Grandeur and digressions of Turkish cinema


Grandeur and digressions of Turkish cinema
Mehmet Basutçu

We can now legitimately dare to hope beyond hope. Talk about the renaissance over the past few years has not been in vain. The revival of Turkish cinema is being consolidated and laying down roots. Even the most evil weeds thrive in this fertile soil. Everyman’s ambition has a place here: from the sincere to the perverse. The best and worse of Turkish films rub shoulders on the same screens. Surely this is a sign of vigour, if not of good health.

Indeed, cinema at the beginning of this year was highly divided and at two opposing ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, cinema d’auteur continues to grow and is getting ready to scale new heights, in particular with three much awaited films:

Nominated for the Palme d’or once more…
“Climates” is a tortured love story tinted with solitude. It is director and protagonist Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s fourth full length feature. Some will say: “Finally! It was about time…” The pioneer of modern Turkish film takes on new challenges with in this latest film which is based on his personal journey which is increasingly inward looking. “Climates” which is a French co-production, will be nominated for the Palme d’or next May. After the success of Uzak in 2003, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is competing, once again, for the prestigious award from the Cannes Film Festival. He has, what's more, caught up with Yilmaz Güney, who has also been selected for the festival twice. (1)

The second highly anticipated film of the year is “Fate” (Kader, 2006) by Zeki Demirkubuz which will undoubtedly be unveiled in Venice (or Rome) next autumn. True to himself, the director has interwoven this tale of passion à trois with the multicoloured threads of Turkish life with his customary clarity and perceptiveness. The script allows Kezi Demirkubuz to revisit his own cinema as he reunites us with the characters we loved so much in his second film, “Innocence” (Masumiyet, 1997).

The third film that stands out and which is sure to ensure Reha Erdem’s comeback on the international scene is “Cinq temps” (Beş Vakit, 2006). After winning awards for “A Ay, 1998” - his first feature film - at the Festival del 3 Continents in Nantes in 1989, he had dedicated the next ten years to theatre. His return to film (since 2000) reaches maturity with this fourth feature film. In “Cinq Temps”, Reha Ardem illustrates the anguish of two teenagers who live in a small village on the Aegean Coast. It is filmed in a sober and contemplative way, punctuated 5 times a day by the call to prayer, sung by the muezzin who is one of the protagonist’s father. This muezzin father, who is the object of much hatred from his son who spends his whole time fanning the flames of hate, is ailing…The film has already won several awards at the 25th Film Festival in Istanbul which closed on April 14. Reha Erdem will not be present at Cannes but he is sure to be shown at festival world-wide.

Popular films…for the people…
At the other end of spectrum, we find cinema for mass audiences. A few surprises shine out from the cloak of mediocrity inherent in these films. “Valley of the Wolves, Iraq” (Kurtlar Vadisi – Irak), is of a dangerously popular variety. It is the last episode of a television series which has been highly popular for several years. It was released in cinemas in February with 480 reels distributed throughout Turkey and similar distribution in 14 other countries, notably Western European countries with a high number of Turkish immigrants. “Valley of the Wolves, Iraq” which aims to condemn American policies in Iraq by exposing the bloody deeds of its military is all the more worrying because it is based on a succession of stereotypes. Based on a simplistic and manipulative script with racist undertones, this Hollywood production directed by Serdar Akar (2) has been a box office hit. Five million Turks have already seen the film, only 10 weeks after its release. Germany ranks second with and audience of 700.000. This film has raised a heated debate in the news, including the American press.

2005: A year for consolidation
2005 has been a year of global consolidation. Figures reveal a few significant leaps forward. The number of Turkish films distributed has more than doubled and his higher that at any time in the last years. 27 of the 211 films shown in Turkish cinema last year were national and accounted for 40% of cinema goers. This headway is encouraging, despite the 10% fall in number of viewers per year. Popular films have helped keep the figures high (3) meaning that Turkish film has not been affected by this trend. This fall in number of viewers can be explained by the growing number of pirated DVDs, often sold in front of the very cinemas in which they are showing.

Box office champion Yılmaz Erdoğan released his latest film, «Organize Isler» (Organize İşler), in December 2005, reaching 2 million ticket sales after only 3 months. Yılmaz Erdoğan offers us another innovative and ironic blockbuster. He illustrates a slightly caricatured modern Turkish society, with all its contradictions. In particular he looks at Istanbul where misery rubs shoulders with outrageous opulence, where gangsters of all types mix with rambling intellectuals, where Anatolia in all it’s diversity congregates. This type of mainstream cinema, which is based on intelligent wit, is very different to “Valley of the Wolves, Iraq” which in dualistic contrast reminds us of those epic Hollywood production of the Cold Wars era: a bad version of “Midnight Express” in which the roles are inverted.

The young and less young, all future aces…
Another sign of good health of Turkish cinema is the encouraging developments in the National Film festival of Antalya. We discussed its 42nd edition here last autumn: the triumph of young Turkish film in a line up decidedly focused on the future. I will mention in passing that Ulaş İnaç, who won the Golden orange at Antalya with « Derivatif (Türev), is preparing to shoot his second film called «La Propriété» (Mülk) which we will most probably see in cinemas near the end of this year. Another famous name in cinema d’auteur, Derviş Zaim, has just finished shooting his fourth full length feature with the help of Eurimages grants. In «En attendant le Paradis» (Cenneti Beklerken), he takes us back to the Ottoman Empire of the 17th century.

The tree of revival is therefore continuing to spread its branches in a number of directions. The pickings are is still relatively modest with only 30 films per year. The important thing however, is that these new limbs are definitely there and the environment remains favourable to their growth.

There should be plenty of surprises, both good and bad, in the years to come.

1) «Yol, 1982» co-directed with Şerif Gören, allowed Yılmaz Güney to head the box office in 1982, sharing the Palme d’or with Costa Gavras.. Güney’s last film, «Le Mur», was also nominated in 1983.

2 )This young director has a bizarre résumé. He starts out aiming to make cinema d’auteur. His fist film, «Dans le navire» (Gemide), is promising and is even nominated for the Semaine Internationale de la critique at the Cannes Festival in 1999. After a further two interesting, but incomplete films Serdar Akar turned to television to direct the last episodes of the famous series «Valley of the Wolves».

3) 27 million tickets were sold in 2005 compared to 30 million the year before. 7 of the top ten box office hits were Turkish, two of which were in first and second place with 2.5 and 1.5 million respectively. Moreover, 9 of the 27 Turkish films distributed in 2005 reached 500 million ticket sales.
May 5, 2006
Mehmet Basutçu

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