Contemporary Turkish Cinema
Plenty of Light, Plenty of Shadow

Turkish cinema is currently experiencing a boom – local films are beating Hollywood productions in the market, and the films are dealing with new, controversial topics. All the same, the bright surface of modern Turkish cinema hides the same old rickety chassis. By Amin Farzanefar

photo: TMC
In it for the money: the popular actor Ugur Yücel (left) turned away from the art film to make "Ejder Kapani" ("Dragon Trap"), a film about a serial killer modelled on violent Hollywood productions, starring Turkish superstar Kenan Imirzalioglu

​​ Just ten years ago, Turkish cinema was producing an all-time low of just a dozen films a year. Now it's expanding at an unprecedented pace: 60 films were made in 2009, and many of them were internationally successful art-house productions.

But feature films are expensive, and there's a world-wide financial crisis, so how has the boom been financed?

New money and new subject-matter

The Erdogan government has increased the amount of money available to promote Turkish films, but the amount involved is still small compared to the millions available to even the regional funds in Germany for instance. In Turkey most of the money comes from private finance: some big banks, insurance company and other firms have even set up entire departments for cultural sponsoring.

There are European partners too: EU initiatives like MEDIA and international funds like Eurimage which help to finance an increasing number of co-productions.

​​ The Turkish public is enthusiastic and ensures that the cost of a film is quickly recouped. Hollywood films are well-known and popular, but the public is so keen on domestic films that the 2009 top ten included six local productions: Levent Sekerci's "Nefes: Vatan Sagolsun" ("The Breath") took third place with 2.4 million ticket sales. That was the very first film to deal directly with the Kurdish conflict in Eastern Anatolia in which 45,000 people died during the nineties.

"Nefes" tells of the experience of a Turkish battalion trapped by rebels, and it does so with such intensity and immediacy that not only the military, but also the generally critical press have been full of praise for the film.

In second place was "Gunesi Gordum" ("I saw the sun") which tells of the expulsion of a Kurdish family from South-Eastern Anatolia, and which sold 2.5 million tickets. The film, made by the Kurdish singer Mahsun Kirmizigul, also deals with homophopia, human trafficking, child marriage and chauvinism. It's a heavy load of sensitive subject-matter for a mainstream film. A few years back, it would have even been difficult for an independent auteur to have produced something like that.

A spanner in the works

The financial balance-sheet of Turkish cinema reads like a success story, and the audience figures and the festival prizes have led new investors to get involved. There was a crowd of Turkish directors and producers at the film market of this year's Berlinale in February, and the Istanbul film festival in April put on a number of high-powered workshops for producers. But underneath all the glitz, there's the same old rickety chassis chugging along.

For example, private finance means that productions are under enormous pressure to succeed. To maximise box-office takings, the films have to appeal to a mass audience. The desire for romance and slapstick leaves little room for anything demanding and innovative. Several ambitious film makers have thrown in the towel and turned to the commercial sector.

​​ The latest example is Ugur Yücel. He starred to great acclaim in films like "Muhsin Bey" ("Mr Muksin") and "Eskiya" ("The Bandit"), but his 2004 directorial debut with "Yazi Tura" ("Toss-Up") had a reserved reception. That led him to turn away from the art film, and to make "Ejder Kapani" ("Dragon Trap") this year, a film about a serial killer modelled on violent Hollywood productions like David Fincher's "Seven". With stars like Yücel himself or the superstar Kenan Imirzalioglu boosting the box-office potential, the film stayed at number two for two weeks.

It's not surprising that internationally famed arthouse directors like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu or Zeki Demirkubuz are scarcely noticed in their own country. There is scarcely anything like the arthouse or community cinema scene of other European countries.

Kaplanoglu's "Bal" ("Honey") played in several cinemas in the fashionable Istanbul district of Istiklal-Caddesi, but that was only because of its success at the Berlinale. Usually such a film can expect to sell around 10,000 tickets. The gap between arthouse and mainstream cinema is even bigger in Turkey than it is in other European countries.

Dramatic deficits

Another problem is the lack of skill of the makers: Turkish popular cinema may be successful in imitating Hollywood's special-effects fireworks and montage effects, and it has an army of first-rate actors who are good enough to improvise their way out of any weakness in the screenplay.

​​ But there are still often dramatic deficits which spoil the viewer's pleasure, and they too are the result of the financial model of Turkish cinema: there's every temptation to start filming as soon as one has got a bit of money together. You can see how that can go wrong in "Benim ve roz'un sonbahari" ("Me and Roz").

In this film, Handan Öztürk tells of the devastating consequences of a hydroelectric project in Eastern Anatolia for the residents of the surrounding villages. The story, which is told in the magical-romantic style of the nostalgic film maker, Giuseppe Tornatore, is charming, but in the course of the telling, a number of strange things happen: for example, a band of children who carry the story at the start of the film simply disappear. The reason is simple: money ran out during filming, and, before new money could be found, the children had become teenagers.

An assembly line of depression and death from cancer

Such projects, which need enthusiasm at the beginning and planning until the end, have led to a new turn of phrase: "Start it like a Turk and finish it off like a German."

In many productions, there's a weakness in the storytelling: often, interesting material is simply not developed. A careful handling of the plot soon turns into the old clichés of melodrama: it seems almost unavoidable that at least one of the characters will suffer from depression and die of cancer.

But Turkish cinema can be intelligent and creative: films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Üc Maymun" ("Three Monkeys") or Zeki Demirkubuz's "Kader" ("Destiny") play with such classical elements and draw from them new relevance for modern times.

The roots of the evil

​​The industry recognises the problem, and is keen to develop and reform itself. In international workshops and master classes, it tries to make up lost ground and come up to European standards.

But one could also look at the matter more fundamentally, as does the artist and film-maker Kutlug Ataman: he argues that Turkey has lost the ability to tell consistent stories, as, in a kind of collective amnesia, it has refused to deal with the crises and uprisings by which it has been rocked throughout its modern history. Bearing in mind that the country has traditionally a strong oral tradition, that ought to be considered a pressing problem.

That would mean that what applies to cinema applies to Turkey as a whole: there's an enormous economic and cultural potential and a great desire to move forward. But to move forward successfully, one has also to be able to look back.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2010

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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