plants away. Her plant “Yuka” had grown too tall and wasn’t going to survive in her small apartment. I didn’t realize how much her plants meant to her until then. She was so emotionally attached to her plant, and was planning to say her goodbyes. I decided then I wanted to capture this unique relationship. The film originally was going to be a 2-3 minute film about this specific goodbye. However as we discussed the film and bounced ideas off of each other the film blossomed into something much greater.

Was it difficult to have your grandmother open up on camera?

Yes. It was difficult. The presence of the camera makes it difficult. She opens up to me easily but with the camera in front of her she feels like she has to be a certain way. She tries to be more put together, speak more eloquently and isn’t fully relaxed. We had to work through that together. Her feelings of discomfort were valid. Being vulnerable in front of a camera is terrifying even if the person behind camera is your granddaughter. It’s the documentarians job to provide a safe environment and ensure the interviewee feels comfortable. We took breaks often and I would ask if she’s feeling okay and if she wants to continue. 


What did you learn about film while creating this work?

No matter how prepared you are for a documentary, the film will always take on a life of its own. I remember someone said “documentary making is writing in real time through the lens” and it’s an idea I revisit a lot in my work. It’s very important to have room for flexibility and allow the film to develop and grow during the process. Becoming too attached to how things are supposed to be makes you miss out on valuable opportunities to experiment. Becoming attached to the end result is how documentaries become mechanic and uninteresting. I had a vision for this film and used my shot lists and story boards as guidance, but not as my end goals. 

How long did this film take to shoot?

I initially shot the film in 2 days and while I started editing I realized it wasn’t working. The footage wasn’t enough to fully bring the vision I had to life. I started feeling anxious when things didn’t go as planned and stepped away from the film for 5-6 months. I couldn’t move onto other projects before I finished this one so I was feeling a mixture of anxiety and self doubt during this period. Although at that time I felt very hopeless, I’m realizing now this film would not have developed into what it did, had I not taken time away from it.  I grew a lot as a person during that time so when I revisited the film I was able to make the changes it needed.

Were there things that you wanted to include in the film that you were not able to?

Yes. I wasn’t able to include a few interviews I did with my grandmother about her relationship with her siblings and her upbringing. She told me lots of great stories that I tried incorporating but eventually cut because I wanted to keep the film focused on her plants. 


What sort of work would you like to create in the future? 

After having worked on a few documentaries and experimental projects, I want to transition to fiction. I want to write and direct shorts that are made for and by marginalized women of color.  Im interested in decolonizing cinema, reclaiming our narratives and finding new ways to tell stories. I’m interested in creating multidimensional women characters and telling engaging, compelling stories relating to femininity, intimacy, memory, love, grief , vulnerability and our inner power. 

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Any advice for creating personal work like this?

Don’t be afraid of being vulnerable. My advice is to embrace vulnerability. To use it as your fuel in your storytelling. Making a personal project can be scary but also very transformative. My advice is to do a lot of journaling and writing beforehand to really be able to form your thoughts and your vision. Also take your time. Don’t rush personal projects. Sometimes it takes months, even years and that’s extremely okay. Taking breaks are part of the creative process. 

Profile photo credit: Dan Rodriguez