“Istanbul is one of the coolest cities in the world”, proclaimed the cover story of Newsweek’s European edition in August 2005. The Istanbul Biennale (September-October 2005) was evidence of this dynamic, growing metropolis’ emerging artistic self-confidence, and the embrace of its unique and fortuitous position at the juncture of many cultures. With Turkish films taking 38 percent and 60 percent of their domestic box office in 2004 and 2005 respectively, the following essay is an attempt to outline some recent filmmaking trends, as well as situate the current cinematic resurgence within the broader social, political and cultural landscape.
I will start out by focusing on the importance of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city; the cultural and artistic heart of the country that is giving voice to this renaissance. Unlike most countries’ filmmaking cultures, which in recent years have suffered from the opening up of their economies and cultures to the so-called global free market, I argue that the opposite seems to be happening in Turkey. This is occurring in parallel with alternative voices providing a counter to Turkey’s “hackneyed nationalist discourses” (1). In the past, those aspects deemed both antithetical and a threat to the integrity of the Turkish nation-state – free artistic expression of cultural and ethnic diversity, a developing transnationalism and a public re-imagining of (traumatic) historical events, combined with an open, dynamic media sector – now constitute the primary strengths of filmmaking in Turkey.
Turkey’s artistic renaissance and emergence on the broader European cultural stage has been acknowledged through numerous prestigious awards won in recent years. In 2003, Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Golden Palm Award for his film Uzak (Distant, 2002). In that same year, Turkey (Sertab Erener) won the Eurovision Song Contest and, in 2004, Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, received great critical acclaim after winning the one of the world’s richest literature awards: Ireland’s IMPAC Dublin award. Meanwhile high-profile director Fatih Akin, who often exploits his Turkish migrant background and Istanbul as a setting in his films, became the first German director in 20 years to win the Berlin Film Festival in 2004 with his film, Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004). Head-On has recently gone on to win the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film award at the National Society of Film Critics in the United States. While this film is transnational in setting, moving between Hamburg and Istanbul, in terms of funding and origin there is no doubt it is German. However, through the exposure that Head-On, and his latest documentary, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005), have received, Akin has evidently put Istanbul on the celluloid map. (2)
Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul is a metaphor for a city in the throes of re-imagining its destiny and identity. The film is a journey through Istanbul’s rich musical traditions and powerfully evokes the raw energy, cultural dynamism and pluralism at the city’s very heart. Istanbul is a rich sonic landscape, and this film revels in the musical (and political) possibilities that cultural fusion can produce. The narrator of the film is German musician Alexander Hacke, who discovers Istanbul’s grunge (Duman) and hip-hop scenes (Ceza), Arabesque (Orhan Gencebey) and Romany music (Selim Sesler), a Sufi fusion band (Mercan Dede), Kurdish music (Aynur Dogan), Electronica (Baba Zula) and traditional wedding music (The Wedding Sound System), as well as covers of Western pop with Arabesque inflection (Sertab Erener). If Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) became the filmic expression of Berlin’s cultural renaissance in the 1920s, then I suspect that in future we may regard Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul in a similar vein to how we now perceive Ruttman’s film. However unlike Ruttman’s film, which is often accused of being apolitical, Akin’s film, through the voices of its interviewees, delivers a sharp political critique of Turkey’s existing social and ethnic disparities.
In a telling attempt to defy categorisation, Crossing the Bridge features the band Baba Zula playing its music on a fishing boat on the Bosporus – the historically strategic body of water which runs through the city and separates the European continent from Asia – because they believe their music transcends the categories of East and West. “I don’t believe that Asia begins at the Bosphorus and ends in China and the West begins in Greece and stretches to Los Angeles.” (3) Even the difference between the English and Turkish titles of this film displays acknowledgement of the way that films move through cultures in different ways. The English title of the film reflects Turkey’s political/cultural/geographical position at the crossroads at this precise moment. While there is a literal bridge to be ‘crossed’ by Hacke in Crossing the Bridge – the one that straddles the Bosphorus – on the eve of Turkey’s accession talks to the European Union, Akin seems to be inviting western audiences, particularly Europeans, if they can ‘cross the bridge’. In other words, embrace the huge gulf that has developed between the ‘Occident’ and the ‘Orient’, between Christianity and Islam, and ideologically embrace Turkey’s difference as part of Europe? (In fact, Istanbul’s hybrid identity is constituted through being on a ‘bridge’ that produces a perpetual state of ‘crossing’.) Interestingly, Akin’s film was released in Turkey under quite a different title: Istanbul Hatirasi, literally meaning “Memories of Istanbul”. This is also the title of the final haunting song of the documentary sung by Turkey’s most famous female performer, Sezen Aksu, whose voice evokes an Istanbul laden with melancholy. The title and song conjure up a notion central to Turkish culture: huzun, which is best described as a kind of “collective melancholy”. In his latest novel, Istanbul: Memories of a City (2005), Orhan Pamuk deals extensively with this concept and relates the huzun associated with the break-up of the Ottoman empire and modern-day Istanbul’s mourning for the loss of its complex multicultural, multi-confessional and multi-linguistic identities that constituted this 19th century Ottoman city, and of course previously. There’s a sense that Akin is reminding his Turkish viewers of the loss of this pluralism that was silenced, repressed and disavowed for much of the 20th century, while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating optimism about the newfound cultural identities developing in this city. As one musician the film sings, “We’re both ashamed and joyful … These flowers have to see sunlight again.” (4)
It was only a decade ago that Turkey was perceived as just a poor neighbour to Europe, burdened by its imperial history, desperate to modernise and westernise, but plagued by irrevocable economic woes and political instability. This was coupled with an immense fear of its own internal cultural diversity, which it has often dealt with through oppressive measures, as well as maintaining a belligerent attitude towards the numerous countries it borders. In their study of Turkey’s particular brand of authoritarian nationalism, Asu Aksoy and Kevin Robins adapt the Turkish term derin devlet (literally meaning “deep state’”). In the Turkish vernacular, derin devlet has come to refer simply to “the corrupt and repressive state implicated in mafia business and authoritarian politics” (5). However, Aksoy and Robins’ usage encompasses Turkey’s broader socio-cultural and political milieu of which corruption and repression is a fundamental part. They employ the term “deep nation” to describe the most fundamental or primordial aspect of belonging in a group, grounded in what Freud identified as:
the mythological scene of the murder of the father, which provides the sons with a reserve of shared guilt that henceforth ties them to a communal ‘law’. The truth of this Freudian myth resides in the idea of a ‘shock of origination’ – a shock that is never ‘really past’ – an act of symbolic violence through which the group comes to have the experience of existing together […] the ‘deep nation’ […] provides the grounding for what is imagined as the ontological nation […] that informs its act of imaginary closure. (6)
In Turkey’s case, this “shock of origination” came after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, with the expedited formation of the Kemalist nation-state in the 1920s, and the process since that time which has worked against expressing cultural diversity and towards the normalisation of cultural homogeneity.
When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, he instituted a number of radical reforms which included the removal of Islamic practices from public life and the creation of a secular state; the introduction of the Latin alphabet; a program of westernisation that sought to both eradicate Arabic and Persian influences and suppress the empire’s multicultural identity; and strict censorship regulations that lasted from 1939 until 1986. (7) Aksoy and Robins argue that the important elements for understanding what binds a group together through this idea of “deep nation” are the valorisation of the national ideal (which in Turkey’s case meant espousing to be western, secular and modern) through “the killing off the imperial past” that was deemed backward and corrupt, along with “the erasure of the multicultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire” (8). The repression and disavowal of difference through silence about particular traumatic events in the nation’s history was also central to this process. They argue that adhering to these things are conditions for the membership of the nation, along with the denial of the possibility for change. However, the story of Turkish cinema, they maintain, “can be told in terms of the progressive disordering of the ideal of the Kemalist nation, which may be regarded as a productive disordering” (9). Now, more than ever, there are many indications that the “deep nation” is unravelling and, rather than just gazing whimsically westwards towards a better future and disavowing pluralism and change, Turkey is beginning to look all around and within it, and redeploying the narratives from its rich cultural and artistic heritage to further broader economic, political and social aims.
European Union and creating space for a cacophony of voices
The most recent political watershed for Turkey’s (potential) identity came in October 2005, when, despite public opposition in many European countries, Turkey finally began accession talks with the European Union. (10) While Turkey was acknowledged as an associate member of the EU back in 1963, the long road to attaining full membership status will possibly take a further 10-15 years. But before it becomes a full member, there are many issues to be resolved, such as the recognition of Greek Cyprus, the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s relationship with Greece and its human rights record. If it does achieve full membership, it will be the first Muslim country, as well as Europe’s largest. It is currently the poorest country in Europe. But the benefits to the European Union of Turkey’s membership are numerous, such as its geo-strategic significance in countering Islamic fundamentalism; the gas supplies that run through it and its central Asian neighbours; the demographic advantages of a much younger population to support Europe’s ageing one; the dynamic economy which grew 9 percent last year; and securing Europe’s eastern borders against drugs and people trafficking. (11) Some commentators have even suggested that Europe now needs Turkey much more than Turkey needs the EU.
The prospect of a more vast European space encompassing Turkey has been one motivating factor for some remarkable socio-political improvements. These changes, which include loosening the control of the military over the state, the recognition of Kurdish civil rights and language, coupled with the softening of political censorship, have inspired, or at least enabled, a multitude of cultural products which now dare to engage openly with sensitive cultural and political issues. (12) For example, the Best Turkish Film from 2004’s Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival was Ugur Yücel’s Yazi Tura (Toss Up, 2004). (13) This film overtly criticises the wounds that compulsory military service and civil unrest in the South-East (Kurdish-dominated) region have wrought upon a generation of young Turk’s/Kurd’s futures. In an interview that I conducted in Istanbul in September 2005, Yucel stated that, even five years ago, this film could not have been made. The change is so stark, he said, that even the military liked the script after reading it. However, Toss Up is not the first film to broach the topic of Kurdish conflict. Yesim Ustaoglu’s Günese yolculuk (Journey to the Sun, 1999) is probably the most highly acclaimed film internationally since Yol (Serif Gören and Yilmaz Güney, 1982) to engage directly with state oppression of the Kurds. (14)Journey’s lyrical and sensitive depiction of a friendship between a Kurd and a Turk, and the former’s death at the hands of police, won it many awards throughout Europe. Given its topicality, this film and its director have attracted considerable Anglophone critical writing. (15) Since this film, other notable ones have engaged with Kurdish cultural repression, such as Handan Ipekci’s Büyük adam küçük ask (Big Man, Little Love, aka Hejar, 2001), which received the Best Film award at the 2003 Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. However, after the screening, it received a six-month ban in Turkey from the same Ministry which partly funded it, because of its representation of the constabulary. The film depicts a Kurdish girl’s relationship with a retired judge, when he takes her in after her guardian is killed in a police raid on her home, and their attempts at communicating despite not sharing a common language. (16)
Greek-Turkish relations are also being addressed in other politically ambitious, personal films that not so long ago would have been taboo, such as Dervis Zaim’s Çamur (Mud, 2003) and Yesim Ustaoglu’s Bulutlari Beklerken (Waiting for the Clouds, 2004). In Çamur, Cypriot-born Dervis explores the lives of four friends residing in contemporary divided Cyprus and the ways in which their involvement in the violent 1974 conflict continues to haunt them, and their efforts to reach out to their Greek neighbours on the other side of the divided island. Through a series of interviews, Zaim’s documentary, Paralel Yolculuklar (Parallel Trips, 2004), a co-production with Greek director Panicos Chrysanthou, also explores Turkish and Greek Cypriot experiences.
The expulsion of Greek families from the Black Sea region during and after World War II provides the background to Ustaoglu’s poetic tale, Waiting for the Clouds, which concerns the friendship between an old woman and a young boy. Ayse (Rüçhan Caliskur), aka Eleni, represses her Greek identity when rescued by a Turkish family during the Long March to Greece. Apart from her brother, the rest of her family perishes in the harsh conditions. The film begins with the death of Ayse’s Turkish adopted sister in the twilight of their lives, provoking a reliving of earlier traumas. The re-exposure of her Greek identity forces her to go to Athens in search her only remaining blood-relative: her brother. Tragically, he does not want to know her; despite her Greek heritage, she is very much a foreigner in modern-day Greece. (17)
While there are still many old wounds to heal and, of course, the issue of a divided Cyprus looms large on the political horizon, many recent films and documentaries (from both sides) demonstrate a public willingness to re-imagine and acknowledge of the complex intertwining of Greek-Turkish histories, identities and destinies. (18) Ugur Yucel states that one of the turning points in Greek-Turkish relations was the 1999 Marmara Earthquake, which devastated Turkey’s Marmara region on the outskirts of Istanbul and left 30,000 people dead. The Greeks were the first to come to Turkey’s aid. Yucel uses footage from this earthquake and the Greek response to great dramatic effect in the second story of his film, Yazi Tura. Following his harrowing military service, Hayalet Cevher (Kenan Imirzalioglu) attempts to recover his life by opening up a kebab shop on the outskirts of Istanbul. When the Marmara earthquake strikes, his shop is destroyed and his father critically injured. On hearing the news, Cevher’s estranged Greek mother returns from Athens with her adult son. Unfortunately, the final scenes dissolve into hyper-melodrama, with the narrative realised in terms of a battle of masculinities as the ‘macho’ Turk fights it out with, but then comes to accept, his effeminate, gay, Greek half-brother.
It is not only arthouse cinema exploiting this abundant storytelling material. On the more commercial front, a Turkish soap opera, Yabanci Damat (Foreign Son-in-Law, currently in its second series), which has been a runaway success in Greece, concerns a Greek guy falling in love with a Turkish woman. While rightwing ultra-nationalist groups have attempted to have it banned in Greece, the story evidently appeals to something deeply embedded in both cultures about their coupled desires and destinies. On the Turkish front, while it seems that recognition of minority groups rights is far more paramount than it once was, it’s also evident that deconstructing the legacy of “deep nation” still has some way to go, because author Orhan Pamuk is facing trial in Turkey after his comments questioning the fate of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman empire. And, in October 2005, a Turkish court arrested the president of Van University, a man publicly known to have waged a war against radical Islam on his campus and who is at odds with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government. (19)
While receiving critical acclaim at film festivals locally and abroad, and having respectable arthouse followings, none of these, loosely termed, ‘arthouse’ films mentioned above, including Ceylan’s Uzak, have captured the broader public’s imagination domestically. In the remaining part of this paper, I will focus on the resurgence in popular cinema and some of the reasons for this.
New Popular Cinema and its Yesilcam Roots
With only 20-25 films mad annually since the late 1990s, most critics and filmmakers hesitate to call filmmaking in Turkey an ‘industry’ as such, but rather a loose collection of auteur directors telling their own personal stories. However, these critics and filmmakers are making comparisons with the time in which Turkey had an identifiable, and in some ways unique, film industry. In the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, Istanbul was home to the prolific Yesilcam, the popular feature film industry which, at its height in 1968-74, pumped out 250-300 films per year, making it the third largest film industry in the world. (20) Yesilcam (literally “green pine”) denotes a particular system of production-distribution-exhibition and takes its name from a street in the area of Beyoglu, Istanbul, where most of the production houses were located. (21) (During the darker days of the film industry in the ’80s and early ’90s, this area of Beyoglu became full of local soft-porn theatres. It is thriving once again as the cultural heart of Istanbul, with many production and distribution houses, along with cinemas, once again residing here.) Turkish film expert Nezih Erdogan has frequently noted that Yesilcam’s distinctiveness can be characterised by its ‘plagiarism’ of Hollywood cinema, or, to use his evocative phrase, “mimicry beyond innocent inspiration” (22). A dominant strand of Yesilcam cinema involved remakes or copies of Hollywood films produced in just a few days on meagre budgets and, of course, without Hollywood’s technical sophistication.
Many Turkish film theorists (Erdogan, Suner, Gokturk) have commented on the enduring legacy and influence of Yesilcam that can often still be seen in contemporary filmmaking. Following the popular success of Yavuz Turgul’s Eskiya (The Bandit) in 1996, which many say signalled the recent Turkish film revival, there has been a number of break-out film successes which in the past few years have regularly out-performed Hollywood at the box office, which I will discuss below. These commercial films often combine high production values with an ironic handling of Yesilcam themes (revenge, unrequited love, betrayal, city versus country) and character types (fish-out-of-water anti-heroes, gangsters, innocent-but-lovable villagers). Director Yavuz Turgul is often described as creating a bridge between the old directors from the Yesilcam days and the new generation of filmmakers. His Eskiya depicts a Kurdish outlaw emerging from decades in gaol and journeying to Istanbul to seek revenge on the man who betrayed him and stole his childhood sweetheart. In terms of narrative, themes and characterisation, Eskiya is heavily influenced by Yesilcam. However, it also breaks away from the technical lack often associated with this earlier period of Turkish cinema. Along with its high production values and sophisticated editing techniques never before harnessed in Turkish cinema, Eskiya was also the first Turkish production to use synchronous sound recording. Dubbing during post-production was a salient feature of the budgetary-challenged Yesilcam days and filmmaking in Turkey right up until the early ’90s. (23)
Yesilcam’s demise is often accounted for by the coming of television to Turkey (rather belatedly in 1968 to urban areas and in 1974 in rural areas), the increasing production costs resulting from the transition to colour, combined with the political turmoil of the 1970s and 80s and severe economic crises. (24) The oppressive regime post the 1980 military coup also meant that Yesilcam was estranged from its seminal audience: families attending the local public open-air cinemas that once littered the country during the Yesilcam days. Indicative of a contemporary revaluing of Turkey’s popular cinema history, posters from old Yesilcam film classics have now become collector’s items and often sell for more than US$100 in backstreet stores in the historic cultural area of Beyoglu, a strange twist of fate as, not all that long ago, the term “like a Turkish film” used to be classified as an insult, synonymous with banality, excessive melodrama and bad taste! (25)
Other more recent films that have evidently captured the public’s imagination, including Yilmaz Erdogan’s Vizontele (2000) and Vizontele Tuuba (2003), Turkey’s second-biggest box-office success of all time with 3.5 million viewers, have contemporary political and social resonance while still effectively managing to maintain a light comic and nostalgic tone. Vizontele Tuuba is a sequel to Erdogan’s first success, Vizontele, co-directed with Ömer Faruk Sorak. Before Vizontele, Erdogan was a famous thespian and writer, and this was his first foray into film. Vizontele comically heralds the coming of television – or “vision-tele”, as the awe-inspired villagers dub it – to a remote Antalolian village, while lamenting the demise of the open-air cinemas, against the backdrop of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.
Vizontele Tuuba takes place in September 1980 – the year of Turkey’s third military coup – in the same Anatolian village. Guner (Tarik Akan), a senior bureaucrat with socialist leanings, is exiled as a ‘librarian’ to a remote Anatolian village whose library is, notably, non-existent. The story revolves around the budding romance between the hilarious, idiosyncratic local ‘fix-it’ man of the village (played by the director, Yilmaz Erdogan) and the librarian’s odd but beautiful wheelchair-bound daughter. Despite most of the village inhabitants being illiterate, Guner manages to construct a library and obtain some books to start teaching the locals how to read. However, as the final voice-over reveals, his efforts remain unrewarded by the local authorities and, not long after, the 1980 military coup takes place. Guner, along with most of the town’s men with ‘suspicious’ political leanings (i.e., read socialist or leftist), are rounded up and taken away to gaol, some never to return. Vizontele Tuuba’s strong finale is further emphasised by the fact that this violent period of Turkish history is in recent memory for most Turks.
Eskiya, Vizontele and Vizontele Tuuba have been described by Asuman Suner as “popular nostalgia films” which yearn for the period prior to the neo-liberalisation and rapid transformation of Turkish society during the ’80s and ’90s, where “provincial small-town life, religious and folkloric traditions [are] reinvented as sites of collective fantasy and desire” (26). Suner critiques these films as regressive because, rather than present an authentic sense of home as myth, they focus on situations where ‘home’ is somehow threatened from the outside by an external force – the construction of a dam in The Bandit, the introduction of television broadcasting to a remote town and the televising of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in Vizontele, or the looming 1980 military coup in the case of Vizontele Tuuba – and they “end up rescuing an imaginary sense of home as a site of integrity and virtue” (27). While there is no doubt that all these films have a nostalgic yearning about them, what I’d argue is that that part of their popularity resides in the fact that they enable the discourse of “deep nation” and the silence surrounding violent political events to be interrogated and articulated, even if it is only on a relatively superficial level. The cinematic public re-imagining of these traumatic events is not presented in an overt or didactic manner, thus enabling audiences to embrace the films as they evidently have done. It is also important to recognise that these two films are, in the first instance, comedies and, through their excessive costuming and caricatures, offer their audience pleasure through fond recognition.
One recent success that evidently makes a distinct break from Suner’s “nostalgic cinema” is the science-fiction parody, G.O.R.A. (2004), brainchild of Cem Yilmaz and directed by Ömer Faruk Sorak. G.O.R.A. achieved an all-time box-office record in Turkey of more than 4 million viewers (US$18.3m) and its visual sophistication betrays Sorak’s training as a director of photography and his 15 years spent as a television, commercials and video-clip producer. (28) A clever comedy full of eclectic cultural references, the film also stars its writer, popular stand-up comedian Cem Yilmaz. G.O.R.A. is about a carpet seller, Arif (Yilmaz), who is abducted by aliens and taken to the planet of GORA, where he falls in love with a local Goran and takes her back to earth. Not only does it parody Hollywood sci-fi movies such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999 and 2003), but it also retains a strong local flavour as there were a few sci-fi attempts during the ultra low-budget Yesilcam days. Possibly the most infamous is Dünyayi kutaran adam (The Man Who Saved the World, Çetin Inanç, 1982) that has become an international cult hit as the worst film ever made. In Nezih Erdogan’s excellent analysis of the hybridity and mimicry of this film, produced during Yesilcam’s dying days, he argues that, with its intercutting of excerpts and music from Star Wars, it became old Yesilcam’s ‘last stand’, struggling to compete with Hollywood’s emerging dominance and technical sophistication. (29) While The Man Who Saved the World can be regarded as a failed parody, G.O.R.A., on the other hand, has most certainly beaten Hollywood at its own game. At various points, it also satirises, to great comic effect, Turkey’s political, cultural and economic weakness in the face of European and US domination. One hilarious scene involves a local Goran security guard who, after being offered a US100 dollar bill, literally devours it. When the puzzled Arif asks why, he replies that American money is not worth anything on planet Gora, they only take Turkish lira. (Up until the past few years, inflation in Turkey was annually running at around 80 percent, making it virtually worthless against currencies such as the euro and the US dollar.) (30)
Rather than just exceptions to the rule, the success of these three mentioned features seems to signal some broader cinematic trends. In 2004, while producing only 19 features, Turkey received a 38 percent market share of their local box-office takings. (31) And, in the first quarter of 2005, Turkish films took a whopping 60 percent of the box, a far greater proportion than any other country in Europe. Most of these ‘big-budget’ popular films are made for between US$500,000 and US$2.5 million, with G.O.R.A. being an exception as the most expensive and technologically sophisticated film to date, at a cost of $US5m. (32)
Another fascinating trend worth touching on here, given its relevance to the “deep nation” argument, is the critical and commercial success of a number of locally funded documentaries. Released on Zafer Bayram (Victory Day, celebrating the defeat of the allies at Gallipoli in World War I), on 18 March 2005, Tolga Örnek’s documentary, Gallipoli, became the highest-ever grossing documentary in Turkey’s history. It retained its position at number one at the box office for five consecutive weeks, with audience numbers of 700,000. Before that, Örnek’s Hittites (2003) held the record with 70,000 admissions. According to Örnek, Gallipoli is currently the fourth most-watched film of 2005. In an interview I conducted in Sydney in November 2005, Örnek protests against the “Turkishness” of this film and pronounces its transnational qualities: “It could equally be a New Zealand or Australian or British film”, he claims. “The only Turkish thing about it is the fact that its director is Turkish.” What fascinates me about this film is the way it problematises constructions of nationhood. For an Australian viewer, Örnek’s film inevitably invites comparison with Peter Weir’s extraordinary anti-war film, Gallipoli (1982), which, through its themes of mateship and its prevailing anti-British sentiment, constructs a particular type of Australian cultural nationalism. The Gallipoli battle is also extremely important in Turkish nation-building and mythmaking as it is the battle where Mustafa Kemal made his mark as an outstanding commander. Kemal then, of course, went on to establish the modern Turkish nation-state and the Ataturk legacy. Instead, Örnek downplays these nationalistic elements and, through his focus on a number of different soldiers’ experiences of the same battle, he deconstructs the prevailing Kemalist discourses of ‘deep nation’. This film’s popularity is evidence of Turkish audience’s thirst for more complex portrayals of historical events. Örnek’s film puts a human face on the war and explores a number of individual’s existential plights in the face of what were extremely brutal and barbaric conditions that the soldiers from both sides were forced to endure. In the process, the film also deconstructs a number of myths about such things as the friendship between the Turks and Australians, which he emphasises was not a friendship as such but rather a “mutual respect for the enemy”. And, of course, the other dominant myth concerns British treatment of Australian soldiers, which is so often taken out of proportion in an attempt to suit prevailing anti-British discourses in Australia at the time Weir’s film was released, in an attempt to establish a particular kind of national identity.
Broader Media Sector, Film Investment and Film Culture
After a hiatus of some 20 years, audiences are finally being drawn back to the cinemas. Mehmet Soyaslen, the head of one of Turkey’s biggest distributors, Ozen Films (distributors of Fox product in Turkey), has said that foreign product is now feeling the competition from local films. (33) Initially, the new wave of local hits led to an overall increase in cinema ticket admissions. However, in the first part of 2005, admissions did not increase at all and the local films were eating into the market for foreign films. Local film critic Atilla Dorsay does not think the kinds of box-office figures seen in 2004-5 are just anomalies, but rather expects them to continue because of the capital investment in the technology and infrastructure of the media industries. (34) And he says, after witnessing healthy box-office returns, many more organizations such as television stations, corporate and banking institutions are now willing to invest money. Over the 2005 European summer, there were 30 new films in production, twice as many as there were two years ago and with much bigger budgets, and many more in the pipeline. In February 2006 came Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak (Valley of the Wolves – Iraq, Serdar Akar and Sadullah Sentürk), a movie adaptation of Turkey’s most popular television series, Kurtlar Vadisi. Made on a now-record budget of US$10 million, the film is based on an real-life incident in July 2003 when U.S. soldiers arrested and hooded 11 Turkish Special Forces’ officers operating in northern Iraq. The film revolves around a Turkish secret agent, Polat Alemdar (Necati Sasmaz), avenging this incident. (35) As of late March 2006, the film has eclipsed earlier box-office records with 4.2 million tickets sold in Turkey. (36)
It is important to put these critical and commercial successes in perspective because the dark days of Hollywood domination of Turkish cinema are only in the recent past. During 1988-1994, it was near impossible for a Turkish film to get a regular release in local cinemas. After the passing of the Law of Foreign Capital in 1988, the Hollywood majors moved in to dominate the distribution and exhibition sector that had previously been in the hands of local companies. (37) In a dramatic act of protest, director Korhan Yurtsever burnt his film, Zincir (The Chain, 1987), in front of a theatre that had halted its screening after just three days. Nezih Erdogan also makes the point that the few films that were released during this period (approximately 10 per year) primarily followed the conventions of European art cinema, thus being inaccessible for most Turkish audiences. (38) Even today, local films are rarely screened by local distributors/exhibitors. In an act of solidarity against the majors taking a roughly 15 percent cut of what these commercial films earn at the box office, the three big directors of Turkish commercial cinema – Yilmaz Erdogan’s production company, BKM; Sinan Cetin’s Plato Films; and Omer Faruk Sorak’s Organize Isler – have got together to form their own distribution company simply called KenDa, which plans to release the future films of these directors.
Most healthy film industries depend on a broader dynamic media sector to flourish. While the coming of television signalled the demise of the Yesilcam in the 1970s and ’80s, interestingly it has been the re-emergence of a strong television sector that has provided one vital key to contemporary Turkish cinema’s commercial success. (39) The Turkish media industries underwent massive upheaval during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The state-controlled television sector was de-regulated, which resulted in a rise of a plethora of private stations by the mid ’90s. The directors of Turkey’s popular commercial cinema, such as those mentioned above – Sinan Cetin, Yilmaz Erdogan, Yavuz Turgul and Ömer Faruk Sorak – are themselves local stars appearing regularly on local talkback shows or, in the case of Cetin, hosting their own talkback programs and game shows. These directors then finance their films through their work in television production (often producing mini-series and soap operas, or “dizis”, as they are appropriately called in Turkish) and, more important, through advertising. In fact, as Atilla Dorsay has stated, most of the filmmaking infrastructure, particularly studios and technology, has come from the investment in the television advertising industry in the 1990s. Without the expertise, technical skills and infrastructure, none of these bigger-budget commercial films could be made. It’s not only the ‘star’ directors who receive widespread promotion in the local print and television media. The actors of these films are already established household names, reaching fame through sit-coms, dramas or entertainment shows. As television stars, they then make the cross-over to film. Turkey has more than 40 free-to-air channels with four of these being 24-hour news channels (TGRT Haber, TRT 2 (government owned), NTV, CNN Turk). If we include satellite and cable television, Turkey has over 300 channels, far more than any other country in Europe. (40) The publicity machine for commercial filmmaking also extends across the different media sectors. Turkey’s newspaper market is also one of the most highly competitive in the world, with more than 20 daily national newspapers available. The national daily, Hurriyet (literally “freedom”), has the largest circulation with more than 850,000 in Turkey, while its German edition has daily circulations in excess of 70,000 in Europe. The highly competitive nature of print media in Turkey has also meant that it is fundamental to the promotion publicity of local films. Every daily newspaper seems to contain at least one news item or gossip column about a local film due to be released, or a scandal about one of its local stars. On the one hand, this rampant competition can be regarded as part and parcel of the perils of neo-liberalisation: with such a de-regulated sector, the “deep nation” has far less of a chance to wield its tentacles through a state-controlled media sector.
Audiences for Turkish films also continue to increase beyond Turkey’s geographical borders. Most of the Turkish diaspora, in excess of 5 million people, reside in Europe. Since the success of Eskiya, many popular films such as Sinan Cetin’s Propaganda (1999) and Komisar Sekspir (uncredited, 2001) have made it into multiplexes, particularly in Germany, where Turkish-Germans number more than 3.2 million. G.O.R.A. has so far taken more than US$3m outside of Turkey. These popular films even regularly make it to Australia. Following the first Turkish Film Festival in Sydney in 1998, the Greater Union multiplex in the western Sydney suburb of Merrylands regularly devotes one of its theatres to recent Turkish releases. (41) One of the recent releases mentioned above, Valley of the Wolves – Iraq, is purported to have had simultaneous releases in Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, England, Denmark, Switzerland, Russia, Egypt, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. and Australia in March 2006. (42)
While there is some direct state support for individual films in Turkey, it is minimal. The Turkish Ministry of Culture invested 17million YTL (around AUS$17 million) of government loans in the industry in 2004. Any one film can receive a maximum loan of up to 500,000YTL (AUS$500,000) and, if the particular funded film happens to win prizes at a festival abroad, the film’s producer is not required to pay back the loan! Another significant factor supporting Turkish-European co-productions is the emergence of Eurimages, an arm of the Council of Europe established in 1988 to promote and fund the co-production and distribution of audiovisual works. (43) Since Turkey became a member of Eurimages in 1992, more than forty Turkish films have qualified for this European Union funding scheme. (44)
If the film festivals are any indication of the state of film culture in a particular region, then Turkey’s seems to be thriving. Against a background of limited direct support for filmmakers, the mounting of the new Eurasian Film Festival and Market, beside its 42-year-old Golden Orange counterpart in the Eastern Mediterranean city of Antalya, indicates the willingness of the government to fund and promote broader film culture. (45) One of the new Festival’s aims was to forge alliances between Turkish and foreign film producers, and inspire future co-production activity. The Turkish films at the Festival in November 2005 that harnessed most of the awards were those that were not so much politically taboo, but more socially audacious and stylistically adventurous. E. Kutlug Ataman’s Iki genç kiz (Two Girls, 2005) explores the complex social fabric of life in Istanbul through a relationship between two marginalised girls. The other film which took out the main award, Ulas Inaç’s Turev (Derivative, 2005), was stylistically similar to Two Girls, with its gritty hard-edged realism. Both films display a raw energy for life in contemporary Istanbul, a city in rapid transition.
In an attempt to account for the diversity of voices that abound in Turkish cinema, from the “expressive alienation” of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s and Ustaoglu’s work to the highly-charged dramatic elements of films like Yucel’s Toss Up or Two Girls, Bilge Ebiri claims that
Turkey, while part of the Middle East, also considers itself a part of Europe and the Balkans. As such, a certain cultural schizophrenia – simultaneously Eastern and Western, both coolly aloof and jarringly expressive – is a part of the very fabric of Turkish life. (46)
If Turkish films can harness its rich cultural diversity, make the most of its healthier economy and stable political situation, exploit its dynamic media sector and its growing ties with Europe and central Asia and move towards a greater transnationalism, then the film industry has a bright future indeed.
Research for this article was carried out with the support of Macquarie University’s Outside Studies Program and the International Office, which enabled me to spend a few months in Istanbul from August-October 2005. Many thanks also to the organizations, Istanbul Kultur ve Sanat Vakfi (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art) and TURSAK (Turkish Foundation of Cinema and Audiovisual Culture), and individuals who shared their insights and knowledge of Turkish filmmaking with me: notably, Atilla Dorsay, Nezih Erdogan, Hakki Goceoglu, Defne Kayalar, Tolga Örnek, Serazer Pekerman, Tunc Sahin, Hulya Ucansu, Yesim Ustaoglu, Paxton Winters, Ugur Yucel, and local Beyoglu video-store owner Umut. Thanks also to readers Bruce Jeffreys, Noel King, Kathryn Millard and Renata Murawska.
This article has been refereed.
- Asuman Suner, “Horror of a Different Kind: Dissonant Voices in the New Turkish Cinema”, Screen, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004, p. 305.
- New German Cinema’s success owes much to its ‘Young Turks’. While Fatih Akin remains the most famous, a new generation of filmmakers and actors of Turkish background have emerged in the past 10 years, mainly based in Berlin and Hamburg, including Yuksel Yavuz Aprilkinder (April’s Children, 1998), Aysun Bademsoy (Madchen im Ring, 1998) Yilmaz Arslan (Yara, 1998), Hussi Kutlucan (Ich Chef, Du Turnschuh, 1998). See Deniz Gokturk, “Turkish Women on German Streets: Closure and Exposure in Transnational Cinema”, in Myrto Konstantarakos (Ed.), Space in European Cinema (Exeter-Portland: Intellect, 2000), pp. 64-76.
- Petra Tabeling, “Grunge, Punk and HipHop on the Bosporus Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge”, in Qantara.de.
- Ali Jafaar, “Report from Cannes”, Sight and Sound, Vol., 15, No. 7, July 2005, p. 17.
- Kevin Robins and Asu Aksoy, “Deep Nation: The National Question and Turkish Cinema Culture” in Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (Eds), Cinema and Nation, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 203.
- Robins and Aksoy, p. 203.
- Shohini Chaudhuri, Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, The Middle East, East Asia and South Asia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 67.
- Robins and Aksoy, p. 206.
- Robins and Aksoy, p. 207.
- Even the way this event was reported in Turkey had all the hallmarks of a great Turkish melodrama. The talks were due to start on 3 October 2005, but Turkey refused to make any more concessions to the European Union. At the eleventh hour, the EU conceded and, in order for the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to sign the document before midnight, the state of Luxemborg stopped the clock to enable him to fly there in time!
- Madeleine Bunting, “Regime Change, European-style, is a test of civilization”, Guardian Weekly, 30 September – 8 October 2005, p. 15. This article points out that 52 percent of EU citizens think that Turkey should not become a full member of the European Union.
- It is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people have been killed during Turkey’s 15-year-long war over Kurdish autonomy in the South-East region in the 1980s and ’90s. The war abated after the capture of PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
- Director Ugur Yucel, who is also a star from his long acting career, is extremely disappointed with returns for this film and claims it has “ruined him”. This is his first film, which was mostly self-funded. While it made relatively healthy returns for an arthouse production, with 350,000 tickets sold, it has not recovered its (relatively expensive) US$2 million budget. Interestingly, one of the other (silent) investors for this film was a local private university. Some of the crew were from this institution. Despite its star cast, I suspect it may not have done as well as expected because of the rather confrontational nature of its material.
- For more information on director Yilmaz Güney, see Bilge Ebiri’s article in Senses of Cinema, Issue 37, October-December 2005.
- Such as the articles and interview by Deniz Gokturk and Valentian Vitali-West, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2002, pp. 196-212.
- The Kurdish question also lies at the centre of political filmmaker Reis Çelik’s films, most notably Isiklar sonmesin (Let the Lights Shine On, 1997) and Hosçakal yarin (Goodbye Tomorrow, 1998). Atilla Dorsay, translated by Lale Can, “Back from Near Oblivion: Turkish Cinema Gets a New Lease on Life”, Film Comment, Vol. 34, No. 6, 2004, pp. 11-2.
- Born and raised in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, director Yesim Ustaoglu made this film with Greek-Turkish-French-German finance. In her research for this film, she also shot a beautiful half-hour documentary about women’s life in the Black Sea, Life on Their Shoulders (2004), which featured in the documentary section at the Antalya Film Festival.
- The ongoing issue of Greeks being ‘at home’ in Turkey has provided rich story-telling material for Greek directors too. Although made in a completely different vein, Tassos Boulmetis’s Greek film, Politiki kouzina (A Touch of Spice, 2003), featured at the Altin Portakal Film Festival, is from the perspective of a young Greek boy living in Istanbul in the 1950s and ’60s. He falls in love with a Turkish girl, but his family is forced out of Istanbul during the Cyprus crisis in 1973. The family is far from welcomed in Greece and their accent sets them apart as foreigners. This film is a swansong to the once shared heritage of Istanbul’s Greeks and Turks.
- Burak Bekdil, “Why Mr Erdogan’s Mindset Cannot Fit Europe’s”, in Turkish Daily News, Wednesday 16 November 2005.
- Burcak Evren, Turk Sinemasi (Turkish Cinema) (Beyoglu, Istanbul: Turkish Foundation of Cinema and Audiovisual Culture, 2005), p. 238.
- Nezih Erdogan, “Narratives of Resistance: national identity and ambivalence in the Turkish Melodrama between 1965 and 1975”, Screen, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn 1998.
- Nezih Erdogan, “Violent Images: Hybridity and Excess in The Man Who Saved the World”, in Karen Ross, Deniz Derman and Nevena Dakovic (Eds), Mediated Identities (Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2001), p. 116.
- See Nezih Erdogan, “Mute Bodies, Disembodied Voices: Notes on Sound in Turkish Popular Cinema”, Screen, Vol. 43 No. 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 233-49.
- Asuman Suner, “Horror of a different Kind: Dissonant Voices in the New Turkish Cinema”, Screen, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004, p. 305.
- Bilge Ebiri, “How Does It Feel to Feel?: Recent Turkish Cinema”, in CinemaScope. Asuman Suner also makes this point on p. 306
- Suner, p. 309.
- Suner, p. 323.
- Anna Franklin, “Local Pix boffo in Turkey”, Variety, 25 April 25 – 1 2005, p. 12.
- Erdogan, 1998, p. 118.
- It would be a worthwhile task to analyse G.O.R.A. in light of Tom O’Regan’s adoption of Yuri Lotman’s theory of cultural transfers in his analysis of Australian cinema in his Australian National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). However, this is beyond the scope of this article.
- Franklin, p. 12.
- In an interview with me.
- Turks believe the hooding incident was in retaliation against Turkey for not allowing the US to use the Incirlik US airbase in eastern Turkey during the early days of the Iraq war. In the words of one reviewer, the level of anti-American sentiment displayed in this film “makes Graham Greene’s ugly American appear like Mary Poppins’ male cousin”. Valley of the wolves – Iraq features American ‘baddies’ played by Billy Zane and Gary Busey. See Semih Idiz, “Brace yourself America, Polat is on the way!”, in Turkish Daily News, Thursday 26 January 2006.
- Turkey’s box office statistics are located at: http://www.beyazperde.com/box.asp?id=tr.
- Evren, p. 314.
- Erdogan, 1998, p. 261.
- When I was living in Istanbul in the early 1990s, the Alan Parker film, Midnight Express (1978), infamous in the West for its barbaric prison scenes, was still banned in Turkey. In a telling example of government impotence in the face of the emerging transnationalism and globalisation, one of the recently established television stations, illegally broadcasting from France, screened the film.
- Amin Farzanefah, “A Nation and Cinema Industry Divided”, in Qantara.de, 2003.
- Catherine Simpson, “‘Turkish Delights?’: An Analysis of the Media Reception to the first Turkish Film Festival in Australia”, Metro Magazine, No. 124-5, 2000, pp. 60-3.
- “Long-awaited Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak debuts Friday”, in Turkish Daily News, Thursday 2 February 2006.
- The Eurimages website can be found at: http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operation/Eurimages.
- This information can be found at the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism, here.
- See Catherine Simpson, “Turkish films and festivals: Glancing Eastwards”, in RealTime, No. 70, 2005.
- Ebiri, op. cit.