Turkish Cinema’s Resurgence: The ‘Deep Nation’ Unravels

Turkish Cinema’s Resurgence:
The ‘Deep Nation’ Unravels

Senses of Cinema
Issue #39
April-June, 2006
by Catherine Simpson
Catherine Simpson is a lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie
University, Sydney.

"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 Yucel’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 Gunese yolculuk
(Journey to the Sun, 1999) is probably the most highly acclaimed film
internationally since Yol (Serif Goren and Yilmaz Guney, 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 Buyuk adam kucuk 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 Camur (Mud, 2003) and Yesim Ustaoglu’s Bulutlari
Beklerken (Waiting for the Clouds, 2004). In Camur, 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 (Ruchan 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

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 Omer 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 Omer 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 Dunyayi kutaran adam (The Man
Who Saved the World, Cetin Inanc, 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 Ornek’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, Ornek’s Hittites (2003) held the record
with 70,000 admissions. According to Ornek, Gallipoli is currently the
fourth most-watched film of 2005. In an interview I conducted in Sydney in
November 2005, Ornek 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, Ornek’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, Ornek 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.
Ornek’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 Senturk), 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 Omer 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 genc 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 Inac’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 Ornek, 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.
© Catherine Simpson, 2006
This article has been refereed.


1. Asuman Suner, "Horror of a Different Kind: Dissonant Voices in the New
Turkish Cinema", Screen, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004, p. 305.
2. 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.
3. Petra Tabeling, "Grunge, Punk and HipHop on the Bosporus Fatih Akin’s
Crossing the Bridge", in Qantara.de.
4. Ali Jafaar, "Report from Cannes", Sight and Sound, Vol., 15, No. 7,
July 2005, p. 17.
5. 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.
6. Robins and Aksoy, p. 203.
7. Shohini Chaudhuri, Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, The Middle East,
East Asia and South Asia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p.
8. Robins and Aksoy, p. 206.
9. Robins and Aksoy, p. 207.
10. 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!
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. For more information on director Yilmaz Guney, see Bilge Ebiri’s
article in Senses of Cinema, Issue 37, October-December 2005.
15. 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.
16. The Kurdish question also lies at the centre of political filmmaker
Reis Celik’s films, most notably Isiklar sonmesin (Let the Lights Shine On,
1997) and Hoscakal 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. Burak Bekdil, "Why Mr Erdogan’s Mindset Cannot Fit Europe’s", in
Turkish Daily News, Wednesday 16 November 2005.
20. Burcak Evren, Turk Sinemasi (Turkish Cinema) (Beyoglu, Istanbul:
Turkish Foundation of Cinema and Audiovisual Culture, 2005), p. 238.
21. Nezih Erdogan, "Narratives of Resistance: national identity and
ambivalence in the Turkish Melodrama between 1965 and 1975", Screen, Vol.
39, No. 3, Autumn 1998.
22. 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.
23. See Nezih Erdogan, "Mute Bodies, Disembodied Voices: Notes on Sound in
Turkish Popular Cinema", Screen, Vol. 43 No. 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 233-49.
24. Asuman Suner, "Horror of a different Kind: Dissonant Voices in the New
Turkish Cinema", Screen, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2004, p. 305.
25. Bilge Ebiri, "How Does It Feel to Feel?: Recent Turkish Cinema", in
CinemaScope. Asuman Suner also makes this point on p. 306
26. Suner, p. 309.
27. Suner, p. 323.
28. Anna Franklin, "Local Pix boffo in Turkey", Variety, 25 April 25 – 1
2005, p. 12.
29. Erdogan, 1998, p. 118.
30. 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
31. Franklin, p. 12.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. In an interview with me.
35. 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.
36. Turkey’s box office statistics are located at:

37. Evren, p. 314.
38. Erdogan, 1998, p. 261.
39. 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.
40. Amin Farzanefah, "A Nation and Cinema Industry Divided", in
Qantara.de, 2003.
41. 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.
42. "Long-awaited Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak debuts Friday", in Turkish Daily
News, Thursday 2 February 2006.
43. The Eurimages website can be found at:
44. This information can be found at the Turkish Ministry for Culture and
Tourism, here.
45. See Catherine Simpson, "Turkish films and festivals: Glancing
Eastwards", in RealTime, No. 70, 2005.
46. Ebiri, op. cit.


From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress


Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS