A Film Has Turkey Talking

A documentary on the founder of the Turkish Republic is causing a stir in Turkey. As young audiences in particular engage with the controversial film, the filmmaker and journalist Can Dündar is increasingly coming under attack. Yet he is anything but a strong critic of Atatürk. Jürgen Gottschlich has the details

​​The figure is seen in profile or from behind, the face is usually shown only in passing. He sits pensively at a table, staring off into space and drinking a glass of raki, the anise liquor so popular in Turkey. The man clearly feels lonely. He is suffering, and soon he will die. The man is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the scenes are set in Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans once resided, and where the founding father of the Turkish Republic died in 1938.

For several weeks a major docudrama on the life of Atatürk has been playing in every cinema in Turkey. The film is called simply 'Mustafa', already an indication that it is less about the statesman Atatürk than the private person Mustafa.

The film is a mixture of old documentary material and interspersed dramatisations. Made in rather conventional fashion, it tells the life of Mustafa Kemal in chronological order.

Superficial dramatisations

​​In the late 19th century, when the future Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in Saloniki, the city was still one of the Ottoman Empire's most important centres. As there are virtually no photographs of the hero's childhood, filmmaker Can Dündar, one of Turkey's best-known television journalists, had to fall back on dramatisations, which remain quite superficial, however.

Atatürk's education is only touched upon. In Islamist circles the film has been accused of insinuating that Atatürk's subsequent anti-Islamist attitude arose from the fact that he had been beaten so often in the Koran school as a child. To the unbiased viewer, however, there seems to be little to support this claim.

On the whole it is very difficult for an outsider, a foreigner, to understand why the film has created such a stir in Turkey.

Little sensationalism

Can Dündar shows little that is sensational, much less objectionable, but in Turkey emotions ran as high as if the country's most sacred object had been attacked.

​​Beginning with the Kemalist opposition leader Deniz Baykal and extending to leading columnists for 'Hürriyet', 'Vatan' and other major daily newspapers, the filmmaker Can Dündar was denounced either as a traitor or a slanderer for daring to depict Atatürk as a 'hedonistic womaniser' who – as every schoolchild knows by now – drunk more raki than he should have, at least toward the end of his life.

The chairman of the Atatürk association of Cankaya, the district of Ankara where the presidential palace is located, has now brought charges against Can Dündar for sullying Atatürk's memory.

No critical treatment

Yet the filmmaker is anything but a strong critic of Atatürk. The really hard questions are not even posed in the film. He does not pursue the question of how democratic or dictatorial Mustafa Kemal's rule actually was, nor is any role played by the draconian campaigns against the Kurds, in which many thousands were killed, some publicly executed. The film does not even acknowledge the fact that this began the drama of the Turkey's Kurdish minority.

But the film's title alone was a provocation for devout Kemalists. 'I speak not of "Mustafa", but of "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk"', a political science professor called out dramatically into the audience during a symposium on 'Turkey and European Culture' held shortly after the film's opening, and he garnered standing ovations.

Kemalism as a substitute for Religion

Can Dündar (photo: www.mustafa.com.tr)
Can Dündar, a respected journalist, author and filmmaker, had previously written a biography examining Atatürk's life

​​In a country in which a statue of Atatürk stands on every corner and no store is without a portrait of the state's founder, it remains an ambitious undertaking to depict the nation's über-father as a human being with both strengths and weaknesses.

Since his premature death in 1938, Atatürk's cult of personality has burgeoned from year to year. In the confrontation with the Islamists, Atatürk is now being treated as an alternative to the prophet Mohammed; increasingly, the political doctrine of Kemalism is becoming a substitute for religion. 'How could the man who fought against dogmas all his life become a dogma himself?' the filmmaker asked in a column in the newspaper 'Milliyet', lamenting Kemalism's increasing rigidity.

Atatürk as hero and human being

Yet the dogmatic Kemalists have long been fighting with their backs to the wall. Since joining the government in 2002, the Islamist-oriented AKP has promulgated a view of history that once again depicts Turkey as the heir of the Ottoman Empire and attempts to shrug off as an error the break from the legacy of the Ottomans which Mustafa Kemal performed in founding the republic.

This is one reason why Kemalism's keepers of the grail are reacting so sensitively to the film: made by a moderate Kemalist, it supposedly plays into the hands of their domestic political enemies. Thus Yigit Bulut, columnist for 'Vatan', calls for boycotting the film and preventing friends from going to see it: 'In particular, do not allow your children to see the film, to prevent them from becoming corrupted by these images.'

But it is precisely this demand that is being defied en masse. The film is an especially popular subject of discussion at schools, and many screenings are filled with young people who have been shown the hero Atatürk over and over again and are now interested in the human being behind it all.

Jürgen Gottschlich

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole


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  • Website "Mustafa" (in Turkish)
  • Website Can Dündar (in Turkish; periodically blocked)