[interview and photograph Mark Eveleigh]
mano@mano is dedicated to the contrasts and contradictions that make travel such an addiction. Aslı Pelit is one woman who knows all about that: she left her home in Istanbul to pursue a future as a fashion writer in the USA – and instead has become Turkey’s favourite South America TV presenter. As a news correspondent she covered Amazon plane crashes, riots in Buenos Aires, earthquakes in Chile and the world’s most feared hooligan armies. She is now the presenter of several successful TV travel shows. We caught up with Aslı at home in Buenos Aires to find out what it takes to set yourself up as a freelance TV presenter.
What sparked your interest in South America?
I was studying to be a fashion journalist in New York when I attended a lecture on Argentina’s so-called Dirty War. The discussion focused on how the children of los disaparecidos [the disappeared] were taken away and re-located with pro-government families. I cried all the way through. I was struck with how similar in some ways the Argentine situation was with what we had been through in Turkey. I realized how shallow my ambition to write about fashion had been and decided that I wanted to cover more meaningful stories.
Was it hard to get established as a correspondent in South America?
It was close to impossible. Twice I actually gave up. I got into the University of Havana and lived there for the three years – mostly feeding myself from guiding – then I went to Uruguay to finish writing a book that was finally published as Siempre Havana (Always Havana). They were tough years and finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t live from freelance writing and bought a ticket to fly back to Istanbul. I was actually preparing for the airport when a call came from someone who had read my book and liked it: the call was from CNN Turk and they wanted me to be their stringer in South America.
What sort of stories did you cover for CNN?
They were frantic years. I covered riots in Argentina, the Air France Amazon plane crash, and I once spent 72 sleepless hours covering the horrors of the great earthquake in Chile. The sight and smell of the dead was something I will never forget. There was something about working on those stories as a freelance that made me uncomfortable though. There might be spells when I was out of work with nothing to cover then a disaster would happen somewhere and it would bring good news for me: a phone-call with a commission and the promise of a pay cheque. It made me uncomfortable when I realized that I was actually waiting for something bad to happen somewhere!
How did you become Turkey’s premier reporter on soccer in South America and one of the foremost reporters in the world on soccer hooliganism?
I wanted to combine my two passions – soccer and travel – and, with the help of a friend, shot a pilot here in Argentina. I pitched the pilot successfully in Turkey and we were almost ready to start shooting when the crisis hit. Both the network and my sponsors backed out, then the news correspondent work dried up. I finally came to the conclusion that I wasn’t meant to be a foreign correspondent and, again, bought a ticket to return to Istanbul. I was packing when the phone rang again. It was my old boss, who wanted me to start shooting a TV series that would portray cities all over South America through the eyes of local taxi drivers.
You got a reputation through the taxi series for covering not only the prime tourist sights but also for shooting some of the roughest, most lawless favelas [ghettos] in the world. What is the riskiest environment you have ever worked in?
The taxi series began to open some doors and I got a real break when a network finally gave the green light for my soccer series. 10larin Kitasi as it’s called is now the second most popular sport show on the Turkish network. The hook is soccer but it’s actually a travel show focusing not only on the sport but also on tourism, adventure, culture and food (always a major point of interest for us Turks!). A central theme is on the hooligan element that plays such an important part in South American soccer. The “Barras Bravas” [hooligan armies] of major Latin teams can be as organised as any mafia organisation. Yet when you are on the terraces with them you are also aware that the situation could be as unpredictable as with the world’s wildest warrior tribe. “La 12” – the Barra Brava of Buenos Aires’s Boca Juniors – for example is the most organised hooligan army in the entire world. Their leader Mauro can count on an army of at least 10,000 dedicated thugs. There is a strict hierarchy on the terraces and since many of the Barra Brava chiefs are wanted criminals, cameras are not normally welcome. We are the only camera crew who regularly report from the terraces and I’ve interviewed many of the chiefs of the Barras Bravas. Sometimes threatening situations have been diffused simply by the fact that nobody can really believe that this sweet little Turkish girl can possibly be risking the terraces. Also, it is clear that I am genuinely passionate about soccer and that – at least – is something they can respect. More than respect actually: several times supporters of one team or another have asked how to spell my name so that they can have it tattooed on their bodies!
Logistically how do you set up and shoot your own TV show?
I work in the same way as any other freelance. The network accepts my story ideas and I have to put all the raw information together much as any other freelance would. I hire a cameraman, figure out what will make the best angles for that particular show and shoot the raw footage in the field. I work with Argentine partners who are my co-producers and fixers but I am the scriptwriter, producer and presenter. I send the raw footage to the network where they do the final production and edit everything together (in the same way that a magazine’s editor and art department would do). I have to cover all the production costs and travel expenses myself and I get paid by the network only when they accept the programme. In this way I am a freelance like any other.
What are your plans for the future?
Well… my producer says I’m not supposed to talk about it too much yet, but I can tell you that we have a project in the pipeline for an English language travel show provisionally entitled Taxi Girl. Very exciting because we will be visiting about 30 countries around the world and exploring them through the eyes of taxi drivers. That should keep me busy for the next couple of years and will give me a chance to spread my wings a bit more so that I can get out to work more in Asia and Africa.