Antoine family photo

Köpe’s family resided in Istanbul when the war broke out. 

When media arts and design professor Nefin Dinç was introduced to the memoirs of Antoine Köpe, said she had no idea that she was being led to the subject of a documentary she’s still working on 15 years later. It’s a documentary that’s now only about a year from completion.

The documentary got its subject all through the power of chance.  The pivotal conversation took place about 15 years ago when Dinç was studying documentary filmmaking at the University of North Texas. Her French professor at the time was translating the memoirs of an Austro-Hungarian soldier in World War I who lived through the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and she said it piqued her interest. 

When Dinç saw the material, she said she couldn’t believe her eyes. 

“It was a treasure chest,” Dinç said. “It wasn’t just memoirs, but photographs, letters, postcards, army documents, sound recordings, and they are talking about maybe 100 hours of sound recordings, hours of home videos collected by Antoine. Everything in the memoirs are safe in the hands of a close grandson in pristine condition, and they are never before seen or published before anywhere in the world.”

Köpe’s life was defined by transition. He lived through both World Wars, the collapse of two empires and eventually immigrated to the U.S. later in his life. Dinç said she thought this story could connect to many people and needed to be shared. 

She drafted her first script with her French professor and tried to get interest from TV channels and producers but came up empty.

“Nobody cared at all about the memoirs of, you know, an Austro-Hungarian soldier who fought in World War I,” Dinç said. “Nobody could care less.”

Throughout the process, Dinç estimated that she received close to 250 rejection letters from different companies. All she needed was one “Yes,” which she got from a Greek film company, Anemon Productions. 

Rea Apostolides, a producer at Anemon Productions, previously worked with Dinç on another documentary and has been working with her on “Antoine the Fortunate.” Apostolides assists in helping secure funding from other channels in Europe for the documentary.

She said that this documentary is unique because almost anyone can connect to Köpe’s story, especially in Europe, and that he tells the story in an approachable tone, using drawings and humor. 

“It’s not really often that we have access to this daily life of people, and especially to somebody who was also writing a diary and photographing, filming, writing letters and keeping really everything that he did,” Apostolides said.

After partnering with Anemon, Dinç continued to work on the film and acquire more funding. Over the years, the project has also garnered an exhibition in Istanbul on Köpe’s life, and the team hopes to produce a textbook contextualizing WWI history and Köpe’s story.

One of the greatest landmarks for the project took place in May of last year when Dinç received a grant from the College of Arts and Letters. With this grant, Dinç brought three scholars to Harrisonburg to continue development on the project. One of these scholars was Yigit Akin.

Now, Akin is an associate professor and the Carter V. Findley Professor of Ottoman and Turkish History at Ohio State University. He specializes in the study of WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire and was able to contextualize Köpe’s life in a larger historical context. 

“Köpe basically tells his entire life story to his children,” Akin said. “And then in that life story, it basically overlaps with many, many important turning points of the late Ottoman and early Republic of Turkey histories. So, for me, what was interesting about Köpe’s memoirs is to see how they intersect, or, you know, sometimes overlap and how those crucial turning points affected the families or a person’s life.”

All of this development had its first physical result last month in Istanbul. The exhibition on Köpe’s life opened and has received the attention of journalists and the public throughout Europe. 

“After these 15 years, I was able to see something tangible with the exhibition,” Dinç said. “We can hold it in our hands. We can see the reaction of the audience, visitors who visit the exhibition in summer, so it’s an amazing feeling that this is real, this is happening [and] we are opening up the memoirs to a larger audience.”

Dinç said she’s excited to see this project come to its completion and hopes that this story will continue to resonate with people in Europe and around the world. While Köpe’s life may seem extraordinary, there are many things that anyone can connect to, and Dinç said she hopes to highlight that in her film.

“It’s a universal story,” Dinç said. “He goes through some tribulations in his life, and he just tries to make it all through his life.”

Contact Camryn Finn at finnce@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.