October 10, 2009
In Beyo?lu, north of the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul, it is almost impossible to walk down the crowded streets without passing a film crew. But this is not a world of ripped abs and bronzed silicon starlets. These Turkish filmmakers are wan and drawn, desperately earnest, deeply preoccupied with Turkey’s rapid social transformation. The one thing they have in common with their Hollywood confreres is a sense that the film industry is a good place to make money. About that, they are right.
Thanks to economic liberalization, the growth of private education in Turkey, and government funding, Turkish cinema is thriving. Last year, 75 feature-length films were made in Turkey. This week there are five Turkish films in the cinemas. Istanbul’s cinema luminaries are now attending the Golden Orange film festival in Antalya, which has been growing rapidly in prestige and attendance. The International Eurasia Film Festival, introduced in 2005, immediately achieved international acclaim. Turkish films now regularly excel Hollywood at the local box office, and they have gained an art-house fan base abroad. Big budget films, too, have been flourishing, although few have received critical acclaim and one in particular, Kurtlar Vadisi Irak (Valley of the Wolves), was an international embarrassment for Turkey, given its anti-Semitic obsessions. (It was a major box office hit, however.) Turkish audiences have returned en masse to the movie theatres, and film departments at universities throughout the country are packed. Despite the global economic crisis, the Turkish film sector last year expanded by ten percent.
Whether they are mainstream or independent, says producer, director and actor Ali P?nar, the in-house director of the boutique production company Corpora Productions, “Turkish filmmakers are experimenting with different styles and contents to attract the attention of viewers, critics and international festivals. Their common point is ‘experimentation.’ The drive to experimentation is lending great motivation, emotion and dynamism to the industry and the viewer.” P?nar recently produced Ada (Island), a zombie genre film.
The Turkish film industry appeared, in the 80s and 90s, to be dead, or at least profoundly moribund. This was not always so: From the 50s to the 70s, Ye?ilçam —Turkey’s Hollywood—churned out some 300 movies a year. (Ye?ilçam refers both to a street in Beyo?lu where production houses were located and to the industry’s production and distribution system.) The movies, generally, were awful: Those that were original were not good; those that were good were not original. Many were plagiarized wholesale from American movies. Still, the industry made money—indeed, Turkey was the world’s third-largest film producer.
Then television killed the film star. Its arrival in the late 1960s nearly put Ye?ilçam out of business. The industry couldn’t keep up with the cost of transitioning to color. The number of films produced dropped dramatically. Turkish art films of the period were so closely modeled on European ones that Turkish audiences found them incomprehensible. The Ye?ilçam district fell fallow; the cinemas there began showing soft porn. By the mid 80s, fewer than 10 Turkish films were produced annually.
The liberal economic reforms of Prime Minister Turgut Özal were initially another blow to the industry. The Law on Foreign Capital, passed in 1988, eased restrictions on foreign investment, permitting the Hollywood majors quickly to move in and seize turf from local production and distribution companies.
But the recent renaissance also has its origins in the rise of television and these same liberal reforms. The television sector was denationalized and deregulated in under Özal, and the mid-90s saw an efflorescence of private stations. Directors became popular talk show stars and used the proceeds from television advertising to finance their films. The investment in the television advertising industry is now the basis of Turkey’s filmmaking infrastructure and technical expertise.
The rise of private universities during the Özal years played an important role, too. Sezin K?psak, a research assistant at the Plato Film school and a cinema doctoral student at Marmara University, notes that “cinema education has really increased at the universities. The private universities are leading the way, and Bilgi University is the most important. All of the major directors are from these cinema schools.”
The rebirth also owes a great deal to financial support from Europe and the Turkish government. In 1997, Eurimages, a powerful European film fund, began a scheme to support the Turkish film industry. The films produced under its aegis have been shown at major international festivals, applauded by critics, and awarded prizes.
“The influence of globalization, modernism, postmodernism—all have contributed to the renaissance,” K?psak says. But the most important factor, she adds, is state support. “In the past five or six years, the government has been giving money, a lot of money, to directors. All of the big directors are making films with this money.” The pace of the revival quickened when director Nurge Bilge Ceylan took the best film prize at Cannes in 2003 for Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys). “The government realized that everyone in the world saw this,” says K?psak, “and so they understood Turkey better. It put the image of Turkey out there, it introduced Turkey to the world. The government saw this and thought, ‘If the filmmakers had more money, they could do even better.’” In 2005, the Ministry of Culture begun providing substantial funding to the movie business. It has invested about 17 million lira (11.59 million USD) annually since then.
This raises an obvious question: Does this money come with conditions? “Directors seem to be quite free,” says K?psak, “but yes, there seem to be conditions—I have many friends who have gone to the government and said, ‘I want money,’ but they can’t get any. But this doesn’t mean that difficult subjects, or projects that show social problems in Turkey, aren’t being made. Quite the contrary. The support the government has given to Kurdish directors has really opened this subject up.”
Filmmaking, certainly, has benefited overall from the loosening of the control of the military over the state, the growing acknowledgment that there are, at least, Kurdish-speaking citizens in Turkey, and the softening of political censorship. According to P?nar, “There’s no censorship, compared to the past. In the beginning of the 1980s, after the military coup, it was very hard to do movies about social realism, ethnic problems. Now you can do films about Kurds.” A surprising number of films are made by Kurdish directors and treat Kurdish themes. In 2004, U?ur Yücel’s Yazi Tura (Toss Up), won Best Turkish Film at Antalya. It depicted the wounds, literal and psychic, suffered by Turks conscripted into the military in the Southeast.
This weekend, for the first time, a major Kurdish film is being released with a full promotional budget. The documentary Iki Dil Bir Bavul (On the Way to School) chronicles the life of a school teacher assigned to the southeast who discovers, to his astonishment, that no one there speaks a word of Turkish. “This was supported by the government,” notes K?psak. “The amount of promotion it’s been given is unprecedented, so this is very important.”
The more open treatment of the Kurdish issue stands to reason, however. The governing AK Party is keen to demonstrate, particularly to the European Union, its commitment to solving this problem. But would filmmakers find it so easy to find funding for movies that depict, say, governmental corruption, or women who feel that their rights have diminished under AKP rule? “Maybe not,” says Pinar, although he adds that the jury that awards funding to filmmakers is comprised largely of filmmakers, not government representatives. It is still, he says, a vast improvement over the military censorship of the 1980s.
It is perhaps the influence of private film schools, coupled with the implicit message from Europe and the Turkish government that money is available to filmmakers who explain Turkey, that accounts for the deeply serious, introspective temperaments of Turkey’s aspiring filmmakers. Esen Kunt, a research assistant at the Plato Film School who is now completing her master’s degree in political science at Marmara University, wants to make documentary films about Islam, religion, gender and the transformation of intimacy in Turkey. “I believe intellectuals have a responsibility to criticize Turkey from the inside,” she says. She puts a book by Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle on the table, explaining that Göle’s work has profoundly influenced her. “If we try to analyze the current approaches in Turkish cinema, we can see that cinema is the camera obscura of Turkish political and cultural transformation, through the lens of gender identity and hegemonic masculinity. Turkish cinema symbolizes cultural memory and cultural resistance history. Especially in the last decade, Turkish directors have tried to criticize the struggle between modernization and convention, customs, gender identity, the hegemonic masculinity of the ideology. Art, especially cinema, gives you a huge opportunity to understand the cultural dichotomies and hybrid narratives of Turkish cultural history.”
Her remarks go some way toward explaining why Turkish films have yet to become smash box-office successes overseas.
Not every theater-goer in Turkey is persuaded that these new movies are an improvement over the Ye?ilçam classics. Serkin Yakin and Gulsah Yenidunya, both doctors, are waiting to see a Japanese movie in the lobby of the Sinemajestic on Ye?ilçam street. “Some of them are good,” says Yenidunya, “but some not so good. The old movies were closer to us. They had more profound feeling. Now it doesn’t have the same effect.”
“The movies seem more like American ones now,” says Yakin. “For example, Sizi Seviyorum (I Love You). It’s about a man who has one-night stands and how his girlfriend takes revenge. In the old movies, if a man loved a girl, the girl’s big brothers came and killed him.
“Now that’s Turkey.”