Sürü/The Herd (1978 Turkey 118 mins)

Source: ACMI Collections Prod Co: Güney Film Dir: Zeki Ökten Scr: Yilmaz Güney Phot: Izzet Akay Ed: Özdemir Aritan Art Dir: Rauf Ozangil, Sabri Aslankara Mus: Zülfü Livaneli

Cast: Tarik Akan (Sirvan), Melike Demirag (Berivan), Tuncel Kurtiz (Hamo), Levent Inanir, Meral Niron, Erol Demiröz, Yaman Okay

The Herd, in fact, is the story of the Kurdish people, but I was not able to use the Kurdish language in the film. If Kurdish had been used, everyone who had collaborated on the film would have been thrown into prison” (1). With these words from his last interview, taped by journalist Chris Kutschera during the shooting in France of his last film, Duvar (1983), Yilmaz Güney evoked the situation of his people in the Turkey created by Ataturk. He went on to describe himself as an “assimilated Kurd”. His mother was Kurdish and his father a Zaza Kurd, and they’d spoken Kurdish and Zaza at home till he was 15. All this time he had been exposed to the dominant discourse of the nation: “There are no Kurds. There is no Kurdish language” whilst hearing Kurdish spoken and sung (2). He came to withdraw from his family background, feeling it harmed his awareness of who he was. At 16, however, he visited the region of his father’s birth for the first time, and came to appreciate the sufferings of a deracinated family, and understand how he, as his parents said, was without roots. At 34, he at last visited his mother’s region and tribe; the idea of the end of this nomadic tribe was the origin of Sürü.

In the 1960s, at the height of a career so successful that he had become Turkey’s most popular movie star, Yilmaz Güney turned to directing, and soon started his own production company. His progressive sympathies led to his being imprisoned several times in the 60s and 70s. When he was in jail, several films were made by colleagues from his scripts, first by Serif Gören, then by Zeki Ökten. Sürü was one of these, directed by Ökten and produced by Güney’s own company. Reports have suggested that the instructions in Güney’s scripts were so detailed that he was effectively at least the co-director of these films, and they are generally regarded as Güney films. In 1981 he escaped from captivity, and from the country. He died in Paris in 1984 at the age of 47 (3).

The following account of Sürü was originally published in a shorter form in Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 49, no. 581, June 1982. It is in the standard MFB format, a plot outline, then a critical analysis. Those who like to allow the film to work on their sympathies as a fresh, unmediated experience may, therefore, decide not to read what follows (particularly the first part) till after seeing the film.

The notion of “third cinema” invoked at the end of the article derives from the seminal essay by Fernando Solanas & Octavio Gettino, “Towards a Third Cinema”. It opposes “third cinema”, a cinema that is political in both content and practice, to “first cinema”, standard commercial production in the Hollywood mode, and “second cinema”, art cinema, a category encompassing everything from the work of auteurs in commercial cinema to the European art cinema and various kinds of avant-garde cinema. Second cinema is seen as being easily institutionalised, and offering an illusion of diversity within the dominant set-up. Originally published in Spanish in 1969, the article has been published in English on several occasions, most accessibly in Movies & Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), and Twenty-Five Years of New Latin American Cinema, ed. Michael Chanan (London: British Film Institute, 1983). I would not now want to assert so baldly the link I make between “third cinema” and “roughness”, one I now see as potentially puritanical. Nevertheless I still suspect that the polish that can be supplied by increased resources may undermine the politics of a filmmaker’s practice, and lessen a film’s political impact.

Plot Outline

Berivan has been given in marriage to Sirvan by her brothers, “As a token of peace”, to end the feud between her family (the Halilans) and his (the Veysikans). As the film opens, a holy man is attempting to cure her whilst her brothers approach, in the hope of being allowed to speak with her. They are spotted by Silo, the youngest Veysikan brother, who warns Sirvan. Sirvan refuses to let the Halilans speak to their sister and he, Silo and Berivan return to the Veysikan encampment. As they approach, Abuzer, another Veysikan brother, falls into an epileptic fit. Hamo, the patriarch, blames Berivan for producing no children to help fight the Halilans, and accuses her of killing her own children. When Sirvan defends her, Hamo beats him brutally, though Sirvan refuses to resist or strike back at his father. At night, Sirvan begs Berivan to say something to him (she has not spoken for a year, since the death of her third child). He screams at her, then beats her, then screams his frustration at Hamo, who has observed what is going on. Silo exchanges some carved tablets he’s found for sweets and raisins from the peddler. Sirvan asks the peddler to arrange for a doctor in town to see Berivan; however when they visit the doctor, Berivan refuses to undress so he can examine her. Her brothers try again to speak to her; she hides behind her husband and nods assent when they ask her if she wishes to stay with him. Sirvan learns that he hasn’t the money to buy a job in town, where he believes Berivan can be properly looked after, even if he sells his rifle. He also collects a telegram for his father. It contains instructions from a dealer in Ankara to bring in their herd of sheep (some of which have been paid for already). To help with the drive, Sirvan demands that he be paid 10,000 lira in Ankara, and that Berivan be allowed to accompany them, so that they can stay there and find a cure for her. When the flock reaches the local town, they scatter, frightened by an apparently unmotivated gun battle. Mirza, another brother, is shot down in the crossfire. The Halilans help gather the flock together, but Hamo refuses to let Berivan see them or her mother. The sheep are loaded into wagons contaminated by D.D.T.; several are injured by jolts of the train, purposely caused by the driver and fireman, who feel they deserved a bigger “tip”. Sheep thieves get away with several more; several die from the D.D.T. Silo has his savings (accumulated by selling more of the stone tablets to the peddler) stolen by a lame prostitute. Hamo cries as his sheep die, then again blames Sirvan and Berivan. On arrival, the Veysikans drive their sheep through the streets of Ankara to the market (Sirvan carrying the increasingly ill Berivan on his back). The dealer complains the sheep are late, which has lost him money, and in poor condition, needing to be rested and fed. Hamo refuses to pay Sirvan what he has promised. Sirvan and Berivan take refuge with friends, sleeping in a partially built apartment block. When he gets her to a hospital, she again refuses to be examined. Their friends take them to a cafe, then on a tour of the city, where they stare at the window displays in the department stores. That night, Berivan dies in her sleep. Sirvan denounces his father for causing her death; one of the sheep dealers comments that a woman’s death is not so important. Sirvan turns on him in rage and strangles him; the police drag him away. Hamo refuses to take responsibility for Berivan’s funeral, and telegraphs for the Halilans to come. Silo slips away, leaving Hamo alone in the streets of Ankara. The film closes with a montage of shots of banks, the statue of a uniformed horseman (Ataturk?), shop windows, crowds of pedestrians, cars, advertisements, vistas of the city.


“The rich here and the Agas at home are the same”, says the politically conscious son of the family which shelters Sirvan and Berivan in Ankara; and of the unfinished building: “Only the people who exploit you can afford to live here”. Clearly, his remarks state one of the major themes of the film, one that can also be detected in its visual detail: only two groups of characters are seen to use cars: the sheep stealers who raid the train, and the sheep dealer in Ankara. The affluence of Ankara is forcefully juxtaposed with the poverty of the protagonists of the film, who, clearly, are unlikely ever to share in it, though, of course, the hope that they will earn such a share must be held out, as a means of maintaining their acquiescence to the society that exploits them. Even Silo, the youngest Veysikan, and the one most likely to adapt and survive, has been swindled (by the peddler over the sale of the tablets) and later robbed. Moreover, his potential for survival seems a function of his disregard for others. Political action, and the potential it brings for change, does seem the only positive the film presents. Apart from the schoolboy militant in Ankara, there is the singer, handcuffed, accompanied by two military policemen, who travels on the train for part of the journey to Ankara. When he is taken off the train, the passengers lean out of the windows of the carriages, and sing to him. Earlier, a fellow passenger had asked him, “What have you done, Comrade?”, his reply, “I’ve sung”, evokes both the potential and the dangers of any form of oppositional activity in a society in which a man can be gunned down from a car for selling a left-wing newspaper. Güney, too, has “sung”, in the medium of film rather than to a guitar; his films, acclaimed abroad, have been banned and censored in Turkey; the cinema which showed Sürü in Istanbul was bombed. He spent nearly ten years in jail, on apparently trumped up charges, before escaping abroad recently.

However, one of the fundamental contradictions The Herd exposes is the profoundly reactionary instincts of the exploited. Sirvan vaguely supports the Justice Party, and sings proudly a patriotic song about Ankara that he learnt in the army, a song whose ideological assertions are rendered brutally ironic by the closing minutes of the film. Though there is tenderness in his relationship with Berivan, he never opposes the brutal force of his father with just force. He remains as exploited within the patriarchy of the family as the Veysikans are by society at large, whilst Berivan is totally destroyed. It is clear that her retreat into silence is a passive, desperate, helpless reaction to the oppression inherent in her existence as a woman. Independent speech is denied Veysikan wives (early in the film one is silenced by her husband for saying: “Berivan is ill”). Berivan’s body, too, seems instinctively but pathetically to refuse its socially ordained role as the vehicle to produce children to continue the patriarchal lineage, perpetuate the feud, fight her brothers. Yet she, too, clings to the old ways, too modest to allow either doctor to examine her. Though when her brothers last see her they ask her forgiveness, they too bear guilt for her destruction, having traded her for a truce. Hamo’s intransigence and fanaticism seem, in part, as instinctual a reaction to social-process as Berivan’s retreat into silence and decline. He seizes on the journey to Ankara as the last chance for the family, not realizing that the pastures are finished everywhere, as is the attendant trade of the peddler, that the days of such power as the Veysikans had are gone. The opening of the film juxtaposes a plough, pulled by a tractor, with the Halilans on horseback. At the start of the drive to Ankara, this plough is placed clearly in the context of the pastures, encroaching on them all the time, claiming them for modern production. There is an extended sequence of cross-cut close-ups between Hamo, looking, and the plough, ploughing its furrow, an emphatic underlining of the process of historical change that is the basic premise of the film. A traditional way of life, one that has been given a compelling visual articulation in some of the “documentary” sequences of the film, is doomed, and is to be replaced by a new form of exploitation, based upon individual cunning and greed, and equally oppressive.

Only organised political action, with all its attendant dangers and responsibilities, holds out any prospect of justice and security for the dispossessed. The film itself bears traces of the difficult circumstances of its production, and the lack of an infrastructure for such production: for example, in the film as a whole, and sometimes within individual sequences, there is often no attempt to control and match colour and lighting. More important (and obviously not the responsibility of the production team) it is regrettable that many passages of song and chant are not translated in the subtitles; thus attention for the English-speaking audience is focussed on dramatic action and characterisation and withdrawn from the other discourses at work in the text. Though this writer does not feel that the central dramaturgical situation is articulated effectively enough to carry the narrative and thematic burden it is required to sustain, he does look forward to Güney’s future work with great interest. The mere existence of a film such as The Herd represents a triumph both artistically and politically. It is to be hoped that exile, and the material resources of European film production, will not blunt the compelling “third cinema” roughness of Güney’s future production in the way that, for example, one feels that some recent Cuban films have traded technical and intellectual polish for the ambition and passion of earlier work.


  1. Güney’s last interview can be found here in English: and in French, in a slightly longer version, here.
  2. Microsoft seems to be of this opinion too! No form of Kurdish is included in the option for setting the language of a file in the version of Word which I use. However, the following options are available: 16 varieties of Arabic, Basque, 13 varieties of English, 14 of French, 2 of Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), 2 of Romanian and 20 of Spanish! Obviously I have no objection to what is included, only to the fact that a language as important as Kurdish is excluded.
  3. A short biography of Yilmaz Güney can be found here.

About The Author

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.

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