Aycil Yeltan’s second short film, Topanga, the story of a hearing-impaired, homeless woman and her journey to find a life purpose through her art, is currently screening in festivals and raking in awards. Now is the perfect time to take notice of Aycil Yeltan and her art.
From the moment you begin the descent down the many stairs that lead to Yeltan’s little bungalow, the trek takes on an almost metaphoric quality. There’s a sense of leaving the mundane world behind and entering the tiny realm she calls “the most creative place on earth.”
Inside, are the usual—a kitchenette, the mandatory writer’s desk, a bed. It would all seem so ordinary if it weren’t for the original artwork that 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. It quickly becomes clear that art is profoundly important to Aycil Yeltan (which she writes aYcil yeLtan), and though her time is now spent making films, the cinema is not where she started.
Yeltan’s path to filmmaking is much like the winding steps that lead to her home. Her creative life began in childhood and progressed when she was accepted by The State Conservatory in Turkey, her home country. She began studying cello when she was 13, but her school provided all forms of performing arts education, so she was exposed to ballet, opera, and theater. Yeltan entered university as a music student, but she felt drawn to acting. Giving up the dream of being a musician wasn’t easy. But her heart drew her to the stage.
It would be easy to assume that the acting bug fueled Yeltan’s move to the United States, like so many starlets before her. But this assumption would be wrong. The inspiration for the move was her desire to “become an international artist, as a Turkish woman, and inspire others.” She dreamed of elevating artists from her part of the world. Of course, she first needed to establish herself as an actor in this country. She paid the typical dues of working for minimum wage, living with roommates, and waiting for significant parts to come her way.
Finally, when waiting and working with agents did not bring the parts she was hoping for, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She would make her own roles 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. “Then 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 roll around. Her lack of formal training did not slow her down. In 2016, she wrote, directed, starred in, and co-produced her three-minute film, Marie: Clementine. Foreshadowing Topanga, this one also 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 moved on to write Topanga, which has already received four awards.
The story grew out of Yeltan’s own experience being sexually assaulted by someone she knew. She escaped the worst but, of course, she has carried its mark for years. She says she didn’t write a #MeToo story, but she needed to share the experience in a way that would let others know what it’s like to be so powerless, so objectified. She just needed to uncover the rest of the story.
You might say fate stepped in to provide the vessel that would hold the assault. Driving down the road one day, she passed a homeless woman begging in 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 like this, and eventually the other woman shared stories of her life on the street. 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 film 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. And this all takes place in 15 minutes.
It’s hard to imagine where one goes from Topanga, but Yeltan is already planning her next film: a feature shot in Turkey. She says she won’t be the star this time. She wants to be able to keep her director’s eyes on the shot, something she can’t do when she is also in the scene. Perhaps other directors will understand her decision, but it’s likely audiences will miss her presence. No matter. Anyone who gets to know Yeltan’s work will eagerly wait for whatever comes next.
The trip back up the stairs from Yeltan’s bungalow seems sadly shorter than the walk down. Leaving the artist is like leaving her art, the experience stays with you and makes you long for more.