Emptiness Onur Karaman

Onur Karaman’s psychological horror film Emptiness is a visual puzzle

An interview with the Quebec director about his first English-language film.

Emptiness, the psychological horror film directed by Onur Karaman, aims for dread. It’s a low-budget horror that the filmmaker has imagined as a kind of “visual puzzle.” It’s often narratively confounding but emotionally potent in its approach to the subjective and horrifying reality that Suzanne (Stéphanie Breton) finds herself in: her husband has disappeared and she’s stuck in an old house with Linda (Julie Trépanier) and Nicole (Anana Rydvald). Her days are confusing and increasingly horrifying, as the two other women won’t leave her alone. A presence seems to be preventing her from searching for her husband. Is it Nicole? Is it the house? Or is it all in Suzanne’s head?

For Onur Karaman, Emptiness represents a departure from his previous films, which were largely dramas. His 2022 film Respire was a critically acclaimed examination of a Moroccan immigrant and a pointed critique of racism in Quebec. As we began our conversation, sitting in the offices of K-Films Amérique (the company distributing the film), Karaman talked about stand-up comedy, and the notion of stepping on the stage with the same material every night. “I would feel like a phony,” he says. He doesn’t want to be boxed in. Karaman doesn’t want to do what’s expected of him, even if it comes at great risk.

With little interest in genre tropes, he sees horror films as an opportunity to ask questions and be poetic. “As a filmmaker,” Karaman explains, “I can’t necessarily subscribe to what is expected of me all the time. It’s nice to take chances and risks.” While Emptiness is “more like an intuitive and emotional experience rather than a typical narrative film,” it’s also not as cryptic as some critics have suggested. 

Like other great horror films, the movie rides on the intuition and emotionality of its lead, Suzanne. Her worldview is confused and scary. The shots capture a sense of unease with her environment, which remains largely dark as if the whole house might be enveloped in a void. It’s not muddy but deliberate and well-composed black and white, with chiaroscuro tones by director of photography Tom McNamara, interrupted by flashes of red and occasional colour. The mise-en-scène is carefully considered, emphasizing Suzanne’s sense of alienation. 

Emptiness Onur Karaman
Onur Karaman’s psychological horror film Emptiness is a visual puzzle

Made on a small budget, Emptiness relies heavily on atmosphere and performance to create its sense of dread. “You know, a lot of people wouldn’t even attack a short film with this budget,” explained Karaman, but through restriction, community emerges. Despite challenges involved with working with few means, Karaman says making a small film can be very beautiful. “It’s a lot more meaningful. As paradoxical as it might sound, it has more meaning when done with less means, it’s so much more demanding. It takes so much out of you, and it takes so much out of people who just want to be part of the project.”

The low budget also gave him freedom. “This film, I wouldn’t have been allowed to make this film like it is, and I wouldn’t change anything with it now, about it now, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film had it been a big budget,” says Karaman. 

The film is also very personal for him. “I wrote this in 2015 when I learned my grandma had dementia,” he explains. “God bless her soul, she was a woman who helped everyone until her las breath. Here was this woman who was vulnerable and needed help and in her state of mind, didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.” Karaman’s grandmother lived in Istanbul, and her care had to be largely organized from North America. It wasn’t always good; Karaman said she was scared of some of the aids who took care of her. The fact that she passed away across the ocean is something he’s still grappling with. “The movie is a little homage and poem for my grandma,” he says. Acknowledging that people generally don’t like to talk or think about about death and dying, he says, “It’s easier to just push it away, but that was my starting point, my inspiration.”

Karaman recognizes that his film is unlikely to break box office records, but he hopes people will take the time to consider it. “People are so impatient and ready to get their ideas on paper, but have they thought about it?” Emptiness is a horror film in every sense, but it’s more contemplative than most. Karaman recommends seeing it on a big screen. “Pay attention to every single frame. There’s a purpose, and every frame has been thought about for a long time. The sound design, we thought about it for a long time.” If you’re lucky enough, you might fall under its hypnotic spell. ■

Emptiness (directed by Onur Karaman)

Emptiness opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 26. A special screening with cast and crew will be held that day at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc), 7 p.m.

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