Metin Erksan’s Revenge of the Snakes (1962)
Back in 1987, when I was first hired to be Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I began sharing my ideas for the kinds of series I hoped to bring to the still-being-constructed Walter Reade Theater with members of my Board of Directors. As I went down my list of proposed projects—some eventually realized, some not—our Board Chairman at the time, Alfred Stern, asked “Why don’t we do a major series on Turkish cinema?” Well, Alfred, it took us almost 25 years, but after a few false starts, we finally got there!
Part of the programming philosophy of the Film Society, especially since the inception of our year-round presentation of films at the Walter Reade Theater, has been to “help write film history” by trying to fill in the gaps that exist in terms of our knowledge of certain artists, periods or national cinemas. Those historical gaps become especially clear when suddenly a national cinema about which we know very little begins producing a number of provocative, high quality works. Experience teaches that these “waves” don’t come out of nowhere: they’re generally the fruit of trends and developments that have existed sometimes for years, outside of the purview of most international film critics and scholars.
Such is very much the case with Turkey. The recent international celebration of filmmakers such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akın, Özcan Alper, Yeşim Ustaoğlu and Reha Erdem has shined a bright spotlight on contemporary filmmaking in Turkey, which has clearly become one of the national cinemas to watch. Yet their great achievements, not surprisingly, rest on a solid foundation of courageous, ambitious filmmaking that has been part of cultural life in Turkey since at least the Fifties. That cinema—which one might call, with reservations, an “art cinema”—existed alongside for many years a large, prolific film industry, known as Yeşilçam (the Turkish Hollywood or perhaps Bollywood) that created, remarkably, over 200 films a year by the late Sixties. As in Italy and Japan, the existence of a thriving popular cinema provided the basis for the emergence of artists looking to make most personal works, and in fact several of the filmmakers featured in our selection moved back and forth between Yeşilçam and their own, more personal projects.
Orhan Oǧuz's Despite Everything (1988)
As in so many countries, postwar neo-realism had a huge impact on Turkish filmmakers, an impact that can be seen in the earliest films in this series. In films such as Three Friends (Üç Arkadaş, 1958), Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, 1963) and Revenge of the Snakes (Yılanların Öcü, 1962), the impulse to document the sights and sounds of Turkey, to render the texture of life, juts up against the conventions of genre and classical storytelling. That impulse to present an unfiltered reflection of Turkey on screen would continue even as the films become more pointed in their criticism of social conditions and lack of progress for many of Turkey’s least fortunate citizens. This cinema of social engagement would of course reach its apogee in the works of Yılmaz Güney, the first filmmaker from Turkey to achieve international recognition, but would continue to evolve in the works of Erden Kıral, Ali Özgentürk and others even as the Turkish military was clamping down on free expression in the arts.
Yet as happened in so many other national cinemas, by the Eighties the “personal” had become inextricably bound up with the political, and filmmakers in Turkey that responded with a number of important works that focused on even the most sensitive emotional relations, as in Motherland Hotel (Anayurt Oteli, 1987), Despite Everything (Herşeye Rağmen, 1988), or My Aunt (Teyzem, 1987). These works and others examined the at times stubborn continuity of attitudes or ways of life even in a society undergoing rapid change at every level. They also opted for a more intimate cinematic style, sometimes confounding the physical world with their characters’ fantasies or desires.
The current generation of filmmakers in Turkey—that generation that has brought this cinema to new heights of achievement as well as international recognition—draws on these deep wells of national film traditions as well as a wide assortment of external models. It is our hope—those of us at the Film Society as well as our partners in the Moon and Stars Project—that this series will serve not only help explain the roots of the current Turkish film boom, but also introduce (or re-introduce) a number of films and filmmakers from the past all more than worthy of further study. A crossroads—geographically, culturally, politically—Turkey each year seems to become a more important, more influential part of the international community; it’s our bet that within just a few years, we’ll be saying the same thing about its cinema.