Melis Behlil ’96 Remembers a Professor’s Kindness

Use this Melis B
Melis Behlil ’96 is a film scholar and film critic based in Istanbul. After a (very brief) corporate career in finance, Behlil realized that was not her calling. She earned a master’s in film and TV from Istanbul Bilgi University, followed by a Ph.D. in cultural analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Behlil is currently an associate professor of cinema studies and the chair of the Department of Radio, Television and Cinema at Kadir Has University. She has been a visiting scholar at MIT and a research associate at Stockholm University.

Behlil’s articles have appeared in publications including Cineaste, Cinema Journal and Creative Industries Journal; she authored the 2016 book, Hollywood is Everywhere: Global Directors in the Blockbuster Era. She co-hosts a weekly Turkish radio show, is a member of The International Federation of Film Critics and has served on juries at many film festivals. Her claim to fame in Turkey is as the critic of the Academy Awards live ceremony broadcast [this Sunday, March 27], which puts her in the spotlight one day a year, at 4:00 a.m.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Although I arrived from Turkey, I had already spent my junior year of high school as an exchange student on Long Island, so I was familiar with the culture and the city, and with being independent of my family. I came from one of the toughest high schools back home, so I was used to academic challenges. But I do remember taking weeks and weeks over the summer to read the first six books of The Iliad, and being asked to read the remaining 18 in a week — that was a good introduction to the workload! I had always been a little shy and an introvert (still am), but having spent a year as an exchange student had forced me to break out of my shell. It had also given me the inspiration to study international relations, which quickly disappeared after a semester of intro to IR and a visit to the U.N. The first few weeks at Columbia, I remember constantly introducing myself to people: “Melis, Istanbul, yes Turkey, McBain, international relations.”

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was placed on McBain 5, which was a great floor to live on, with a wonderful mix of people. We first-years took pride in living there, as it was almost “off-campus” (with a kitchen to boot!) and we lived with seniors, unlike all the Carman Hall folks. Devon Lincoln ’96, my roommate for the first two years, is still my closest friend from college and I’m in touch with quite a few other people from our floor, as well. It was the ideal College experience, from debating Lit Hum books until early hours of the morning to going to Columbia Cottage for its horrendous, but free, wine along with our R.A. They say smell is closely linked to memory, and my happy recollection of that first year is the sweet smell emanating from the cart of the honey-roasted nuts vendor on the corner of Broadway and 113th.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I loved the Core, and when I do admissions interviews with candidates now, that’s one of the things I focus on. I especially enjoyed Lit Hum, even though it was an early-morning class. My professor, David Pike GSAS’93, was a very enthusiastic Ph.D. candidate who was also a film fan, which made the class even more enjoyable. I remember being obsessed with the idea of the underworld, present most significantly in the Aeneid and Inferno, and writing a paper on it that I really enjoyed.

I also took Phil Schaap ’73’s jazz course as part of the Global Core requirement, and it almost cost me my graduation. I walked into the final exam late, very late — my classmates were leaving the room. It was my very last final and somehow, I had misremembered the time. Schaap was gracious enough to grant me a make-up (probably having seen the state of shock I was in); I try to remember his kindness when I deal with my students today.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

For intense studying, I loved the reading rooms on the sixth floor of Butler. Back then, they belonged to the School of Library Sciences, which had just closed, so they were almost always empty and had one of the best views of the campus. I could spend an entire day there, with ample naps in between. During finals, it was open 24 hours, so days could turn into nights. For lighter studying and socializing, I loved The Hungarian Pastry Shop. It’s still the first place I go to every time I visit Columbia; my favorite is still their cinnamon roll. You had to ration the free refills of coffee though, otherwise you risked boring a hole in your stomach. On weekend nights, I volunteered at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel, where I learned to make great popcorn and brownies, and heard some impressive acoustic performers.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I had actually majored in film. My sophomore year I missed a registration deadline for the introduction class (which was a prerequisite for all the other classes and was only offered in the Fall semester) and was unable to major — but I did take courses with Richard Pena and David Sterritt, who are now my colleagues. Maybe it all worked out for the best, as I found my own way to film studies. That included joining film clubs like the Ferris Reel Film Society, but maybe if I did it over again, I would also explore clubs that pushed me a little further out of my comfort zone. I would also like to tell my second-year self that things would get better very soon, as I had quite the sophomore slump. But I enjoyed every minute of the following two years!