The Space Between

Yol
Şerif Gören's Yol (1982)

“The Space Between: A Panorama of Cinema in Turkey” promises to be a nicely-rounded overview of Turkish Cinema from the late Fifties to the present. Yılanların Öcü (Revenge of the Snakes) and Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer), both excellent black and white rural melodramas by Metin Erksan, testify to the (belated) Neo-Realist influence with a socially critical bent on the Turkish art films of the Sixties.

Hudutların Kanunu (The Law of the Border) continues with this socially critical approach; one can see veteran director Lütfi Ö. Akad catching up with changing times, as well as making significant use of actor Yılmaz Güney. Güney, of course, would later become himself a major director despite being imprisoned and eventually forced to go abroad. With one military coup just behind and another looming in the not so distant future, Umut (Hope) and Ağıt (Elegy) are both early films by Güney giving off more than a whiff of what’s wrong with the country. Bleak and not trying to look pretty, they have something of early Franceso Rosi and Brazilian Cinema Novo films. On the other hand, his later film Yol (The Road), is a co-effort (scripted and monitored by Güney from prison), benefitting from the energetic craftsmanship of Şerif Gören, one of the most successful of the Güney school of younger directors. A long and painstaking ‘road movie,’ Yol (The Road) is one of the best portraits of post-Eighties coup Turkey. Smuggled out of the country, it won—deservedly—many prizes, and is seen as a precursor to Turkey’s more recent festival successes (let’s not forget the prize given at Berlin to Susuz Yaz / Dry Summer).

Hazal by Ali Özgentürk, another director of the Güney school testifies in its folksy rendering of the tale of child groom and helpless bride in a rural setting evidences a certain tendency to make beautiful-looking films that address social issues.  Güneşe Yolculuk (Journey to the Sun) by Yeşim Ustaoğlu, which follows a journey from the indifferent city to the heart of grim Turkish ethnic prejudice, is another example of this. Comedy comes much later; Vizontele deals with the Anatolian backwater of around the same time but in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Television, which arrived on the Turkish scene in the Seventies, along with the curious box it comes in, are the real protagonists of this comedy along with the bewildered village folk.  

Somersault in a Coffin
Derviş Zaim's Somersault in a Coffin (1996)

The program also presents an interesting, multi-faceted picture of Istanbul, the cultural capital of the country, from the de Sica-like, bitter-sweet Üç Arkadaş (Three Friends) to the very recent Can by Raşit Çelikezer. Istanbul, in these films, is a big, bad, beautiful city where dreams are nurtured and shattered in a big way. The most wittily scripted and brilliantly cast of this list is veteran director Atıf Yılmaz’s Ah Güzel İstanbul (O, Beautiful Istanbul). In this comedy of quaint manners and changing times, old Istanbul with its Ottoman past meets the vulgar, nouveau-riche Sixties and—surprisingly—the two come to terms, even if fleetingly. Benim Sinemalarım (My Cinemas), a co-effort by three women, visual artist Gülsün Karamustafa, writer Füruzan and star Hülya Avşar, is a tale of a young girl growing up in Istanbul whose star-struck dreams are shattered. Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar (Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite), a kind of cult film, is a prison melodrama centered on women in an Istanbul prison from different walks of life and the little boy growing up amongst them.

One of the first films of the so-called Nineties new Turkish cinema, Tabutta Rövaşata (Somersault in a Coffin) tells a story of the Bosphorus, the beautiful showpiece of Istanbul, from the perspective of losers and individuals living on the margins. Teyzem (My Aunt) was directed by veteran director Halit Refiğ but scripted by then newcomer Ümit Ünal, who himself would become a successful director. It’s basically a ‘kiddie film’ but has great insight into the melancholia (or ‘hüzün’, as Orhan Pamuk would have it in his Istanbul: Memories and the City bred by the city and its inhabitants. İtiraf (Confession) by Zeki Demirkubuz is a more ambitious tale of the city’s yuppies suddenly having to face their roots. Moving from the center of the bright lights to the shabby outskirts, İtiraf (Confession) also deals with the so-called war between male and female in Turkish society, decidedly from a man’s perspective. That the most cheerful and colorful among the lot should be İstanbul Hatırası – Köprüyü Geçmek (Crossing the Bridge – The Sound of Istanbul) by Fatih Akın is self-explanatory; this is the only testimony on the City made by an outsider, a son of Turkish workers who had gone to Germany in the Sixties to find work. Akın has created a kind of musical postcard, sent home from home.

The provinces, the space between the urban and the rural, have come up as a terrain of discovery and dispute when talking about Turkish matters towards the end of the Eighties. Which nightmares might be lurking there? Turkish cinema of the Sixties and the Seventies, somewhat wary of sexual matters, had found it convenient to place its subconscious in the provinces all through the Eighties. The trend had its start with the adaptation of one of the best novels of modern Turkish literature. Anayurt Oteli (Motherland Hotel) is centered around the Beckett-like character of Zebercet, a pathetic hotel clerk and the last surviving member of a respected family-clan. The searing psychological portrait was in turns perverse, darkly comic and furthermore an oblique portrait of identity crisis.  While Gizli Yüz (The Secret Face) again by Ömer Kavur, dealt with the same scene—the impenetrable provinces—judged when released to be somewhat artsy, especially in its treatment of the mystic elements of its story (by Orhan Pamuk, incidentally), today it looks more interesting and ahead of its time.       

The Girl With the Red Scarf
Atif Yilmaz's The Girl With the Red Scarf (1977)

A very popular film in Turkey, Selvi Boylum, Al Yazmalım (The Girl With the Red Scarf) was something of a precursor of the ‘provinces film’. Adapted from a novel by the Kirghiz author Chengiz Aitmatov with shades of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, it was Turkish art cinema’s Valentine to the masses at that time, and as such it was accepted and enjoyed.  A love triangle played by a handsome truck driver who goes away, his beautiful beloved from the provinces, and the “sober” other man, the film poses passionate romance against enduring love. Tatil Kitabı (Summer Book), a much later film, somber and avowedly art cinema, tells of young men from the provinces who would but cannot go away.  

Then there are curiosities and bright bits. Herşeye Rağmen (Despite Everything) is the tale of a young man, a brooding misfit. Whether there is a place to fit in the urban context of the Turkish Eighties is the real question the film poses. Hamam (Steam: The Turkish Bath), treats Istanbul in a lush and exotic fashion, and has the distinction of being the first film by a Turkish director where two men exchange a passionate kiss.

Kosmos is Turkish art cinema par excellence by one of its best known practitioners: Reha Erdem. Part cautionary tale, part dystopia, it has a Bunuelian ‘saint’ hero somewhat shaky on his legs but wandering through lush cinematography. The film is a feast for the eyes and food for thought.

İklimler (Climates), finally, is the best Turkish auteur cinema can offer. It is about the break-up of a couple, neglecting neither the scorching sun that opens the film nor the frosty beauty that surrounds the end of an affair, glacially told. The couple in İklimler (Climates) partakes of the Eclipse-like anomie of so-called modern love yet visibly exists in a ‘climate’ which has seen it all since time immemorial: Anatolia.

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