Movies that Mirror Society

The tenth annual Turkish-German film festival boasted, on the one hand, politically ambitious films that took up daring subjects which are traditionally taboo in Turkish society. At the same time, Turkish pop cinema also created a splash. A report by Amin Farzanefar

This year's audience favorite in Nuremberg: "Kebab Connection" by director Anno Saul

​​The Turkish films at this year's festival show an unexpected range of subjects. The times are over when Yilmaz Güney had to direct from prison in order to make social problem films such as "Yol." Today, long repressed taboo topics are being worked through on screen.

Films on homosexuality and ethnic cleansing

An example of this can be found in the film "Yazi Tura" ("Toss Up"). Ugur Yücel makes his debut as a director in this movie about two young men, both former soldiers, and a whole range of taboo subjects their lives present.

The film deals with the forgotten war in the Kurdish areas that killed thirty to forty thousand people as well acts of forced migration—i.e., the Greek-Turkish expulsion, which brought plundering and ethnic cleansing. The film also brings in the crimes of the Istanbul mafia, and last but not least the ambivalent relationship of a male-dominated society with homosexuality.

A whole series of short, documentary feature films also took up contentious topics. Yesim Ustaoglu, who had previously dealt with the Kurdistan war in her film "Günese Yolculuk" ("Journey to the Sun"), took her next dare with an elegiac film called "Waiting for the Clouds" about the violent expulsions that took place during and after the First World War.

An elderly woman named Ayse, who was always something of an outsider in her village at the Black Sea, must face her past once again at the end of her life; it turns out that she is in fact Greek.

And Dervis Zaim, who along with Ustaglou represents a new generation of successful independent filmmakers, interviews people who witnessed the 1974 division of Cyprus in a documentary titled "Parallel Trips."

New impulses, or disappointment?

Those who are expecting new impulses in Turkish cinema that express European values will be struck by the limitations evident in the choice of film topics. The role of the military, the growing power of Islamists and above all the genocide committed against Armenians remain taboo subjects.

And modernity is not only measured by the explosiveness of a film's content, but also according to the appropriateness of its formal expression. Directors Reis Celik and Kazim Öz—both guests this year in Nuremberg—have been trying for some time to creatively address the darker chapters of history.

Although filmed in color, many of these political films turn out to be black and white after all, with stereotypical victims—repressed Kurds, women, or members of the old left—all of whom convey one-sided messages with overdone pathos and heroism.

The entertainment industry and the decline in quality

Political topics are not as well represented among this year's films, which has less to do with state censorship than with "economic censorship." Intellectuals such as Adil Kaya, one of the festival organizers, bemoan a general de-politicization of Turkish society, where people are more interested in making a fast lira and then consuming superficial television shows along the lines of Big Brother.

Turkish cinema, which has to compete with the dominance of 300 television channels, has found two niches in recent years. On the one hand are films in which the content tends toward rather fluffy popcorn movie fare that brings in millions of viewers, and on the other are auteur films produced with smaller budgets that have been quite popular at European festivals and in which political issues are addressed only peripherally.

With his film "Yazi Tura," Ugur Yücel has attempted to revive the earlier days of successful political cinema using a double strategy: he engaged mainstream cinema star Kenan Imirzaliogu, and he took up several contentious topics in a single film and employed an ambitious aesthetic to get his point across.

Disappointed with the 270,000 tickets the film sold—which would be a respectable hit for a German auteur film—he has declared himself through with films that try to please an audience and will devote himself to making minimalist films for cineastes.

A festival for everyone

Though the Turkish film scene seems to be divided according to different economic, aesthetic and ideological interests, the festival is an attempt to bring all the different tastes together under one roof, positing cinema as the mirror of a society in transition.

And, in fact, seen in the right light, the films shown here appear to be the common product of a concerted effort to rejuvenate Turkish cinema—an effort that has ultimately been successful, harking back to the time when the political films of Yilmaz Güney found an enthusiastic audience, while the Yesilcam Studios were simultaneously producing 200 to 300 entertainment film per year.

In Nuremberg, many different kinds of filmmakers were represented: strange auteur directors such as Zeki Demirkubuz, old stars like the Yesilcam diva Hülya Kociyit, or Tuncay Kurtiz, who just played a role in Güney's successful film "Yol."

Anil Sahin distributes box office hits such as "Insaat" ("Under Construction") or "Where's Firuze?" in Germany—prime examples of superficial soap opera cinema, but not without their satirical pokes at neocapitalist Turkish society.

And because the festival in Nuremberg has always been about dialog and integration, German-Turkish cinema has long been at home here. New productions were screened, founding father and fresh-baked recipient of the Grimme prize Tefik Baser ("40 Square Meters of Germany", "Time of Desire") was seen on the jury next to Emine Sevgi Özdamar, and even Fatih Akin made a brief appearance as guest of honor.

Until recently, Akin's (post)migrant cinema was seen in Turkey as a purely German phenomenon. But with the success of "Head On," this Hamburg filmmaker has been received in Turkey as a fellow countryman. The film "Kebab Connection," based on an idea of Akin's, was bought for distribution on the Bosporus long before its start in Germany.

This film by Anno Saul, which won him the audience award in Nuremberg, offers a good example of how the often heavy-handed, moralistic treatment of the German-Turkish problematic is increasingly turning toward humor and comedy.

A boy from Hamburg wants to finally set about making a Kung-fu film, but instead he is forced to confront his Turkish family with the news that he will soon be a father. Because his girlfriend Zitzi is German, much confusion and tumult are played out until all ethnicities, generations and family members are reconciled in the end.

Measuring by the numbers of spectators at the festival, the demand for dialog has been fulfilled: the theaters were full and the special events were often sold out. And the numbers of German spectators grew from 15 percent in the early years to the current ratio of 40 percent.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2005

Translation from German: Christina White

Popular Cinema, Turkish-Style
Turkish films are securing a place in German cinemas now that producers have discovered a new target audience of German-Turks. Far from being on the fringe, the films are making it into the nation's biggest theaters.

Turkish Cinema
Turkey: A Nation and Cinema Industry Divided
In the 1970s, Turkey's Yesilcam studios churned out 300 films every year. Nowadays, production has slowed to between twelve and twenty films per annum. The reasons for the crisis in Turkey's film production sector are manifold.

Web-site Turkish-German Film Festival (Turkish/German)