Whilst many documentaries have been made on the Cyprus problem, none have delved deeper into the complexities of the island’s history and attempted to tell both sides of the story. Until now.
The Divided Island, dubbed ‘the most important film ever made on the Cyprus problem’, is a new feature-length documentary that explores the division of Cyprus, yet isn’t politically biased and refuses to blame, instead it presents the complex issues associated with the conflict and addresses themes such as intergenerational trauma.
Produced and directed by Turkish Cypriot Cey Sesiguzel, alongside his Greek Cypriot business partner and childhood friend Andy Tokkallos, the film features archival footage, conversations with experts and a number of interviews with those who lived through the troubles.
We spoke to Cey after a private screening of The Divided Island, to find out more about what he calls a “passion project”…
Cey, tell us a bit about your background and how the documentary on the Cyprus problem came about.
I’m a Turkish Cypriot, born and raised in north London. I studied film at Westminster University and specialised in directing. In 2009, my business partner Andy and I set up our video production company, Two Fresh, and we have sinceworked with many big brands, including BT, Lamborghini, Adobe and Google. However, my love for Cyprus and its history was something that fascinated me more than anything and this project is the closest to my heart.
Growing up in Enfield, my friendship group was predominantly Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish. We were all really close and spent so much time together. It wasn’t until I began to visit Cyprus on holiday that I even became aware of any contrast between the two communities. That’s when I started questioning why our ancestral home was divided. I turned to my grandparents and asked them what it was like growing up in Dromolaxia and Ayios Theodoros. I wanted to hear about their experiences, what they’d been through in the 1950s and 60s, what happened in 1974. I studied the Cyprus problem in depth for 17 years, reading every historical book written on it.
The actual production of The Divided Island began four years ago. I remember saying to Andy, ‘look, we need to make this film.’ He agreed and then our first step was to approach people we knew, before posting on all the Cypriot Facebook groups and sending out questionnaires – soon enough, we were flooded with requests from people wanting to share their stories.
What challenges did you face along the way?
We had nearly 200 submissions that we had to filter through and it was important we dedicated the time to do it before we started reaching out to people to get the agreements in place for them to share their stories on camera. We chose the stories that moved us the most, those we felt were the most relevant and could connect with the viewer.
The second hurdle was to construct the narrative. In an ideal world, I would have loved to have enough time and the budget to make a five part Netflix series on the subject matter, but we didn’t have the resources to do that. The project is mostly privately funded by our own money and with some support from people who wanted to see the film get off the ground, so it allowed us to only make a 90 minute film. The challenge that comes with that is, how do you tell 60 years of history in 90 minutes?
Were you worried people might judge the film as being one sided before even having seen it?
The biggest concern was that people wouldn’t give the documentary a chance. Believe it or not, some people don’t want to see a film that looks at both sides of the suffering, they just want to hear about the traumas of their own community. But if you’ve only ever heard about one side of the suffering, then how can you have any empathy or understanding around the nuances of the conflict?
The history of Cyprus is spoken through two incredible historians that feature in the documentary; Professor James Ker-Lindsay who has written many books on the issue, and Greek Cypriot Andrekos Varnava who is based in Australia.
My job is to tell the story – a combination of the history and the experiences of the people who lived through the conflict, presented in the most cohesive and neutral way possible.
What makes this documentary different to others that have focused on the Cyprus problem?
Most of the previous documentaries, be it those made by Johnny Harris or Ben Fogle, are outsiders looking in. Theytend to focus on the ghost town of Varosha or the buffer zone which makes interesting TV, but that for me, is not the heart of the story. The Divided Island purposely doesn’t look at that, instead it puts the trauma side by side. That’s what makes it unique, as well as the fact that it’s produced by British-born Cypriots. Our voice as a diaspora is important. There is no division over here to a certain extent. I was raised in a society where the two communities are integrated, so this is a fresh perspective.
What moment stood out for you during the making of The Divided Island?
When one of our interviewees looked straight down the lens and said: “war is suicide”, I froze, it gave me goose bumps. It’s the final line in the trailer and probably one of my most powerful in the film.
We spoke to a mother who is still waiting for her son to return home – it was so intense and emotional. We touch on painful subjects such as rape, which unfortunately was common of war and is still happening now. It’s difficult to hear these stories and not be moved.
The knock on effective of war is heart-breaking. One thing I’ve learned throughout this process is that losing a loved one because of war, is one of the biggest traumas anyone can suffer. The pain never goes away, it suppresses, but it never goes away. Sadly, this trauma was never treated as there was no help available, no counselling or therapy, no support mechanisms. People were just left to get on with it.
Psychologist Tom Fortes Mayer speaks in the documentary about how intergenerational trauma in war torn countries like Cyprus, continue to cause problems, especially in terms of addiction. The pain is buried, but it manifests in different ways.
You interviewed real people who lived through the troubles, and Cypriots from both communities in support of the reunification of Cyprus – why did you choose to not approach politicians?
People connect with real people more than they do with politicians. In the case of the Cyprus problem, there’s been a high amount of propaganda, lies and misinformation from politicians across the board, so why give them a platform? I didn’t want the film to be associated with any political party, it’s about sharing the stories of real people.
We spoke to people such as Kemal Baykalli and Andromachi Sophocleous of Unite Cyprus Now, who are in support of peace and reunification of the island, are building empathy and respecting diversity, and to Sevgul Uludag, an investigative journalist and peace activist who works alongside the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus.
What feedback have you received from the private screenings of the documentary?
The overwhelming response is that people have found it very moving and that they’re learning more about our island’s history. It is a difficult watch, I mean, how can you not be moved when a mother talks about never finding her son? You don’t see Greek Cypriot pain or Turkish Cypriot pain, you just see Cypriot pain.
What plans do you have for the film?
At the moment we’re inviting family and friends for private screenings. We are however in the process of submitting the documentary to film festivals and once we have the global release date, then we can have bigger screenings. This July marks 50 years since the war, so ideally it would be the perfect time to make it available to audiences. Our bigger goal is to get a global distribution deal, allowing the documentary to be seen on platforms such as Netflix.
What do you hope to achieve once the documentary is out there?
I hope it brings unity. I don’t want negativity, racism or hate, but compassion and empathy.
The subject matters the film deals with are relevant to everyone, regardless if they have any connection to Cyprus or not.
Ultimately, I hope the documentary highlights the humanity and complexity of this issue in a way that sparks conversations for generations to come.
Interview by Andrea Georgiou