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The Return To Grace Of Turkish Cinema
© Matthieu Darras
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Cannes Grand Prix winner in 2003 with Uzak, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has since then appeared as the most renowned Turkish director on the international level. However his films occupy a marginal economic position in the Turkish cinema industry. They have been – and still are – low-budget independent productions, seeking their funding from abroad. The author of Iklimler deliberately makes use of eccentricity financially speaking in order to ensure his artistic integrity. More generally, during the last five years, the success of Ceylan and fellow directors such as Demirkubuz, Ustaoglu and Arslan on the festival circuit has been merely a secondary phenomenon alongside the return to grace of the mainstream national cinema. 


Turkish cinema is, in fact, by no means lacking in financial resources. In any case at least, it now generates much more money than in it used to. In 2005, Turkish films constituted 7 of the top 10 domestic box office hits, and held a market share of close to 40%. That year also saw the completion of 27 full-length Turkish film productions. Undeniably, the industry is performing better than it was before. However, this general good health has little impact on independent filmmakers. In fact it is evident that the growth in the number of productions, within the context of media integration, is not necessarily favourable to artistic innovation. Amongst the big box office successes, many are conceived by and for television channels, and this is all too often reflected in their aesthetic tendencies. One example of this trend, if an unusual one, is the controversial Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak), an adaptation of a popular television series. With the biggest budget in the history of Turkish cinema, this melodrama/revenge-story set during the Iraq war was made according to the conventions of more down-market Hollywood fare. Using the weapons of the enemy for an anti-American pamphlet; now there’s something interesting... But should we be smiling about the fact that this film from Serdar Akar attracted an audience of over 5 million in 2006?

There are, however, several better quality mainstream films. Sure, the comical stories of Kurdish actor Yilmaz Erdogan lack tautness, but they at least have the merit of being relevant to today’s society - such as Magic Carpet Ride - or of approaching the recent, troubled history of the country with the spirit of unity in mind - as in Vizontele Tuuba. This is no small thing for a nation which is always trying to bury the hatchet and accept its minorities (ethnic, political etc.) in all their diversity. The story of a librarian exiled to a village near Diyarbakir (which doesn’t have a library), Vizontele Tuuba depicts a community divided between innocuous revolutionaries on the one side and foolish supporters of the right on the other, on the eve of the military coup of 1980. In summary, a Pagnol-style Anatolian comedy.


At the other end of the country, the same events overwhelm the lives of ordinary people, dividing even families. Political militant Sadik loses his wife the very same morning of the coup d’etat, due to the roads and hospitals being completely deserted when she goes into labour. Seven years later, he returns to his parents’ home in the Agean countryside, notably to see his father, with whom relations have been distant ever since he refused to take over the family farm. Sadik wants to them to take his young son into their care, as he is struggling to bring him up alone. Presented at the festival of Istanbul in April 2006, My Father and My Son (Babam ve oğlum) is a highly effective melodrama which combines themes of intergenerational conflict and collective national memories of a tragic nature. Confident in his own work, Cağan, the director, challenged audiences not to cry when watching the film. Impossible, as the crescendo of emotional tension and the audience’s identification with the characters work both subtly and fully. Often turning to the past, mainstream cinema easily falls into nostalgic territory. Such is the case in the farcical Why were Hacivat and Karagoz Murdered? (Hacivat Karagoz Neden Olduruldu?), a comical reflection on multiculturalism in Turkey which takes us all the way back to the 14th century, to a time when Bursa was the capital. Childhood memories of Anatolian directors’ native villages abound - and are often coloured by naive fantasies, such as Boats out of Watermelon Rinds (Karpuz Kabu undan gemiler yapmak) by Ahmet Ulucay or The Waterfall (Sellale) by Semir Arslanyurek. Nevertheless, filmmakers do also make forays into contemporary urban life. For example, the narrative of the dramatic comedy Gonul Yarasi spans the parallel lives of three individuals in modern-day Istanbul, linked by the theme of violence against women. Şener Şen puts in an exemplary performance as a teacher who leaves his pupils for a priesthood in service of the Republic, but the film struggles to avoid the conventions of the genre. In addition - as always - the past is never far away. Yavuz Turgul, like many of his fellow filmmakers, is particularly keen on the use of flashback techniques.

Contrasting mainstream and auteur cinema does not always necessarily reveal a qualitative difference. Auteur cinema can be just as tedious when it falls into cliche. This is true for Angel’s Fall, the second film from Semih Kaplanoğlu, which centres on a young woman working as a chambermaid, who has an irascible father. We feel all too intensely the intention of the director, who gives us a view of the body of a woman seeking to liberate herself from her constraints. The mechanism takes precedent over everything else. Despite the many masterful qualities of the film, the portrayal of Zeynep’s character is almost glacial, much too cold for us to become attached to her. In a different register, Two Girls (Iki Genc Kiz) is also a portrait of young women. Behiye and Handan seem to be opposites in every way: one is brunette, rebellious and yet fragile, the other blonde, superficial and sure of herself. As in The Dreamlife of Angels (La Vie Revee des Anges), the two adolescents share an obsessive friendship. Full of potential, and carried along by two brilliant comediennes, the third film from Kutluğ Ataman is a pleasure to watch, even if the story of personal growth experienced by the two young girls has an air of deja vu about it. Without parallel on the other hand, Times and Winds is the revelation of 2006. By using common ingredients of mainstream cinema (a village, children, etc.), Reha Erdem delivers an atmospheric film. A kind of auscultation and capturing of the pulse of a community through the interwoven viewpoints of three young adolescents. The camera, hypnotic, furrows its way through lanes, passing by walls and hills. It succeeds in expressing the unspeakable, whilst examining the relationship between human beings and the natural elements surrounding them. Given rhythm by the calls to prayer from the mosque and music from Arvo Part, Times and Winds treats with the same originality the question of religion, and how the love of parents for their children can become harmful.

Times and Winds

In 2007 a couple of not-to-be-missed Turkish films also came up: Takva from Yeni Sinemacilar, the story of a man living according to the teachings of medieval Islam; Kader, the latest film from Zeki Demirkubuz, which brings back the characters from Innocence, produced in 1997; and last but not least, Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven, which I intentionally include in this article since the Hamburg-born director accepted the Best Script Award at the Cannes film festival for his overwhelming melodrama… in the name of Turkish cinema!
  Three Monkeys
  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  Angel`s Fall
  Clouds of May
  The Edge of Heaven
  Times and Winds
  The Small Town
  Takva: A Man`s Fear of God
  My Father and My Son
  Magic Carpet Ride
  Vizontele Tuuba
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  Yilmaz Erdogan
  Semih Kaplanoglu
  Reha Erdem
  Fatih Akin
  Arvo Part
  Zeki Demirkubuz
  Yesim Ustaoglu
  Cagan Irmak
  Yavuz Turgul
  Sener Sen
  Yeni Sinemacilar
  Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
  Imagining the Balkans... in Film
  An Overview of the (New)* Croatian Cinema
  The Represantation of the Borders in the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
  From Yugoslav to Serbian Cinema: 1991-2001 Themes and Characteristics of a Cinema Industry in Transition
  The Balkans, A Spiritual Space and Less a Peninsula
  Goran Paskaljević, a Balkan humanist
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Observation as Poetry
  Read the book
  NISI MASA Official Site
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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