America, America (1963): Making of Kazan’s Autobiographical Film

In America America, Elia Kazan tells how, and why, his family left Turkey and moved to America.  Kazan notes that much of it came from stories that he heard as a young boy.

He says during an interview that “It’s all true: the wealth of the family was put on the back of a donkey, and my uncle, really still a boy, went to Istanbul … to gradually bring the family there to escape the oppressive circumstances … It’s also true that he lost the money on the way, and when he got there he swept rugs in a little store.”

Kazan notes some of the controversial aspects of what he put in the film. He writes “I used to say to myself when I was making the film that America was a dream of total freedom in all areas.” To make his point, the character who portrays Kazan’s uncle Avraam kisses the ground when he gets through customs, while the Statue of Liberty and the American flag are in the background. Kazan had considered whether that kind of scene might be too much for American audiences:

I hesitated about that for a long time. A lot of people, who don’t understand how desperate people can get, advised me to cut it. When I am accused of being excessive by the critics, they’re talking about moments like that. But I wouldn’t take it out for the world. It actually happened. Believe me, if a Turk could get out of Turkey and come here, even now, he would kiss the ground. To oppressed people, America is still a dream.

Before undertaking the film, Kazan wanted to confirm many of the details about his family’s background. At one point, he sat his parents down and recorded their answers to his questions. He remembers eventually asking his father a “deeper question: ‘Why America? What were you hoping for?'” His mother gave him the answer, however: “A.E. brought us here.” Kazan states that “A.E. was my uncle Avraam Elia, the one who left the Anatolian village with the donkey. At twenty-eight, somehow—this was the wonder—he made his way to New York. He sent home money and in time brought my father over. Father sent for my mother and my baby brother and me when I was four.

Kazan writes of the movie, “It’s my favorite of all the films I’ve made; the first film that was entirely mine.”