Turkish Cinema

A Nation and Cinema Industry Divided

In the 1970s, Turkey's Yesilcam studios churned out 300 films every year. Nowadays, production has slowed to between 12 and 20 films per annum. The reasons for the crisis in Turkey's film production sector are manifold. Amin Farzanefar reports

In the 1970s, Turkey's Yesilcam studios churned out 300 films every year. Nowadays, production has slowed to between twelve and twenty films per annum. The reasons for the crisis in Turkey's film production sector are manifold. Amin Farzanefar reports

A scene from the film "Hejar"

​​Even at the Istanbul International Film Festival – Turkey's biggest cultural event; showcasing 200 films and with an attendance of 100,000 – it is impossible to identify any one key reason for the decline in Turkish film production, which would appear to be attributable to several overriding factors. Censorship, which was particularly repressive in the years following the military coup, has been relaxed considerably. While it does in principle permit criticism of the state, it still occasionally demonstrates its clout.

One of the most recent examples of the exercising of this power is Hejar (also known as Big Man, Small Love). This film is a sensitive portrait of a friendship between a small Kurdish girl and a retired judge. It won all sorts of awards and proved very popular with the public before being denounced as hostile to the state. Director Handan Ipekci was even threatened with a six-year prison sentence. But it doesn't end there: Ravin Asaf's Yellow Days, which tells the story of a German doctoral candidate's stay in a Kurdish village, mysteriously disappeared from this year's festival programme.

Sex, politics and martyrs

In other words, political issues that might just touch upon Atatürk's heritage are still taboo. Sexuality – a taboo of a very different kind – on the other hand, caught on during the lifetime of the father of the Turkish republic. Those who consider Turkey to be part of the Orient, extrapolate from other Islamic countries, and expect vows of chastity and head scarves to abound on screen, are in for a huge surprise. The mass production of short sex films in the 1970s is one of the reasons for the decline in the Turkish film industry during that decade. Nowadays, erotic scenes are almost as much a matter of course here as they are in French films.

But those looking for head scarves will find them: for a good ten years now, films with a hint of Islamism have been relating increasingly anti-modernistic martyr storiestales of the daughter who turns to the veil and is rejected by her decadent, hedonistic family; tales of the son who travels to the West and whose manners go to the dogs. Attila Dorsay, however, does not let himself get carried away by the ubiquitous fear that the burgeoning Islamist movement in the suburbs and rural communities could sweep away urban modernism.

Hollywood and its fundamentalist martyr films

Dorsay, the doyen of Turkish film critics, puts so-called "white cinema" firmly in its place: "If Hollywood can make fundamentalist martyr films like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments over the course of several decades, then let the Muslims have a go too."

Filmmaker Fatih Akin lists similar reasons to Dorsay for the collapse in production figures: "People have other problems: the whole country is in crisis; investments are not flowing like they used to; then comes the war and all the money is channelled into the military." Turkey's economy is in a coma and is being drip-fed by the IMF and the World Bank, while galloping inflation, nepotism, and corruption almost completely smother any attempts to build a properly structured film promotion and distribution system.

Turkish films are still popular

Nevertheless, Turkish films are still popular with Turkish cinema-goers and in the prevailing climate of robber baron capitalism, filmmakers can choose to make one of two types of film. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Uzak (Distant) belongs to the first category of film. It won the national competition in Istanbul and tells the story of an artist in a crisis. The cinematography is breathtaking and the film is not without its comic moments: an art house film, it is just the right thing for Cannes. In fact, Uzak was the first Turkish film to compete in Cannes since 1982 and it promptly bagged two awards. Ceylan is a typical representative of the Turkish independent film scene.

Filmmakers like Dervis Zaim, Zeki Demirkubuz, and Yesim Ustaoglu focus on aesthetic experiments, social involvement, and, above all, low-budget projects that often receive support from international sources like Eurimage. While this sort of Turkish film makes regular appearances at European festivals, American mainstream rules the roost in Turkish cinemas. Art-house films rarely make it into the regular film programme and often have to be distributed by the filmmakers themselves.

Companies and banks as investors

This brings us neatly to the second type of film made in Turkey: While Uzak-director Ceylan heroically refuses to accept a single Lira from private industry, other directors have less scruples about taking money from corporate and banking investors. Mustafa Altioklar is one such director. Having earned international recognition for his poetic Istanbul beneath my Wings, the former doctor played to the thigh-slapping humour of the cinema-going public with He's in the Army Now.

This military comedy is set in 1999. For a few bone-idle youngsters, the state of emergency caused by the great earthquake shortens military service to 28 days. Overall, it is an entertaining story. Over 1.1 million people saw the film and it was the box office smash of the season. At 1 million dollars, it was also relatively low-budget (the upper limit for a mainstream Turkish film is 2.5 million dollars).

More than 300 TV channels in Turkey

Sinan Cetin, whose involvement in advertising, videos, game shows, and soap operas is akin to that of a media mogul, is the archetypal commercial Turkish filmmaker (the flood of television channels is another reason for the decline in the cinema culture: with 300 television channels, Turkey has more channels than any other country in Europe). Cetin's films Propaganda and Komisar Shekspir recently showed in German multiplex cinemas: since Eskiya (The Bandit) in 1996, Turkish blockbusters have been shown in Germany. It must be said, however, that they are mostly viewed by Turks living in Germany.

Authenticity or commercial success

Nevertheless, Turkish art house films and popcorn movies – like Uzak and He's in the Army Now – do have several things in common. Both films highlight factory closures, mass redundancies, the exodus from the country, migration, and the conflict between the generations. The latent thread running through both genres is the search for identity – both personal and national.

The avant-garde is trying to bridge the gap between art and commerce. Ümit Ünal's investigative thriller Nine (Dokus) is set entirely in an interrogation room. A murder has been committed and the police are collecting statements from locals, neighbours, and dealers. Clever scene cutting techniques confirm, refute and qualify the various statements, while the roles of witness, suspect, and prosecutor merge and blend.

Dokus is both minimalist and stylish; socially critical and entertaining. Apart from its impressive images, Dokus is also a cross-section – a snapshot – of Turkish society with all its nepotism, conflicting forces, and material and ideological desires. In short, it is ground-breaking cinema on the borderline between populism and purism.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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