Irony-free, Blunt Myth-Making
For a long time, the film was just a chimera: Curd Jürgens or Yul Brynner, Antonio Banderas and Joseph Fiennes appeared to have the necessary qualities to portray the figure voted "Man of the Century" in a Time Magazine poll. The Turkish state meanwhile often obstructed requests to expose the mythically transfigured figure to the clarity of the popular medium that is cinema.
Zülfü Livaneli's "Veda" is a milestone in this respect, and the person revered in Turkey as a novelist, singer-songwriter and filmmaker almost appears to be the right man for the job. In short, however, "Veda" is a predictable disappointment – the historical film works its way through episodes memorised by every Turkish elementary school child.
A drastic overhaul for the 20th century
Mustafa Kemal, who grew up without a father in Saloniki, is already a towering figure as a small boy, instigating war games at school, and as a young cadet dancing like no other. Then the film begins turning the pages of the biography: The mission to Bengazi in Libya as an officer, the expulsion of his mother and sister from Saloniki. The first high point is the legendary victory of Cannakale/Gallipoli in one of the bloodiest battles of World War One, when Kemal prevented the British and their allies from crossing the Dardanelles, thereby hindering an attack on the unprotected city of Istanbul.
Several pages later: 1919, after the end of the war Kemal saves Turkey from geographical annihilation, from division at the hands of the victorious powers. Defying an order from the Sultan and the British to return, he attains rebel status and is sentenced to death in 1920. The Anatolian city of Ankara becomes his nest of resistance, from where he also controls the farthest flung corners of the nation – through occupation of the telegraph network.
And a few pages on: Following successful revision of the humiliating Treaty of Sevres, the real work begins – and that involves catapulting Turkey, formerly the "sick man on the Bosphorus", into the 20th century with a drastic overhaul.
Atatürk pushes his reform package through in just a few years: abolition of the Sultanate, proclamation of the republic, a ban on the headscarf and the fez, and replacing Arabic with Latinised letters. In a nationwide registration programme every citizen receives a surname, and while Mustafa Kemal doesn't exactly crown himself, he assigns himself the evocative surname "Atatürk" – "Father of the Turks".
A barrage of measures each of which sent shock waves through the Ottoman identity, and which induced a trauma that has still not been overcome to this day, spurred on by the view this nation can only survive if it keeps its finger on the pulse of modernity and orientates itself to the West. To this day, this requires the country to occupy a special position between Europe and the Islamic world.
Childlike view from below
Instead of entering the depths of the collective psyche at this point, "Veda" is an exercise in irony-free, blunt myth-making. Everything is a trite reference to the exemplary. Of the two women who play a decisive role in Atatürk's life, it is Fikriye who embodies the retrogressive Middle Easterner, while the multi-lingual Latife represents the progressive model of the modern Turkish woman.
Livaneli covered the film's production costs of 7.5 million Turkish lira or €3.2 million out of his own pocket, and from a directorial point of view, "Veda" is a cut above the regular Turkish cinematic fare – but with 1.2 tonnes of make-up, 150 wigs made out of real hair and 12,000 costumes, it is a lavish historical epic that strikes out much too far, and doesn't actually get anywhere.
The narrative perspective is always that of the figure that holds no historical-political positioning or contextualisation. The frame story in which this biographical illustrated volume is embedded as a flashback, is defined by the admirer's view from below: Atatürk's submissive companion is Salih Bozok, the true friend from childhood, who at the hero's deathbed recalls all the things that they have seen and done together. In response to the question of whether he had ever been jealous, he answers meekly: "Can one then be jealous of Agri Mountain, of the clouds, of the Mediterranean?"
The half truth
After Atatürk has given Turkey a good shakedown, it's all pretty much over. The fractious wife makes him ill, and the father of the nation spends more and more time in clubs and casinos and eventually suffers a breakdown. And this is where the film is missing the most interesting aspect: the fragility that makes an historic giant such as Atatürk personally tangible.
Not only does Livaneli's film lack details of the excessive Raki consumption that served Mustafa Kemal an alcoholic's death with cirrhosis of the liver, it passes over something even more important: the forced ethnic homogenisation, the bloody suppression of Kurdish uprisings, the elimination of undesirable colleagues in the last decade of his life, the far-reaching decision to adjourn the introduction of a multi-party system.
But it is not only the negative aspects that are cut out; "Veda" also omits to mention internationally significant merits such as Atatürk's rejection of expansionist hegemonic thinking, or his timely and insistent warnings against Hitler, and his steadfast refusal to entertain any of the German leader's attempts to secure Turkey as an ally.
Preserving a legacy
With a lack of such details, Atatürk's final years are reduced to scenes of a floundering marriage. Now if the problems of a Turkish Atatürk biopic were wholly predictable, the question still arises as to why someone like Livaneli makes a film that is doomed to fail. At its German premiere during the Nuremberg Film Festival, the 63-year-old explained his motivation to focus on the Kemalist "household idol" thus: "The army has used Atatürk as a kind of mask. But in my view, he embodies certain values – secularism and women's rights."
The director also said that it was high time to honour Atatürk's private side, as "this makes him even greater". An expansive statement that has clearly proven difficult to distil into images.
Livaneli should probably have been less guided by the Stalin propaganda film, and more by artistically appealing productions such as Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi", Oliver Stone's "JFK" or Steven Soderbergh's "Che", all of which cast both a critical and at the same time appreciative light on their heavyweight historical protagonists. The effect of "Veda", on the other hand, is akin to that of a run-of-the-mill film about the life of Jesus – complete with apostles, the Gospel and weeping Madonnas.
Zülfü Livaneli, a former mayoral candidate for Istanbul with long-term political ambitions, probably takes the following view: with modern Turkey dangerously split along nationalist, Kurdish separatist and Islamist lines, it is again time to evoke the founding moment of the nation, and remind the people of those Kemalist values that are eternally present in the public mindset anyway.
He, however, believes that: "There is a danger that this legacy is being destroyed, and by the people themselves." The question is whether an ideological recollection of this nature represents the cure for this malaise, or whether it is actually part of the problem itself.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de