“Migration is the big topic in every corner of the world” – director Serkan Nihat on his powerful debut feature film Exodus

Serkan Nihat’s directorial debut film Exodus has won the Best Drama Feature 2024 award at this year’s London Independent Film Festival (LIFF). Set in Turkiye, the hard hitting migration drama received a standing ovation when it premiered at the festival earlier this month.

Inspired by the global refugee crisis, Exodus homes in on two Turkish characters, a university lecturer and a police officer, in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup in Turkiye. Both men decide to flee abroad for fear of arbitrary arrest as the country takes a more autocratic turn.

Their planned exit route brings them together with others who are also desperately seeking to escape: a Yazidi fleeing Isis, a Kurdish artist, a Turkish mother and son, and a Congolese man, who all turn to people smugglers to be illegally transported to Europe.

Exodus director Serkan Nihat on the mic, alongside his cast, following the film’s screening at the opening of the LIFF, 19 April 2024


T-VINE caught up with Serkan ahead of the opening gala at LIFF to ask him about what drew him to Exodus, the challenges of this indie movie project, and what’s next for this award-winning movie.

How did you come to direct Exodus?

I was initially approached by the producer Ilhan Gokalp, who I have worked with prior. Initially, it was presented to me as a television series where our executive producer Murat Kesgin had created the story.  Their plan was to film the initial pilot and then seek funding for the rest of the series.

I must admit that I felt that the first episode was too political – which does not necessarily translate to good drama – so initially I was hesitant. However, the main thing that stood out from that first script was the character of Hakan who resonated with me.

Denis Ostier (left) as Hakan and Umit Ulgen as Mehmet, Exodus (2024)


Hakan is a history and philosophy lecturer, and his writings and methods are deemed unpopular against political circles and suddenly he is deemed a terrorist.  Hakan must drop his work, family and foundation and leave the country.

I naturally thought, ‘well what would I do in that situation?’ The idea that someone just like me could suddenly find themselves so far removed from their normal existence and thrown into these terrible situations by no fault of their own.  That was the crux of my interest.

For me the real drama was in the fallout of the political backdrop, rather than the politics itself. From that point I thought the real story is creating a refugee story where the viewer could not only empathise with the characters’ plight, but also see themselves in these characters and realise these people are absolutely no different to you and I and, hopefully by doing that, give a voice to these people.

“My goal was to give a human face to the migration issue; at its heart, Exodus is a story of desperation, love, compassion, and an individual’s will to survive”

Also, as a director my first love is cinema, so at that point, I suggested to the producers that rather than making a television pilot and seek more funding why not commit to a low budget standalone motion picture and have a viable complete product at the end?

Luckily Murat was very accommodating to this and allowed me to write the screenplay and that is how it went from a television pilot to a feature film.

Refugees and people forced into exile is a heavy subject matter for a debut feature film. Were you daunted by the responsibility of telling it and what do you hope audiences will take away from it?

As a filmmaker there are so many day-to-day things that can seem daunting and it is easy to be overwhelmed, but you find a way to disconnect yourself from the wider sense of people management, camera, lights, budgets, and schedules, and keep reminding yourself of the story, themes, and characters. If you keep focused on that, it will give you a clear vision and everything will not seem as daunting.

I like the metaphor of wearing a cap on set because it gives you a sense of tunnel vision, so when looking at the monitor, I can distract myself from the set and be absorbed with the action in front of me.

As for the subject matter, humans have been migrating since the dawn of civilisation. For centuries migration has been driven by many factors, from weather to food, war, slavery, religious persecution, employment, and human rights abuse. In the near future, we will see a rise in migration due to climate change.

Whatever the cause, currently migration seems to be the big topic in every corner of the world and every country has the immigration issue very close to their politics.

Still from Serkan Nihat’s directorial debut Exodus (2024)


The immigrant story is usually met with negative connotations. Many people, including the media and politicians, perpetuate the myth that any problems we face is caused by immigration and, unfortunately, this rhetoric has gained momentum in many countries. Migrants are seen as a burden rather than attracting sympathy. I wanted to show another perspective.

As a Turkish Cypriot and being aware of my own culture and migration history, I understand how I am connected to the issue.

We often hear of migrants in terms of numbers. We often forget that behind those numbers are real people. This is what drew me to the project. I wanted to go beyond the headlines and seek the real people and look at their individual stories, and by doing that I was hoping to give them a voice. To recognise that these people are just like us, who have been put in unfathomable situations through no fault of their own.

Our film is set in Turkiye, but the sad reality is that I could have told the same story in numerous other countries that are also forcing people to flee.

My focus was not on the political situation, as I did not find that neither engaging nor relevant. I was more interested in the fallout and how it effects normal people.

“the Hakan character is the anchor of the story and we were about two weeks away from principal photography and we still hadn’t cast that role”

It is for this reason that I did not want to focus exclusively on the horrors of migration, but to also show the real human moments. The sense of humour, family, and love. This was important to me to emphasise that these people are no different to any of us and, universally, we all share the same hopes and fears.

All our characters are based on real stories and events, and I wanted to show that the horrors people go through also extends to those left behind and family members who all suffer from losing loved ones.

My goal was to give a human face to the migration issue; at its heart, Exodus is a story of desperation, love, compassion, and an individual’s will to survive.

What was the hardest part of the project?

Whenever you film there is always a certain amount of compromise. My job as the director is to keep the balance between compromise and my original vision as closely connected as possible.

I knew going into the film that the biggest challenge would be to deliver my expectations with the obvious budget restraints. I knew I wouldn’t have huge vistas and scale, so I tried to keep being creative with  keeping the film character driven.

Also, the fact that the film was set in Turkiye, but was almost exclusively filmed in the UK was a huge challenge.

Still from Serkan Nihat’s directorial debut Exodus (2024)


Balancing a UK and Turkish crew and the language barriers was also a challenge. However, when we started crewing for the film, the producers put me in contact with an amazing group of talented Turkish crew who, alongside people that I have been working with for years, and seeing their passion and drive for the project made me feel like this would all be possible.

Overall, I would say the casting was probably the most difficult. There is a truth that if you cast correctly half your job is done. However, on this project as the script had a political element many actors did not want to get involved, which in itself says a lot.

It was a shock to see how few people wanted to be part of it and even roles that we had initially cast only for the actor to then change their minds was frustrating.

The most stressful thing was that I knew the Hakan character is the anchor of the story and we were about two weeks away from principal photography and we still hadn’t cast that role. If that role didn’t work, neither would the film.

In the end we had to look outside the UK and Turkiye, and it was in France that we finally found Hakan through the incredible Denis Ostier, and at that point I felt a huge weight disappear.

It’s great that Exodus was selected to open LIFF 2024. Was this the film’s world premiere?

We had our first private screening at EFM [European Film Market] as part of the Berlinale in Germany and had a great reaction to the film, but LIFF is our very first public screening and film festival. So, after all the hard work for me, this is when the film will begin its journey.

Where will the film go next? When can we expect to see it on UK screens?

As a completely independent film, exposure is key. Our job now is to try to raise awareness for the film. Hopefully we will now begin to get the film in as many established festivals as possible and use that as a calling card to distributors to pick the film up.

We already have a sales agent and the plan now is to start selling the film in as many territories as possible. So, watch this space.

Director and screenwriter Serkan Nihat

The best way to see updates on where the film will be screening is to follow me or the film at: